Vladimir Putin has been upfront about his desire to rebuild Russia’s influence in the region. Former Soviet states are watching developments in Ukraine closely, with many trying to ensure futures free of interference by Moscow.
For 69 years, the Kremlin was able to keep what were de facto separate nations within the Soviet orbit by the use of weapons, hunger and fear. Even after the collapse of the USSR, every Russian leader considered the former republics to be at least a zone of his influence.
Yet Vladimir Putin has revealed his true understanding of neighborliness, repeatedly stating that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a huge tragedy for Russia. And on this, one might agree, he is right.
Under the Communist Party, each of the national republics also had their own government, albeit ultimately controlled by the Kremlin. Each of the republics, whether in Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, or Ukraine, had their own capital, culture, language and traditions. For each of the national republics, secession from the Soviet Union brought liberation and independence — an opportunity to build their own state. For every former member state, that is, except Russia.
It’s easy to forget that Russia was also a national republic. But its position at the center of the union deprived the country of its own separate government. So it had no other identity that it could have gained by leaving the Soviet Union. For many Russian politicians, the collapse of the USSR meant the collapse of the state because Russia gained nothing — it lost territories, industries, people, not to mention its influence in the world.
In the early 2000s, increasing oil prices gave Russia a unique chance to build its own nation-state. But this coincided with Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Putin focused his attention on consolidating power for the oligarchs and rebuilding Russian influence. He does not see his neighbors as independent countries with whom it is necessary to build new mutually beneficial relationships. From Putin’s point of view, they are traitors who have escaped from a communal home.
So as war in Ukraine grinds on, what effects are Putin’s aggressive tactics having on relations with other former Soviet republics?
Georgia, time to take sides
In 2008, Russian tanks entered the country and quickly occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Diplomatic relations between the countries were broken off. The then-president Mikhail Saakashvili was a fierce critic of Putin, and when a revolution broke out in Ukraine in 2014, Georgia was the first country to have Ukraine's back. The current president Salome Zourabichvili has been strongly criticized for her cautious policy toward Russia, and there are periodic mass rallies in Georgia in support of Ukraine.
However, the president's behavior seems to be dictated not only by fear but also by gas dependence. Georgia has not joined the sanctions against Russia and does not supply the Ukrainian army with military aid. Yet, the country supplies humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees from Ukraine. And since 2014, Georgian volunteers, the Georgian National Battalion, have been fighting in Ukrainian Donbas.
The EU's refusal to grant Georgia candidate status has so far only worsened the political situation in the region. But sooner or later, Georgia will have to take sides anyway.
Moldova, managing unrecognized territories
Moldovan President Maia Sandu with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in January 2021
Another country with which the Kremlin has managed to spoil relations is Moldova. Transnistria, a region with a large percentage of the Russian population during the collapse of the USSR, advocated joining Russia. As a result, it has been a quasi-state for almost 30 years, a gray zone not recognized by Russia or Moldova.
For Moldova, the presence of unrecognized territories meant they could not receive membership in the EU. For Russia, the creation of republics such as Transnistria or Donbas is a common practice, since it provides smuggling routes to and from Russia as well as the ability to deploy subversive combat groups.
The potential involvement of Transnistria in a war with Ukraine has been on the agenda for several weeks, but so far there has been no violation of the Ukrainian border on the Moldovan side. Moldovan President Maia Sandu visited Kyiv recently and expressed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky her plans to support Ukraine.
Russian daily Kommersant reports that once Moldova gets the status of a candidate, it can stop being neutral and might introduce sanctions against Russia to show its loyalty to the EU.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, responded personally, telling Russian state-owned news agency TASS: "Trying to please their new masters […] Well, let them try.” He promised to retaliate with expensive energy for the former Soviet republic.
Belarus, the wild card
“Don’t touch us and we won’t touch you,” could serve as the Belarusian motto in the Ukraine war. As summed up recently by the country's strongman — and longtime Kremlin ally — Alexander Lukashenko, the country that lies directly north of Ukraine claims that it has no plans to engage in the conflict: “We will only fight in one case: If you […] enter our land, if you kill our people, then we will respond.”
A stance Lukashenko seemed to confirm over the weekend, according to state news agency Belta, after the Belarusian president said the country shot down missiles fired from Ukraine, and vowed to retaliate "instantly" to such provocations.
Despite being widely considered Vladimir Putin's puppet in the region, things aren't as straightforward when it comes to Belarus' involvement in the conflict, which would be extremely unpopular with the public.
In the early days of the invasion, local Lviv-based outlet Zaxidreported that "in the next one or two days, Belarus will enter the war alongside Russia,” adding that "the decision by now has been made by the Belarus leadership notwithstanding the opposition of the military and the public,” which it called “a fatal error for Alexander Lukashenko.”
Yet even with Russian troops being positioned across the country, an invasion through (or by) Belarus has yet to materialize. Still, most experts believe that a change in plans could come as easily as Vladimir Putin picking up the telephone.
Kazakhstan, between Russia and China
Of all the former republics, only Kazakhstan in modern history has managed to invite Russian troops and then also made them leave peacefully. Troops were called in as a result of mass protests at petrol costs and Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 32-year regime fell in a day.
The new president and, apparently, another dictator, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said directly to Putin at the recent economic forum in St. Petersburg that Kazakhstan does not and never will recognize the self-proclaimed republics of Donbas and is categorically against the war with Ukraine.
Kazakhstan has clearly embarked on a course to build its independence from Russia, and above all, from Russian oil. Tokayev also may have simply weighed the chances of Putin winning and decided in advance to join the winners. In terms of relations and trade, this means the EU more than Ukraine as the European Union.
However, Kazakhstan’s imports from Russia account for about half of all goods, with China being the second most important. These are primarily metals, oil products, and raw materials for the chemical industry. So far, the only support Kazakhstan has provided for Ukraine during the war consists of sending humanitarian aid and accepting refugees.
Lithuania, a special Baltic case
In the port of Kaliningrad
A member of the EU since 2004 and NATO since 2002, Lithuania is tied to Russia not only by commercial ties but also by its important Baltic trading center, the city of Kaliningrad. Lithuania has barred Russian access by land to the enclave through its territory.
In response, Russia issued strong words, saying it might "revoke" a memorandum on Lithuania's independence. But Lithuania reiterated that it was simply following EU sanctions against Russia.
Lithuanian politician Laurynas Kasčiūnas called for a stronger NATO presence in Lithuania as a deterrent. If Kaščiūnas' request is fulfilled, Lithuania will become the latest post-Soviet republics, along with Estonia and Latvia, to have strengthened its defense and military capabilities.