Ukraine is the focus of Vladimir Putin’s Greater Russia fantasies. The Kremlin chief also has the other former Soviet states in mind, as shown by coup plans, secret documents and hybrid warfare in several countries.
Ukraine isn’t the only ex-Soviet country Russia has targeted. In the past few months, coup plans have also emerged for Belarus and the Republic of Moldova. This comes as no surprise to many war observers and Russia experts. Over the past few decades, Moscow has obviously tried to destabilize countries in the post-Soviet space.
Carlo Masala, for example, is convinced that Russia’s war in Ukraine will not be the last if the Putin regime in the neighboring country is successful. The military expert from the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich had already last year Star podcast “Ukraine – the situation” made it clear that Putin is most likely about more than Donbass and Crimea. “It is therefore to be feared that every stop to this war, which concedes territorial gains to the Russian Federation, will only be used by the Russian Federation as a pause in order to achieve the actual goals in the years to come. That includes the whole of Ukraine, including Moldova , which may include Georgia.”
According to Carlo Masala, Putin is concerned with “expanding the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation.” Only he and his closest circle of power know exactly what that means. Possibilities range from buffer zones with NATO on Russia’s external borders to the establishment of a new Greater Russia, possibly within the borders of the former Soviet Union.
Soviet Union? Disintegrated into 15 individual states
After its collapse in the early 1990s, the USSR split into 15 sovereign states. Under international law, the direct successor to the Soviet Union is the Russian Federation. In the Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became sovereign states again after the end of the Soviet Union. In Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova gained independence. In the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan declared their sovereignty. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan came onto the world map as independent states.
Three decades later, Putin is trying to turn back time. On February 24, 2022, eight years after the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia invaded the entire Ukraine. As of now, Russia occupies about 18 percent of Ukraine’s territory. Permanent control over the entire Donbass in the east of the country is likely to be the Kremlin’s remaining “minimum war goal,” says security expert Christian Mölling from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) im “Ukraine – The Situation” Podcast convinced.
Russia’s long-term goals, the great power fantasies of Kremlin chief Putin, go much further. This is indicated, among other things, by leaked secret documents or statements by Kremlin hardliners such as ex-President Dimitri Medvedev.
Moldova? Fear of overthrow by Russia
The Republic of Moldova, for example, is afraid of an attack from Russia. Turbulent decades lie behind the small country between Ukraine and Romania. Since independence more than 30 years ago, a so-called de facto state has existed on Moldova’s territory: Transnistria, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists and funded by Moscow to destabilize the Republic of Moldova.
A concrete plan to overthrow Moldova recently became public. According to this, Russia is said to have drafted a plan in 2021 on how pro-Russian tendencies in Moldova should be promoted in a targeted manner by 2030 in order to integrate the small country into its own sphere of power. The Moldovan secret service had already warned of an invasion by Russian troops last year. The question was not “if, but when” this would happen, it said at the time.
“In the Republic of Moldova, we are seeing a continuously revolving domestic political escalation of a conflict, and at the same time an escalation of the conflict with Russia. A key feature of this conflict is that it is being conducted in a hybrid way. This means that very different means are being used,” says Hannes Meissner, political scientist and risk analyst from the University of Vienna, in the ntv podcast “Learned again”.
The resignation of the Moldovan government a few weeks ago shows what the hybrid war can lead to. Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita pulled the ripcord in mid-February after just one and a half years in office – and with her the entire cabinet. Previously, the pro-Russian opposition had created massive sentiment against the European-oriented government.
Belarus? Long vassal of Russia
Another ex-Soviet country has long since been in the hands of Russia. Belarus is Moscow’s most loyal ally, and full incorporation by Russia seems only a matter of time. A secret document surfaced here in February, revealing plans that the Kremlin was allegedly planning to annex Belarus. The paper, classified by experts as genuine, shows how Belarus is to be gradually annexed to Russia by 2030.
But Moscow doesn’t even need that, says political scientist Markus Kaim from the German Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) on ntv. “The current situation is very advantageous for the Russian leadership. It can be said that Belarus is voluntarily under Moscow’s spell.” According to Kaim, this would weaken the West’s accusations of imperialism.
Belarus was one of only seven countries to vote against condemning Russia’s war of aggression at the United Nations. Dictator Lukashenko is close to Putin’s side, helping the Russians logistically in the Ukraine war. Lukashenko has not yet sent his own soldiers. He is probably afraid of new mass protests by his own population. They almost overthrew the regime in 2020, and Lukashenko only stayed in office thanks to massive election fraud and Russian help.
Georgia? Two separatist areas
Russia also has influence in Georgia. The country on the Black Sea, south of the Caucasus, has been grappling with two separatist regions in its own country for several years: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When mother state Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia in 2008, Russia intervened and pushed back the Georgian military. After five days the war was over.
There was also unrest a few weeks ago. The Georgian government had introduced a controversial law on “foreign agents”. Critics saw parallels in this to a law passed in Russia in 2012 that the Kremlin has since used to take action against critics. Many people in Georgia fear that the government will move closer to Russia – and not to the EU and NATO.
However, the protests of the population have had an effect. The government came under so much pressure that it withdrew the law a few days later. However, mistrust of the Georgian government remains with many people in the country.
Kazakhstan? Try swing politics
The situation in Kazakhstan is also extremely explosive. No ex-Soviet state is as dependent on Russian imports as the world’s largest landlocked country. There are also close ethnic and cultural ties. Almost a fifth of the 19 million Kazakh citizens are Russians, and in northern Kazakhstan they even make up the majority of the population.
But in the shadow of the Ukraine war, Kazakhstan is pursuing a dual strategy. Kazakhstan does not want to alienate Russia, but at the same time is trying to improve relations with the EU. The Central Asian giant country wants to use its wealth of resources and strengthen its importance as a raw materials partner for the West. “Kazakhstan has been trying to implement a kind of economic seesaw policy for a long time. On the one hand, there are major dependencies and ties with Russia. On the other hand, attempts are being made to cooperate more closely with China and also with the West,” reports expert Meissner.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, the Kazakh population has been afraid that one day Russia could also invade Kazakhstan. The Russian minority in the country could be a welcome excuse for Putin. Russian nationalists have in the past called for to annex the Russian-dominated north of Kazakhstan. Medvedev, for example, described Kazakhstan as an “artificial state” last year.
Uzbekistan? “Open conflict with Russia”
Kazakhstan’s southern neighbor Uzbekistan is politically and economically less dependent on Russia. But the country still worries that it too could fall victim to the Kremlin’s Greater Russia fantasies. Meissner reveals that Uzbekistan is in an “open and clear conflict relationship” with Russia.
Uzbekistan has not been part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led security alliance, since 2012. “Despite pressure from Putin, Uzbekistan did not join the Eurasian Economic Union until the very end. Crimea was not recognized as part of Russia, Luhansk and Donetsk were not recognized as independent people’s republics, and instead the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine was emphasized,” explains Meissner in the podcast.
But Uzbekistan also has an Achilles heel that Russia can take advantage of. There were bloody protests in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan last summer. According to Meissner, the Russian secret service may have helped to put them down. “There is a strong rumor that the Russian foreign intelligence service played a role in starting these unrests. To show President Mirsiyoyev that Uzbekistan is dependent on Russia for security policy.”
It is clear that Russia has a hand in a number of former Soviet states. Whether that means Putin actually wants to restore the Soviet Union is speculation at the moment, but there are plenty of indications.
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