To Russian President Vladimir Putin, the absorption of Crimea isn’t an act of aggression. It’s a rescue mission.
And the mission could spread. On Sunday, a top NATO commander said he was worried that Putin may be eyeing Transnistria, a sliver of eastern Moldova, which, like Crimea, has a large Russian population that wants Russian reintegration. In 2006, 96 percent of its 550,000 residents expressed that sentiment in a referendum, but Moscow declined to annex the territory. (See Adam Taylor’s post in WorldViews for more detail.)
If such desire elicits alarm among NATO commanders, there’s a lot to worry about. Pockets of ethnic Russians are sprinkled throughout the Eurasia, and some of them, like those in Crimea and Transnistria, also want to be a part of Russia again, according to this illuminating post by Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin for The Monkey Cage, a political science blog hosted by the Washington Post.
Four territories top the list. There’s Abkhazia, with its 240,000 residents nestled in northern Georgia along the eastern shores of the Black Sea. There’s South Ossetia, a territory inhabited by 55,000 people in central Georgia. There’s Transnistria. And finally there’s Ukraine, which the White House has warned Russia may invade.
All four regions have large ethnic Russian populations. They trust Russia. They mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union. And many — if not most — of them want back in the Russian fold. Consider these three charts, courtesy of Virginia Tech’s Toal and University of Colorado’s O’Loughlin who have studied public opinion in these territories since 2008.
All three regions “trust” Russian leadership. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, this is especially true: More than 80 percent feel this way. All the regions overwhelmingly consider the dissolution of the Soviet Union the “wrong step.” The peoples of South Ossetia and Transnistria wish for Russian reintegration — and Abkhazia isn’t necessarily cold on the idea.
In an often-cited speech in April, 2005, Putin in effect issued a proclamation that would come to define both his nation’s trajectory as well as his world view.
“The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he declared. “As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
Putin appears determined to rectify that tragedy. He has framed his takeover of Crimea not as a breach of international law, but as a response to borders that marooned as many as 25 million ethnic Russians in Crimea and 14 other nations in sometimes hostile territories. Turkmenistan, for example, gave its Russian citizens two months in 2004 to renounce their Russian citizenship if they wished to stay, and then pursued their eviction, according to the U.S. State Department.
Such acts of discrimination could serve as pretext — and self-proclaimed moral authority — for Putin to move into South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Eastern Ukraine. Condemnation by the West would surely follow, just as it followed the absorption of Crimea, with little effect.