Argument

Eastern Promises

How two small, post-Soviet states could wind up the real winners in the Ukraine crisis.

In 2005, in a now-famous television broadcast, Vladimir Putin described the demise of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." But the Russian president seemed to take some consolation from the fact that, in his view, the former Soviet republics were bound by a "shared historical destiny."

The frontier of this perceived destiny does not end at Ukraine, where Russia is now flexing its muscles in the name of nationalism. Rather, it veers south.

While Russia and Ukraine face off in Crimea, foreign eyes are already migrating toward Moldova and Georgia -- the two countries that initialed association agreements with the European Union in November, at the same time that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign his own such document and turned his back on Europe. Both Moldova and Georgia, like Ukraine, emerged from the rubble of the Soviet sphere. Both countries, like Ukraine, have made advances in recent years toward the EU. Both, like Ukraine, have born the brunt of varied Russian aggressions, from trade sanctions to military interventions. And both countries, like Ukraine, have much to lose if Putin's dreams of a Moscow-dominated "Eurasian Union" to counter the EU are realized. (He has said he plans to unveil the union in 2015.)

But, unlike Ukraine, might Moldova and Georgia come out of the current crisis as geopolitical winners?

"It's a good point," says John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. "It's possible that as a result of this crisis... Europe and the United States will wind up taking firm steps against Russia that would make them more favorably disposed to helping Georgians and Moldovans [with] their Russia problem."

Indeed, Russia's invasion of Crimea has revealed the extent to which Putin will physically pursue his revanchist claims. By extension, the invasion has inspired renewed American and European commitments to other former Soviet states.

Take the case of Georgia: In the last year of George W. Bush's presidency, Herbst explains, EU leaders like Germany and France acted skittish about extending the EU and NATO's reach to Tbilisi. "Not because Georgia wasn't ready, though some made that argument," Herbst says, "but more because they didn't want to upset the Kremlin." That rationale "would probably be weaker as a result of what is happening with Ukraine." The Kremlin is already plenty upset, so bringing Georgia more closely into the fold of Western institutions could now be more likely.

Already, it is clear that Western leaders are paying close attention to Chisinau and Tbilisi. It was all smiles on Monday in Washington, for instance, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca. Before a throng of reporters, Kerry gushed that he was "very, very excited" about Leanca's leadership abilities -- and lamented "that Russia... has put pressure on Moldova." At the same time, Kerry announced that Washington would boost aid funding to Moldova: from $4.7 million to $7.5 million.

The high-level meeting was one of many that have taken place between with Moldovan and Georgian officials since the Ukraine crisis began in late 2013. Leaders from both countries were recently invited to Washington. And at a meeting last month, EU foreign ministers discussed various means of increasing contact with the two states. A "restricted distribution" paper, written by Sweden and signed by a dozen other countries in the lead-up to the February meeting, outlined plans for a p.r. offensive in the former Soviet sphere, "to respond to disinformation" and educate citizens about the benefits of trade with Europe. (The EU predicts that Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, which would open the union's trade borders to both countries, could boost Georgia's GDP by 4.3 percent and Moldova's by 5.4 percent.)

At the same time, European leaders have pushed to accelerate Moldova and Georgia's European integration process. Last December, the two countries were put on fast track to EU association. (Association agreements set up broad frameworks for cooperation -- political, economic, and social -- between the EU and third parties, and they may or may not be used as a basis for later EU accession.)Events in Ukraine, the European Council president noted at the time, reveals "a yearning for a better future [that] is shared also by the people of Georgia and of Moldova."

Later, in February, the European Parliament voted to lift visa requirements for Moldova. Around that time, calls mounted for NATO to open its arms to Georgia.

Moldova and Georgia have long asked for help from Europe and the United States. And in welcoming recent developments, the countries' leaders have also asked for more of the same. On Feb. 25, for example, Georgia's prime minister asked Europe to formulate "a master plan for the Europeanization of our country."

And to be sure, both countries need help -- economically dependent as they are on Russia. Moldova in particular relies almost entirely on Russian gas. (Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin eagerly reminded Chisinau of this last fall, as winter approached. "We hope," Rogozin told Moldovan officials, "that you will not freeze.") Russia is also an important market for Moldovan and Georgian goods. Last August, Russia proved that it is willing to use this reality against its small neighbors when it suddenly banned Moldovan wine (a key export), citing health and sanitation violations.

But the geopolitical threat that both countries face looms even larger than the economic one. Moldova and Georgia each possess their own Crimeas: autonomous, breakaway regions with sizeable ethnic Russian populations (Transnistria in Ukraine and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia). In light of events in Ukraine, some speculate that Moscow will move to consolidate its hold on these territories too -- or at least stoke ethnic tension inside the regions, thus laying the ground for a "protective" Russian intervention. Only six years ago, Georgia and Russia fought a short war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which ended effectively in a political stalemate. (Russia recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia's independence; Georgia does not.)

In the face of these looming challenges, there are demands for American and European leaders to help Moldova and Georgia correct their trade imbalances with Russia while also thawing the frozen conflicts in their disputed states. There has been some movement on the trade front: Last month, EU foreign ministers discussed a plan to "assist partner countries to improve energy efficiency and to reduce dependency." But on the breakaway regions, little has changed in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria for many years.

Importantly, one subject remains off the table everywhere: the expansion of the EU to admit Moldova and Georgia as full members. "In a way, with the Crimea intervention, it becomes a lot more complicated," says Michael Cecire, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a member of the Georgian Institute of Politics.

"There is a method to Putin's moves," Stephen Hadley and Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council wrote in a recent op-ed. "The territorial disputes his actions create give Europeans pause in considering further integration of those countries into the European Union, NATO, and other Western institutions." Russian maneuvering, in other words, makes the domestic political scene within the ex-Soviet states messy, and Western institutions don't want instability in their own houses, nor do they want to risk getting dragged into military tangles. All this, in turn, helps Putin pressure states into joining his rival Eurasian Union.

Of course, Moldova and Georgia aren't the only countries in the region that are on edge. In recent months, observers in Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Lithuania have also expressed fear of an expanding Russian reach. In some cases, they have drawn parallels (however tenuous) to their own Russian invasions of decades past: the Baltics in the 1940s, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But while it might be tough for Russia to wreak havoc in these countries (all of them already in the EU), in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, it wouldn't take much for Moscow to cause trouble. In January, Russia suddenly expanded its Olympic security zone into Abkhazia, leading the Georgian government to express "deep concern."  Meanwhile, Transnistria's sizeable Communist Party has turned against further integration with Europe. And Russian troops remain in all three regions.

At any time, argues Herbst, pro-Russian leaders within these territories might call for Moscow's "assistance." Such a possibility brings to mind the words of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who reportedly once observed, "Russia has never actually invaded Poland -- instead it always ‘came to help.'"

The extent to which Europe and the United States will embrace Georgia and Moldova is not yet clear. Already, there are some signs of wavering after an initial burst of commitments: EU leaders like Germany, for one, remain cagey on the issue of whether or not to firmly sanction Russia for its actions in Crimea. Meanwhile, on Thursday, Crimean parliamentarians approved a resolution "to enter into the Russian Federation." And Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has said that Moscow would make it easier for people living in the former Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship.

But much still rides on how Western leaders respond to developments in the coming days and weeks. And regardless of whether they emerge from the Ukraine crisis as geopolitical winners or losers, Moldova and Georgia are emblematic of intensifying, Iron Curtain-esque jostling over the fate of the former Soviet Union -- an East-West contest that seems unlikely to end anytime soon.  

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Front Lines on Russia's Home Front

Vladimir Putin didn't invade Ukraine because he could. He did it because he had to.

In every country, all truly important foreign-policy choices are, at their core, ultimately about domestic politics. And it's not just about creating a "rally 'round the flag" effect, or distracting from pesky domestic issues, although these are definitely relevant considerations for decision-makers. The right foreign-policy move at the right time can boost a leader's ratings and the regime's popularity. This is doubly true for authoritarian regimes that lack democratic legitimacy, and it is true for Russia today.

In Vladimir Putin's Russia, as one top pollster told me in Moscow a few weeks ago, "foreign policy is pretty much the only thing that works." What he meant was that, with the country's economy slowed to a crawl, and with the regime facing near-universal revulsion over the corruption, thievery, and incompetence of officials at every level, racking up foreign-policy successes has become vital to maintaining Putin's popularity -- which, in turn, is key to the legitimacy of the whole enterprise. As the economy staggers along at 1.5 percent growth, as capital flees the country at a record pace, and even as nearly half of Russians agree that the ruling "United Russia" party is the "party of thieves and swindlers," Putin can still point to his wins on the world stage -- from saving Syria to shielding Iran from U.N. sanctions after 2010 to, more generally, returning Russia to its former position as a power that counts, one that happily wields its U.N. Security Council veto -- to convince his compatriots that the motherland is in good hands. This is why the Sochi Games were important enough to spend $50 billion on. It wasn't just about showcasing the new, strong Russia to the world; it was, even more so, about what that showcase meant for Putin at home.

The so-called Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics was supposed to be one of those foreign-policy successes -- perhaps the most spectacular of Putin's career, the crown jewel in his efforts to create a new Russia-dominated counterweight to the West. When Ukraine, the linchpin in this future Union, was on the brink of distancing itself and moving toward the European Union, Moscow openly and heavy-handedly injected itself in an effort to push Kiev away from the European path. And when this backfired and protests broke out against the Yanukovych regime, the Kremlin propaganda machine went to work, framing Ukraine's crisis as yet another instance of the West's assault on Russia's interests and security -- and thus another opportunity for Putin to cast himself at home as the defender of the motherland, the only one who could thwart the designs of Russia's implacable enemies. Russian lawmakers openly accused the United States and Europe of "support for violent protests." Most recently, Putin has even claimed that protesters in Kiev had been specially trained at camps in the NATO countries of Poland and Lithuania.

With the vicious inevitability of Greek tragedy, the Kremlin's strategy has brought about precisely the outcome that Putin feared most. When, on the Maidan, those who were willing to die outlasted those who were willing to kill -- when the revolution triumphed, after almost three months of a deafening propaganda campaign, this triumph could not be interpreted domestically other than as a victory for the West, Russia's strategic defeat, and a blow to the Putin regime's domestic legitimacy. The huge wound needed to be cauterized. A revanche and recovery effort became a key domestic political imperative; the fate of Ukraine -- a country of 46 million -- is merely the means to that end.

Hence the seizure of Crimea, Ukraine's political Achilles' heel. If anywhere could help whip up a wave of patriotism large enough to wipe away the damage done by Putin's handling of the Ukrainian relationship that spawned the Maidan protest, it is the peninsula. Crimea has been a target of Russian populist, nationalist, and Communist politicians for years, with its large Russian naval base and a majority-Russian population, including some fervently patriotic Soviet military retirees. It had all the hallmarks of an easy sell: Father Putin, protecting the "compatriots" in a place where Ukrainian sovereignty has been contested in the minds of many Russians since the fall of the Soviet Union.

And yet, perhaps this time, Putin may have overestimated the effectiveness of his propaganda -- or misjudged his own people. In a recent poll, only 45 percent of Russians seem to have been persuaded that protests in Kiev were caused by the West "seeking to pull Ukraine into its political orbit." Even more troubling for the regime is that 73 percent said Russia should not interfere in Ukraine.

Following the weekend's spectacular demonstration of decisiveness and effectiveness -- two hallmarks of the image Putin strives to project at home -- the Kremlin has now hit the pause button. The troops have landed but the guns are quiet. Putin is assessing the price the West is prepared to have him pay for the Crimean excursion before going any further.

The readout, at the very least, is likely to be anxiety-producing. The Russian stock market plunged 12 percent after the invasion. The ruble, which has been losing value all year, fell further against the dollar, despite the central bank ploughing billions into efforts to defend it, making the imports on which Russians have come to depend considerably more expensive. (Both the ruble and markets have since regained some of that lost ground.) If Putin decides to double down, say, by in effect annexing Crimea (as the scheduled March 16 "referendum" on whether the peninsula should join Russia seems to indicate), or by sending Russian troops to other parts of Ukraine, the United States and the European Union may begin freezing financial assets, banning travel by the political and military elite and their families, and barring Russian banks from doing business with Western financial systems.

These measures, in turn, will test the strength of Putin's control over Russia's elites. Individual targeting of those members of the Ukrainian elite "with blood on their hands" appears to have been effective in bringing about Yanukovych's downfall; many of them started jumping ship in droves. Will Russian elites prove more resilient -- or more afraid -- and less affected by their status as international pariahs? Will Putin risk testing this proposition? And for how long?

As for other costs, there is little doubt that the G-8 Sochi summit is off. Russia's membership in the G-8 is at serious risk as well -- and this may provide Western leaders more leverage than many think. Even during the Cold War, being treated as an equal by the leaders of key industrial democracies -- especially the United States -- has always been an important legitimizing factor in Soviet politics, a means of reaffirming great power status and respect. Like the Soviets before him, Putin has managed to combine hostility toward the West with regular summitry that projects an image at home as an accepted and important international player. Failing to maintain this status quo will almost certainly hurt him in the eyes of the people at large.

In turn, Western leaders need to understand the lens through which the Kremlin views this one-man-generated crisis. Those who claim Putin commits acts like seizing Crimea simply because he can are wrong. He does these things because he must -- because, as leader of a morally near-bankrupt regime at a time of a sharp economic decline, a major foreign policy defeat is something he cannot afford, and a spectacular assertion of power is almost all he has left. Putin launched himself into the very risky, open-ended Ukrainian adventure for largely domestic reasons; those seeking to bring it to an end would do well to remember this when figuring out how to honorably untangle the mess Vladimir made.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images