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.