What the Former Soviet States Are Thinking About Russia

In the west, all is not good in the neighborhood. In the east, it’s a different story.

Then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks past the flags of the Commonwealth of Independent States' countries in May 2011.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
April 4, 2014, 9:41 a.m.

With no evid­ence that Rus­sia has any plans to with­draw its troops from the bor­der of Ukraine, some former So­viet states are wor­ried about their own re­gion­al se­cur­ity. Farther east, oth­er coun­tries, closely aligned with Mo­scow rather than the West, say they are try­ing to ease ten­sions. And sev­er­al cent­ral Asi­an states have re­spon­ded by simply stay­ing si­lent.

The United States and NATO an­nounced this week that they are boost­ing mil­it­ary sup­port in the Balt­ic re­gion, which is on es­pe­cially high alert. Mo­scow has long com­plained about Rus­si­ans’ rights there, and its takeover of Crimea sug­gests it may be will­ing to do something about it. Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin has said he has no plans to go fur­ther than the re­cent an­nex­a­tion, but main­tains his right to de­fend eth­nic Rus­si­ans in for­eign coun­tries.

Here’s where the former So­viet re­pub­lics stand on the Ukraine crisis.


Well, you know.

“I want to be per­fectly clear. We will nev­er re­cog­nize the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea,” Ukrain­i­an Prime Min­is­ter Ar­seny Yat­seni­uk told Re­u­ters on Fri­day. “The time will come when Ukraine will take over con­trol of Crimea.” Rus­sia has hiked up the price of nat­ur­al gas for Ukraine by 80 per­cent, a move Yat­seni­uk called “totally un­ac­cept­able.”


Last month, Rus­sia “signaled con­cern” at Es­to­nia’s treat­ment of its large eth­nic Rus­si­an minor­ity. Rus­si­an of­fi­cials took aim at Es­to­nia’s na­tion­al lan­guage policy, which is sim­il­ar to that of Ukraine, where all chil­dren use Ukrain­i­an in school. A quarter of Es­to­nia’s 1.3 mil­lion people are Rus­si­an speak­ers.

Some fear this could give Putin all he needs to in­ter­vene in the coun­try, but Rus­si­ans there say they don’t need to be “res­cued.”

Still, the Es­to­ni­an gov­ern­ment is wary. “Rus­sia’s pos­ture has no place in the 21st cen­tury,” For­eign Min­is­ter Ur­mas Paet said last week. This week, Es­to­ni­an Prime Min­is­ter Taavi Roivas called for NATO to de­ploy “boots on the ground” to the Balt­ics. Es­to­nia re­gained its in­de­pend­ence when the So­viet Uni­on col­lapsed in 1991, after more than 50 years of Rus­si­an rule.


“We are very much con­cerned about what is hap­pen­ing cur­rently in Ukraine, but we are not hys­ter­ic­al of course,” Latvi­an For­eign Min­is­ter Edgars Rinkevics said re­cently. If the situ­ation es­cal­ates, his gov­ern­ment would con­sider im­pos­ing sanc­tions against Rus­sia. Un­til then, a NATO pres­ence is cru­cial in all Balt­ic states, he said.

This week, Latvia banned a Rus­si­an-lan­guage TV chan­nel, cit­ing “war pro­pa­ganda.”

Latvia, like the oth­er Balt­ic states and much of West­ern Europe, de­pends heav­ily on Rus­si­an ex­ports of nat­ur­al gas and crude oil. Latvi­an Pres­id­ent An­dris Berz­ins has called for ac­cel­er­at­ing con­struc­tion on gas pipelines link­ing Po­land, Lithuania, and even­tu­ally Latvia. This week, Berz­ins asked the head of the Rus­si­an Or­tho­dox Church, Pat­ri­arch Kir­ill, who is con­sidered a Krem­lin ally, to post­pone his planned May vis­it to Latvia, cit­ing ten­sions between Rus­sia and Ukraine.

About 35 per­cent of Latvia’s pop­u­la­tion of 2 mil­lion are Rus­si­an speak­ers. About 270,000 Latvi­ans, most of whom came to the coun­try for work dur­ing the So­viet era, do not have cit­izen­ship. They feel like they are “second-class cit­izens.” “This is Rus­sia’s land,” one res­id­ent re­cently told Re­u­ters. Latvia was also taken over by the So­viet Uni­on in 1940 and did not re­gain its in­de­pend­ence un­til 1991.


“The Rus­si­ans oc­cu­pied a part of Ukraine and they con­cen­trated their forces, and I think we should be ready to de­fend our states if this ag­gres­sion should con­tin­ue,” Jouzas Ole­kas, Lithuania’s de­fense min­is­ter, said this week. Reg­u­larly sched­uled Rus­si­an mil­it­ary activ­ity over the Balt­ic air­space has put Lithuani­an of­fi­cials on edge.

Last month, Lithuani­an Pres­id­ent Dalia Gry­bauskaite said Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea is a dir­ect threat to Lithuania’s re­gion­al se­cur­ity. “We wit­nessed the use of bru­tal force to re­draw the map of Europe and to un­der­mine the post­war polit­ic­al ar­chi­tec­ture es­tab­lished in Europe,” she said.

The So­viet Uni­on an­nexed Lithuania in 1940. Rus­si­ans make up 6 per­cent of Lithuania’s pop­u­la­tion.


Be­larus­i­an Pres­id­ent Al­ex­an­der Lukashen­ko, a close ally of Mo­scow, said last month that Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea sets a “bad pre­ced­ent.” Ukraine, he said, should re­main “a single, in­di­vis­ible, in­teg­ral, non­bloc state.”

Be­larus and Rus­sia, however, are still talk­ing. The two na­tions’ for­eign min­is­ters met on the side­lines of a Mo­scow meet­ing of the Com­mon­wealth of In­de­pend­ent States, an or­gan­iz­a­tion of former So­viet re­pub­lics, to dis­cuss work­ing to­geth­er to di­min­ish re­gion­al ten­sions. Be­larus also voted against a U.N. Gen­er­al As­sembly res­ol­u­tion last month de­clar­ing Crimea’s ref­er­en­dum in­val­id.

A Be­larus­i­an news agency on Thursday said Be­larus-Rus­sia co­oper­a­tion in the nuc­le­ar en­ergy sec­tor has “a bright fu­ture.”


Mol­dovan Prime Min­is­ter Iurie Leanca has asked both West­ern lead­ers and Rus­sia “to pre­vent his coun­try from fall­ing apart.” But the coun­try has re­cently shown its West­ern lean­ings. On Thursday, Leanca praised a de­cision by the European Uni­on to lift visa re­stric­tions on Mol­dova, al­low­ing its cit­izens to travel through the Schen­gen area, a pass­port-free zone span­ning 26 European coun­tries. “I want to tell the skep­tics, who un­til re­cently have not be­lieved that we will travel freely to the European Uni­on, that the pro­spect of join­ing the European Uni­on will be re­cog­nized in the same way,” he said.

Ru­mors are swirl­ing that Rus­si­an spe­cial forces have already ar­rived in Trans­nis­tria, a small Rus­si­an-oc­cu­pied re­pub­lic that broke away from Mol­dova after a civil war in 1992. Trans­nis­tria, which no United Na­tions mem­bers leg­ally re­cog­nize, is well un­der Mo­scow’s in­flu­ence. Mol­dova’s closer ties to the E.U. have been met with threats from Mo­scow’s rep­res­ent­at­ive to Trans­nis­tria.


Ar­menia, un­like just about every­one else, re­cog­nized the res­ults of Crimea’s March ref­er­en­dum to be­come a part of Rus­sia. Ar­meni­an Pres­id­ent Serzh Sargsy­an told Putin that the vote was “yet an­oth­er ex­ample of the real­iz­a­tion of peoples’ right to self-de­term­in­a­tion.”

Ar­menia re­cently an­nounced plans to boost its yearly im­ports of gas from neigh­bor­ing Ir­an by 75 per­cent, and in ex­change ex­port elec­tri­city to the Middle East­ern coun­try. The move has been met with re­l­at­ive si­lence from Rus­sia, which con­trols Ar­menia’s en­tire gas-pipeline sys­tem.

The non-re­ac­tion, Mari­anna Grigory­an ex­plains at Euras­i­anet.org, could be at­trib­uted to Putin’s de­sire to bring Ar­menia in­to a Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Com­munity uni­on it cre­ated with Be­larus and Kaza­kh­stan in 2010. Mem­bers hope to ex­pand the or­gan­iz­a­tion this year to oth­er former So­viet states, and fur­nish it as a coun­ter­weight to the E.U. An E.U. com­mis­sion­er said Fri­day that the uni­on “un­der­mines the sov­er­eignty of in­di­vidu­al coun­tries.”


Azerbaijan, on the oth­er hand, con­demned the Crimea ref­er­en­dum, and a state­ment from its em­bassy in Kiev said it “con­demns ex­trem­ism, rad­ic­al­ism and sep­ar­at­ism in its every mani­fest­a­tion and once again con­firms its ad­her­ence to the prin­ciples of sov­er­eignty, in­de­pend­ence and sup­port of the ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity of Ukraine.”

But Azerbaijan has to tread care­fully. Rus­sia, along with the U.S. and France, has played the role of me­di­at­or in Azerbaijan’s on­go­ing battle with Ar­menia for Nagorno-Kara­bakh, a land­locked re­gion in the South Cau­cas­us.


Geor­gia broke dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions with Rus­sia six years ago, fol­low­ing the South Os­se­tia war, a brief armed con­flict between the two na­tions. Rus­sia still oc­cu­pies two break­away provinces in­side Geor­gia, South Os­se­tia and Ab­khazia, which Rus­sia helped sup­port in their fight against Geor­gia in 2008.

NATO mem­ber­ship for Geor­gia is far off, but the al­li­ance’s for­eign min­is­ters met this week with their Geor­gi­an coun­ter­part in Brus­sels to talk about its pos­sible even­tu­al ac­ces­sion. In Feb­ru­ary, Geor­gi­an Prime Min­is­ter Irakli Gari­bashivili ad­voc­ated for a full seat at the table. “This de­sire is sup­por­ted by the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the Geor­gi­an pop­u­la­tion, as well as Geor­gia’s ma­jor polit­ic­al parties,” he said. “The Geor­gi­an gov­ern­ment will un­der­take every ef­fort to con­tin­ue the path of re­forms that will bring us closer to NATO.”


Kaza­kh­stan, which bor­ders Rus­sia in the south, has the largest pop­u­la­tion of eth­nic Rus­si­ans out of the former So­viet re­pub­lics in cent­ral Asia, at 22 per­cent of its pop­u­la­tion. Last month, its pres­id­ent, Nur­sultan Naz­ar­bayev, told Putin that he un­der­stood Mo­scow’s stance on Crimea. But he said that Kaza­kh­stan’s co­oper­a­tion with Rus­sia on the re­cently formed uni­on doesn’t mean Mo­scow would ex­ert more in­flu­ence in the coun­try.

“As far as our polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence is con­cerned, this is sac­rosanct, and Kaza­kh­stan will not cede its sov­er­eignty to any­one,” Naz­ar­bayev said.


Kyrgyz­stan’s for­eign min­istry bashed ous­ted Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych in a state­ment last month, which hin­ted at the coun­try’s past failed at­tempts at par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy.

“The only source of power in any coun­try is its people, and a pres­id­ent who lost his people’s trust, who de facto lost his pres­id­en­tial au­thor­ity and, moreover, who fled the coun­try, can­not be le­git­im­ate,” the state­ment said. However, Kyrgyz­stan, faced with threats of re­tali­ation from Mo­scow, ab­stained from vot­ing last month on a U.N. res­ol­u­tion that de­clared Crimea’s ref­er­en­dum il­leg­al.

Kyrgyz­stan main­tains strong ties to Rus­sia, which provides gen­er­ous aid pack­ages to the cash-strapped na­tion, as well as arms and fuel, and it hopes to join the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Com­munity. In oth­er oth­er words, Kyrgyz­stan is firmly in Rus­sia’s grasp.


Tajikistan also de­pends heav­ily on Rus­si­an aid. Like Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan did not vote in the U.N. res­ol­u­tion con­demning Crimea’s vote to join Rus­sia. Rus­si­an and Tajik rep­res­ent­at­ives con­tin­ue to co­oper­ate on eco­nom­ic and trade is­sues, and have largely steered clear of dis­cuss­ing the Ukraine crisis.


Uzbek­istan broke its si­lence on es­cal­at­ing ten­sions in Ukraine in early March but did not men­tion Rus­sia. The events “pose a real threat to the coun­try’s sov­er­eignty and ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity,” a state­ment from its for­eign af­fairs min­istry said, and ” eli­cit deep con­cern in Uzbek­istan.”

Uzbek­istan’s lead­ers have co­oper­ated with NATO on se­cur­ity is­sues in the past, but the coun­try leans heav­ily to­ward Rus­sia, thanks to strong eco­nom­ic ties. On Thursday, Mo­scow wel­comed Uzbek­istan in­to the free-trade zone of the Com­mon­wealth of In­de­pend­ent States, an ar­range­ment that will boost trade between Uzbek­istan and its fel­low former So­viet re­pub­lics. Uzbek­istan has also asked Rus­si­an en­ergy firms to help tap its vast hy­dro­car­bon de­pos­its.


Turk­menistan, ruled by a So­viet-era hol­d­over with zero tol­er­ance for dis­sent, de­pends on a Rus­si­an pipeline for ex­ports, but it has re­cently turned to Beijing for more busi­ness. The com­pet­i­tion may spell fu­ture trouble for Rus­sia, but Turk­menistan has no plans to sever ties with Mo­scow, let alone make com­ments about its in­volve­ment in Ukraine.

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