March 21, 2014. With the exception of its western border with Poland, the recently turbulent Ukraine finds itself almost surrounded by Russian military as an ethnic Russian province of tiny Moldova officially asked Russia and Vladimir Putin to annex it this week. With Russian troops already occupying the area, it creates a fourth front in Ukraine’s potential war to remain free, and a Russian army on its western border.
Located along Ukraine's western border, the Moldovan provice of Trans-Dniester formally asked Russia to annex it this week. Image courtesy of the BBC.
While it’s not an unbroken continuous Russian border laying siege to the Ukraine, one glimpse at a map of Eastern Europe clearly shows the dilemma for the pro-west Ukrainian people. Russia is to the northeast. Crimea is to the southeast. Kaliningrad is to the northwest. And now, Trans-Dniester is to the southwest.
The key question is - will the Russian government accept Trans-Dniester’s request to join the Russian Federation the same way Vladimir Putin and his government voted to accept the same request from the Crimea this week?
For two decades, an entire one-third of Moldova’s total population located along a 200-mile border with western Ukraine has been fighting for independence and asking Russia to annex it. Until now, the Russian Federation has had little interest in the tiny region, always rejecting the official request. But with Russian troops already occupying the province, it creates a western anchor in Europe, pushing Putin’s military sphere of control thousands of miles further west.
Moldova is the small country along Ukraine’s southwest border. With a historically Romanian influence, the nation has been fractured for the past 20 years after its one-third ethnic Russian population declared independence in 1990. The province fought a revolution in 1992 against the Moldovan government. But while the UN and Europe officially recognize the region as a part of Moldova, over 1,000 Russian soldiers plus heavy military equipment have occupied Trans-Dniester ever since.
Request for annexation
In 2006, Trans-Dniester held a public referendum asking the population if it wanted independence or to remain part of Moldova. The pro-independence movement won overwhelmingly, but neither Russia nor the international community has ever been willing to recognize the tiny province along Ukraine’s western border as part of Russia. And for a frame of reference, historians point out that the passionately pro-Russian region was one of the few Soviet satellites that was torn away from the Soviet Union against its will.
Trans-Dniester’s population is evenly split with one-third being native Moldovans, one-third ethnic Ukrainians, and one-third ethnic Russians. It’s the Russian one-third that has spent 20 years fighting for either independence or reunification with Russia. Their efforts aren’t unjustified either. Due to a wave of nationalism in the late 1980’s that tried to make Moldovan the national language and calls to ethnically cleanse the country of all its ethnic Russians, the Russian region of Trans-Dniester had even more reason to want the protection and identity of the Russian Federation.
As detailed by CNBC and published by Yahoo Finance, the province has been officially voting and asking to join Russia since 2006. With the expansionist actions of Vladimir Putin over the past weeks, the pro-Russian citizens of Trans-Dniester think now might be the time when Russia finally agrees to accept the region into the Russian Federation just like it did this week with the Crimea.
Mikheil Burla, the Speaker of Trans-Dniester’s regional government, officially sent a letter to the Russian Duma this week asking the Federation to reconsider the provinces request to join Russia. Analysts unanimously agree that Putin has never had any interest in the snaking region hugging Ukraine’s western border. But all that may have changed now.
Moldova warns Russia
If the world thinks the Ukraine is overmatched by the giant Russian military, Moldova’s situation is exponentially worse. But that hasn’t stopped the small country’s President from warning Vladimir Putin against annexing the region. Speaking of the 2006 97% vote for independence by the province’s citizens in respect to Crimea’s similar vote last Sunday, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti stood his ground. “This is an illegal body which has taken no decision on inclusion into Russia," Timofti said at an urgently called press conference, “If Russia makes a move to satisfy such proposals, it will be making a mistake."
Just like the Crimea, the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova is already semi-autonomous, with its own government, institutions and even its own army. Its military is comprised of over a thousand Russian peacekeepers who’ve been occupying the region for more than two decades since the country’s 1992 civil war.
The situation in eastern Europe has become so critical that it has replaced the multi-nation conflict in the South China Sea, the Syrian civil war, and even the Iranian nuclear question in the world’s headlines. And former Warsaw Pact countries stuck in the middle are scrambling to declare their loyalties before hostilities break out.
Battle lines being drawn
Countries like Poland, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are obviously and passionately opposed to any push by Russia to reclaim any of the former Soviet Union, especially their own countries. Even the historically Russian-friendly country of Romania has come out fiercely against Russia over the Crimean crisis. The country’s President has even gone so far as to preemptively ask the international community to stand by Moldova, as Romanians fear the Moldovan region of Trans-Dniester will be invaded next.
Some of their former Soviet allies may choose to be on Russia’s side however if any actual fighting breaks out. Belarus, for instance, welcomed a wing of Russian fighter jets in its country during the same hours that the thousands of mysterious Russian-speaking troops took over Crimea earlier this month. Kazakhstan and Armenia also have close military and economic alliances with Russia. Almost one-quarter of Kazakhstan’s 17.7 million people hold Russian citizenship and over 95 percent speak Russian. Another pro-Russian, former Soviet satellite is Serbia. The Serbs were so supportive of Russia’s take-over of Crimea that volunteer fighters have been trekking to the area to help fight on the Russian side if hostilities break out.
Another pro-Russian, former Soviet satellite is Serbia. The Serbs were so supportive of Russia’s take-over of Crimea that volunteer fighters have been trekking to the area to help fight on the Russian side if hostilities break out.
For the moment, leaders in Europe, Russia and America appear content to leave the explosive situation where it is. Both sides have enacted political and economic sanctions against the other. But international analysts shrugged off both, insisting that neither side is doing anything more the symbolic posturing when it comes to the war of sanctions. As far as military hostilities are concerned, it’s universally agreed that the answer to that question now lies firmly in Vladimir Putin’s hands. The US and Europe will not intervene militarily to save the Crimea. But any further expansion of the old Soviet Union, regardless of where it occurs, may force the west to take some kind of action beyond sanctions.
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