The second stage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is underway. The scope of the war now appears to be establishing full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine. If successful, this would mean Russian occupation of approximately one-third of Ukraine, cutting the country off from its Black Sea ports, including Odesa.
If fully realised, these objectives also raise the deeply worrying prospect of a Russian move on Moldova and its break-away region of Transnistria. Stage two of Putin’s war could thus very well imply a more serious escalation.
Russia’s foreign policy strategy towards its neighbours is intimately linked with Vladimir Putin’s longstanding aspiration to turn Russia into a great power akin to the Soviet Union, whose demise he has lamented as a geopolitical catastrophe. Short of recreating the Soviet Union, Russia needs friendly political regimes in neighbouring countries, or at least regimes it can influence and prevent from sliding into the western orbit of the EU and Nato.
For a long time, one of Russia’s main levers of such influence were so-called “de-facto states” in former republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union. These include Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova and – since 2014 – the self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) in the Donbas region. Moscow’s price for restoring control of these breakaway regions to their countries would be to legitimise proxy regimes there. This would give the Kremlin long-term influence over these countries’ foreign policy choices. This has always been a non-starter.
But that doesn’t diminish the territorial value of these areas. By recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, by annexing Crimea in 2014, and by recognising the DPR and LPR in 2022, Russia achieved at least part of its aim of restoring a dependable sphere of influence beyond its borders. This strategy is now evident in Russia’s latest moves in Ukraine, including the announcement of a “referendum on independence” in the key southern city of Kherson on April 27, 2022.
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