Staunton, June 17 – In the corridors of the Russian foreign ministry, commentator Ruslan Gorevoy says, people are saying that Moscow would hardly have annexed Crimea if other separatist movements had not appeared elsewhere in Ukraine that Moscow could use as leverage against Kyiv and block its turn toward the West.
In the new issue of Versiya, Gorevoy says that the usual reasons given for why Moscow annexed Crimea after refusing to absorb Abkhazia, South Osetia or Transdniestria – that Crimea was more ethnically Russian, that it gave Moscow guaranteed basing on the Black Sea, and that the peninsula has “a special place” in Russian history – are only part of the story.
The underlying reason is to be found in Russian policy more generally. Moscow has used the so-called “unrecognized republics” to “preserve its decisive influence on the foreign policy of Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi” and to ensure that Brussels will not take them into either NATO or the European Union.
And Gorevoy says that “people in the corridors of the [Russian] foreign ministry are saying” that “had a new hearth of separatism not appeared in the Donbas, the Kremlin would have been unlikely to make the peninsula” part of the Russian Federation.
If that is the case, of course, it has two dangerous implications for the future. On the one hand, it means that some in the “unrecognized” republics have an incentive to spark conflicts elsewhere within the borders of the country they are seeking to leave. And on the other, it means Moscow is likely to promote new conflicts in these countries if it wants to absorb part of them.
In addition to the geopolitical calculation that is common for all three of these wannabe Russian subjects, Moscow has specific reasons not to move forward on any of them anytime soon, however much pressure their advocates both locally and in the Russian capital seek to bring to bear.
Abkhazia, Gorevoy points out, is the birthplace of “more than a third of all Russian thieves-in-law [professional gangsters],” the most vicious of Russia’s criminal world. “Does Russia need its own Sicily or Corsica?” he asks rhetorically. And Transdniestria does not have a common border with the Russian Federation, and its annexation would create the problems of a second Kaliningrad.
Only South Ossetia really has a chance, the commentator says, because it could join North Ossetia within the borders of the Russian Federation. But there are two arguments against that: On the one hand, it would unbalance that already unstable region. And on the other, it would create a precedent that would make it more difficult for Moscow to refuse.
Consequently, these three breakaway republics are likely to remain weapons in Russia’s geopolitical arsenal against Georgia and Moldova – unless and until, as happened in Ukraine, Moscow acquires another lever of an equivalent type so that it can go ahead and annex all of them.