Great Power Competition Defines the Ukrainian Question, and Only Great Power Diplomacy can Provide an Answer

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Starting on June 28, Ukraine and the United States launched the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise. This annual exercise, which ended on July 10, consists of 32 countries and is the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its start in 1997. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, has already described the exercises as a “provocative muscle-flexing game,” with the Kremlin testing advanced air-defense systems (including S-400 and Pantsir surface-to-air missiles) in the occupied Crimean Peninsula while deploying 20 warplanes and helicopters.

Moscow’s protestations against Sea Breeze hotly follows Russian harassment of the British Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Defender on June 23 and the Dutch guided-missile frigate HNLMS Evertsen on June 24 off the Crimean coast. The HMS Defender deliberately sailed within 12 miles of Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, on its way to the Georgian port of Batumi, supporting the internationally recognized sovereignty of Ukraine over Crimea and its territorial waters. Russia responded by harrying the Defender with coastal ships and dropping bombs in its path, while staging mock aerial attacks against the Evertsen.

This comes amidst a general confrontational period in Western-Russian relations that began with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, drastically deteriorated following revelations of Russian disinformation campaigns and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and came to a head during Moscow’s buildup of 110,000 troops along the Ukrainian border in April 2021. The troop buildup itself represented another step Russia has taken to establish hegemony over the Black Sea. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Moscow has worked to supplement its Black Sea Fleet with coastal defense and area-denial systems stretching from occupied Crimea to Abkhazia, an territory internationally recognized as part of Georgia but operated by government supported by Moscow.

In Crimea, the Kremlin has deployed missile batteries that allow Russia to strike at vessels as far away as the Dardanelles Strait. Although Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would withdraw the 110,000 troops it deployed in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern border by May 1, Moscow has only withdrawn 10,000. The Kremlin has also secured control over the Sea of Azov by building its naval presence and constructing a bridge across the Kerch Strait which separates the Azov and Black Seas. Meanwhile, Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas break the ceasefire daily in a conflict that has taken over 14,000 Ukrainian lives.

Ukraine’s undeclared war with Russia over the Donbas and Crimea is, unfortunately, tied directly to the geopolitical environment of the Black Sea; the sea itself is a battlefield in a new era of great power competition. It is important to understand this because Russia’s President Vladimir Putin does not have the luxury of deriving legitimacy from the pursuit of Communism like his Soviet predecessors. By stealing Russia’s national wealth for himself and his cronies, he has tied his regime’s legitimacy to Russia’s success in great power competition. Thus, for Putin, regime survival is maintained geopolitical victories such as establishing Russia once more as a Black Sea hegemon, implanting Russia into distant conflicts like Burma, Libya, and Syria, and preserving his authoritarian ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

At the center is Ukraine. Waiting for the implosion of the Putin regime, which is by no means certain, is not a responsible course of action. The best path to recover Ukraine’s territory and preserve its sovereignty is through negotiation, but through strength. A first step to demonstrate the seriousness of the West would be to step up freedom of navigation operations through Ukraine’s Crimean waters and expand them to include voyages into Ukraine’s waters in the Sea of Azov.

Any further negotiations for Ukraine must account for its interests; such requirements at minimum would involve a track dedicated to the restoration of the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine. The ineffective Normandy Format dedicated to a negotiated resolution to the Donbas conflict, and is chaired by Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow, and Paris must be dissolved and remade to include Ankara, London, and Washington, with Bucharest, Tbilisi, and Warsaw as observers. Further, Moscow will need to officially recognize Kyiv’s legitimacy in the occupied Donbas territories. Russia will also need to rein in the domestic hacker groups that have targeted Western infrastructure, such as the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hack.

Until such a diplomatic restructuring occurs, the West must continue to help Ukraine develop resilience against incremental Russian interference with Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, even if this help is likewise incremental in the defense and economic sectors

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The Implications of Russia’s Creeping Takeover of Belarus

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Belarus has had a busy year. A stolen presidential election in August 2020, sustained nationwide protests met with mass arrests and illegal in-detention abuse and torture, Western sanctions, and joint military exercises with Russia. And now Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gave the green light for state piracy against a Ryanair flight to kidnap the dissident Roman Protasevich. In an unusual display of ire and alacrity, the European Union (EU) took swift action, imposing further sanctions against Belarus, advising against EU flights utilizing Belarusian airspace and banning the Belarusian national airline Belavia from either using EU airports or airspace. Ukraine and the United Kingdom have also denied Belarus access to their airspace.

For most of his 26-year tenure as president, Mr. Lukashenko maintained his rule through an autocratic grip on Belarussian society and by balancing Belarus’ relationship with Moscow and Brussels. Minsk joined Moscow in creating the Union State of Russia and Belarus but has resisted total integration of key sectors of Belarus’ military, security, military, and economy with Russia. Belarus had also maintained a neutral position in the Ukrainian conflict so that the Belarusian capital, Minsk, could serve as the host city for talks aimed at resolving the conflict in the Ukrainian Donbas.

But as the Belarusian strongman’s rule faces growing pressure, his resilience against Kremlin pressure has correspondingly cratered. To preserve his regime, Lukashenko has allowed the Russian FSB to widely infiltrate the Belarusian KGB. President Lukashenko also agreed to joint Belarusian-Russian military training centers with one in Belarus’ EU border region of Grodno, and proceeded to integrate the Russian and Belarusian air defense systems. Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs are pushing ahead to buy Belarusian potash company Belaruskali and fertilizer company Hrodno Azot.

Meanwhile, President Lukashenko also invited ‘Donbas’ investigators to interrogate Roman Protasevich. This followed a two-day summit in Sochi swimming with Russian President Putin where he left with a $500 million loan Ukraine has already lobbied to have the negotiation process moved from Minsk, since such de facto recognition of the rebel territories as independent states negates supposed Belarusian neutrality in the matter.

What we are seeing is the transformation of Belarus from a sovereign state into a Russian protectorate. Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the CNA Corporation, noted that Russia has increased its joint exercises with Belarus to essentially keep Russian troops stationed in Belarus at all times, in a parallel to NATO’s rotation of forces in Poland and the Baltic States through its Enhanced Forward Presence. Such deployments allow Russia to threaten the security of Ukraine and Europe.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the Union State a threat Ukraine, allowing Russia to directly threaten Ukraine’s northern border. This comes two months following the border crisis where Russia massed 110,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border and in the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that most of the troops would be withdrawn from the border by May 1. However, Ukrainian sources have revealed that Russia has maintained a force of 100,000 servicemen with 1,300 tanks, 37,00 armored vehicles, and over 1,600 artillery and rocket systems on the Ukrainian border.

At this point, it is unclear whether Belarus can be extracted from the Kremlin’s embrace. In the West, Lukashenko may be the most hated man after Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad. Should he remain in power, then Belarus will be entangled in Moscow’s web. But challenges will remain even should the exiled Belarusian opposition manage to oust Lukashenko so that Belarussian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya can become Belarusian president. Under Russian pressure, Lukashenko has been strengthening the Belarusian parliament so that pro-Kremlin Belarusian parties can maintain Belarus’ eastward orientation regardless of who sits in the presidential palace.

Whether or not Lukashenko remains in power, the West faces no good options. For now, U.S. President Joseph Biden should make clear that the United States and its allies will not passively allow Russia to threaten states important to Western security. The United States and its European and NATO allies should take meaningful and visible steps to fortify NATO’s eastern flank in the Baltic states and Black Sea region, with particular emphasis on the defense of Ukraine and Georgia.

The European Union already has a large, if controversial, arms industry whose clients are mostly authoritarians in the Sahel. The EU should expand the regional scope of its European Peace Facility, the $6 billion fund dedicated to arming those governments, and arm democratizing states important to European security such as Ukraine and Georgia. Similarly, the United States needs to continue arming Ukraine and Georgia and foster connections between Ukraine’s established and Turkey’s burgeoning defense industries. NATO should also rotate its forces not just in the Baltics, but in Ukraine and Georgia on a regular basis so there is a constant NATO presence in these countries. As Putin threatens “uncomfortable signals” ahead of his summit with President Biden in Geneva this June, he must learn that his policy of developing and sustaining protracted conflicts will not deter his adversaries.

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Prisoners of the Caucasus: How Nagorno-Karabakh’s Minefield Crisis Holds the Peace Process Hostage

Since the end of the first Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994,
landmines and unexploded ordinance continue to directly impact the livelihoods and health
of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh – the major impediment
to peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan – began in 1988 when the parliament of the
Autonomous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to secede from the Azerbaijani Soviet
Socialist Republic to join the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Low-intensity violence
flared up into open warfare between Armenia and Azerbaijan following the collapse of the
Soviet Union, with Armenian forces occupying Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding
Azerbaijani districts. The territories are still contaminated by anti-personnel and anti-tank
mines, as well as unexploded ordinance from bombs and cluster munitions used by both

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Donbas Crisis Proves Bankruptcy of Normandy Format

Photo by Sergey Belous.

The April Donbas Crisis was a revealing moment in the seven years of war that has enveloped Ukraine. Across the Atlantic, U.S. President Joseph Biden has shown that the United States stands with Ukraine and has rallied important NATO countries like the United Kingdom and Turkey behind Ukraine. The Crisis has confirmed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s (current) disinterest in a negotiated, peaceful resolution to the Donbas conflict. New dividing lines have settled across Europe as former Eastern Bloc countries, starting with Czechia, are expelling Russian diplomats in solidarity with Ukraine.

But the most striking (though unsurprising) reveal of the Crisis were the weak responses from Berlin and Paris. During the Crisis, Berlin called on both Kyiv and Moscow to deescalate the situation, as if there was an equivalency between the actions of Russia and Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron said nothing until he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 16, two weeks into the crisis.

Given that France and Germany are part of the Normandy Format, such a blasé interest in Ukraine’s security is highly disappointing to those who wish for the Donbas Conflict to have a peaceful resolution. Created in 2014, the Normandy Format, which is comprised of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, led to the oft-violated 2015 Minsk II ceasefire agreement.

Germany continues working with Russia on the dangerous Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would allow Russian gas into Europe, bypassing the Druzhba pipeline that links Russian gas to Europe through Ukraine. And while Berlin has demanded the release of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has opposed new sanctions against Russia over Navalny’s worsening medical condition.

Paris similarly refuses to take a tough stance against Russia, despite the Kremlin’s attacks against France. In 2017, Moscow interfered in France’s elections, hacking the files of President Macron’s election campaign to try and help the Russia-funded ultranationalist presidential candidate Marine le Pen. The French military leadership has emphasized, and seeks to prepare for, the threat Russia poses to French (and European) security. But as French society polarizes around the issue of domestic Islamic extremism, France’s political elite would rather court the Right by confronting Turkey around Cyprus and continue (valiantly) fighting terrorists in the Sahel.

In an interview with the International Conflict Resolution Center, Dr. Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, said that “on the basis of Russian activity and Russian rhetoric…Russia is at war with the West and has been for years and it behaves accordingly.” Still, France and Germany refuse to acknowledge this state of affairs, seeking to incorporate Russia into a world order based on Western values. They fail to recall that, as Dr. Henry Kissinger noted in an interview with The Economist, “there has never been an extended period where you could say Russia participated in a world order.”

Until France and Germany recognize that Russia has no interest in their overtures and understand that Ukraine’s security is synonymous with the security of Europe, the Normandy Format is pointless. President Zelensky has already tacitly acknowledged the irrelevance of the current Format, calling for the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada to join the Normandy Format.

A new forum should be arranged with the goals of peacefully restoring the Donbas territories under Kyiv’s governance, securing the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders, and ensuring the total independence and sovereignty of Ukraine’s government. The Minsk II ceasefire agreement, violated by Russian-backed forces on an almost daily basis, is a failure. An immediate objective of the new format should be to develop a new ceasefire arrangement.

The United States should take a leading position as a negotiator alongside Ukraine. The United Kingdom, Canada, and Turkey should also join. In honor of the original format of the Minsk II agreement, France and Germany should retain their seats. Poland and Romania, both EU and NATO countries whose national security is directly impacted by Russian actions in Ukraine, should be involved as observers. Russia should be permitted to participate in the negotiations only if Moscow will represent the ‘Donbas leadership.’ However, Russia must also accept full responsibility for all actions of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘republics’ (especially ceasefire violations) if it wishes to participate in the negotiations.

Even should a new format as described should emerge, its ability to create a lasting and peaceful resolution to the conflict is doubtful. To actuate such a resolution, the French and German leadership must understand that Russian aggression against Ukraine directly affects European security, and act accordingly.

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As Donbas Crisis Resolves, Russian-Western Relations Sink to Cold War Lows

On April 22, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced from the occupied Crimean Peninsula the conclusion of Russia’s snap drills. Troops deployed along the Ukrainian border and in occupied Crimea will begin returning to their bases starting on April 23, finishing on May 1.

These drills led to the deployment of 110,000 Russian troops along the northern and eastern Ukrainian border as well as in occupied Crimea. These deployments, accompanied by a massive increase in ceasefire violations by the Russian-backed Donbas rebels, and compounded by traditional Kremlin opacity, led to widespread fears of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In response, the United States European Command raised its threat level for Ukraine from ‘Possible Crisis’ to ‘Potential Imminent Crisis’ – its highest level. U.S. President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan all made calls to their Ukrainian counterparts early in the crisis, declaring their ‘unwavering support’ for Ukraine. Calls followed from United Kingdom (UK), European Union (EU), and NATO leaders declaring support for Ukraine.

Relations between Russia and the West have fallen to a new nadir over this conflict. President Biden issued a new set of financial sanctions targeting Russia’s state debt, citing Russian human rights violations, its malign interference in Western democracies’ elections, the SolarWinds hack, and aggression against Ukraine (among others) as the reasons for the new sanctions.

Diplomatic expulsions have also marked this new period of antipathy. The United States and Russia have each expelled diplomats, with Russia also forbidding the U.S. (and Czech) embassies from employing Russian citizens. Russia ordered the expulsion of Alexander Sosoniuk, Ukraine’s Consul-General of the Ukrainian Consulate in St. Petersburg on April 17, after briefly detaining him on charges of espionage the day prior.

The Czech Republic has been involved in a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats with Russia following scandalous revelations that the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence organization) was responsible for the lethal explosion of a Czech munitions dump in 2014. With Czech officials calling the incident an act of state terror, Prague and Moscow have ordered the expulsion of diplomats. The EU and NATO have both given their support to the Czechs amidst this diplomatic imbroglio. Czech Foreign and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek has also called on EU and NATO countries to join Prague in expelling Russian diplomats in response to the attack.

The potency of the Western response has faltered because the two strongest European powers, France and Germany, have shown disinterest. Both France and Germany prefer to let the EU take the lead on standing against Russia. But the Kremlin has revealed disdain for Brussels with its snub of EU High Representative Josep Borrell in February. Berlin and Paris will need to take an active stance towards Russia if the Kremlin is to believe the West is serious about protecting its interests.

Minister Shoigu said that the snap drills had accomplished their purpose. One result was President Biden offering a one-on-one summit with President Putin. The summit proposal, rejected by Putin, was hailed as a political victory against the West in the Russian media. The new financial sanctions against Russia have also been shrugged off by a Russian economy reconfigured for stagnant autarky, with Russia selling bonds of state debt to domestic banks.

For the Kremlin, this test of Western resolve has revealed exploitable cracks in Paris and Berlin. A misunderstanding of Western resolve, like that which happened after the 1961 Berlin Crisis and led to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, is more than possible. It is imperative that the West disillusion Russia of this notion to avoid a similar repeat of history.

Steps towards this goal have already been taken. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Ukraine Security Partnership Act (USPA) on April 22. This act commits $300 million per year to the development of the Ukrainian military. Importantly, the USPA also states Ukraine was occupied throughout the entire Soviet period. The United States should also focus on developing Ukraine’s anti-drone capabilities, as well as the lethality of the Ukrainian Air Force and Navy. Additionally, the United States and its allies should declare all goods coming from Crimean ports as contraband.

While the United States updates Ukraine’s military, the UK should reposition itself. With its goals of establishing a ‘Global Britain,’ London should build on its military cooperation with Ukraine by focusing the Royal Navy in the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Sea regions to pressure Moscow, rather than pester [JL1] Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. Paris and Berlin should also show solidarity with Prague and expel Russian diplomats. 

The 2021 Donbas Crisis is heading towards a resolution without a clear winner. With relations at a new low, Russia and the West risk sleepwalking to an even worse confrontation. Such a crisis is avoidable, but only if the Kremlin understands they cannot blackmail the West.

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Dodon, Socialists Seek to Delay Parliamentary Elections Following Constitutional Court Ruling

The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Moldova on April 15 ruled that Moldovan President Maia Sandu can dissolve the current Parliament and call for snap elections. Such a ruling is a major win for pro-reform, pro-democracy, and pro-Western forces in a country split between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces.

The Harvard-educated President Maia Sandu campaigned on a platform promising to fight endemic corruption, promote democratic norms and policies, and align the country more closely with Europe. Her incumbent opponent, Igor Dodon, is the head of the country’s Socialist Party (PSRM) and represents the pro-Russian forces in the country. When President Sandu won the presidential election in November 2020, she was confronted with a parliament that was dominated by the PSRM and its allies – all hostile to the new president’s pro-Western, anti-corruption agenda.

The current composition of the parliament disproportionately represents the pro-Russian forces in the government, with polls showing that pro-Western parties, such as President Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity, poised to win nearly fifty percent of votes in an election. The PSRM has from the beginning attempted to thwart President Sandu’s agenda. After she won the election but before she was sworn in as president, the PSRM and its allies pushed through legislation (without any public consultation) to shift control of the Information and Security Service (ISS) from the President to the PSRM-controlled Parliament. The ISS functions as the main levers of control over the security of the country and the fight against corruption.  This move triggered large protests in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital.

President Sandu has responded by pushing to dissolve the current parliament, which Sandu has described as a corrupted body that does not accurately reflect the will of the Moldovan people. Ion Chicu, the former Prime Minister of Moldova and a pro-Russian ally of Mr. Dodon, resigned shortly after President Sandu’s inauguration. She appointed Aureliu Ciocoi – another Dodon ally – as Interim Prime Minister. President Sandu then proceeded to nominate two different candidates for Prime Minister – the Moldovan Constitution states the President can dissolve the parliament if it fails twice to confirm a Prime Minister within a 45-day period – both of whom failed to be confirmed by the hostile Parliament.

Upon the failure of the second candidate to be confirmed, the PSRM-controlled Parliament introduced a two-month state of emergency ostensibly to deal with the pandemic. This was a tactic to delay Parliament’s dissolution and maintain the PSRM’s power as the Moldovan Constitution states that no elections can be held during a state of emergency. The Constitutional Court ruling in favor of President Sandu to dissolve parliament may put snap elections back on the agenda.

Igor Dodon and the PSRM have resorted to a combination of Parliamentary tactics and outright fearmongering. Mr. Dodon called the Constitutional Court’s favorable ruling for President Sandu rigged, suggesting that the President bought justices on the court like the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is now in self-imposed exile in Turkey. He has also said that President Sandu is in the pocket of external powers – implying not so subtly Europe and the United States – and that she would drag Moldova into the Ukrainian conflict and a larger, general European war.

And on April 15, Mr. Dodon announced in a TV interview that the PSRM would use Parliament to block the allocation of funds to stage early parliamentary elections until the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The budget required, nearly $7.25 million, can only be adopted by the prime minister with the backing of a majority of the parliament. Dodon has also warned that the Parliament (or rather, the PSRM and its allies) might not recognize the Constitutional Court’s ruling granting President Sandu the right to dissolve the parliament.

While President Sandu focused her campaign on combating corruption as opposed to foreign policy and resolving the ongoing frozen conflict in Transnistria, she has called for the departure of Russian troops operating in the territory. Mr. Dodon has long voiced support for the continued Russian presence in Transnistria, claiming it alone prevents renewed fighting.

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Russia Reinforces Black Sea Navy with Caspian Warships

On April 6, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian Federation would hold 4,018 military exercises in all military districts during the month of April. The Southern Military District (SMD) which is responsible for the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian regions of Russia, announced the drills would involve around 15,000 military personnel. The actual deployment has reached 80,000 troops, including artillery and tanks, with 40,000 stationed in Crimea and the other 40,000 along the northern and eastern Ukrainian border. 

The Kremlin then announced on April 8 artillery boats and amphibious landing craft from the Caspian Flotilla would join the Black Sea Fleet for naval exercises. Fifteen ships have been dispatched with marines, and are sailing through the deteriorating Volga-Don Canal which connects the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov. Russia has also engaged in GPS jamming of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission.

This has prompted extreme concern in Kyiv, Washington, and other Western and NATO capitals. Washington has so far dispatched two ships to the Black Sea to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine. While the Kremlin maintains the troops are deployed for exercises only, March has seen mass violations of the ceasefire by the Russian-backed separatists, with 28 Ukrainian casualties since January.

Russian media has also ramped up its propaganda against Ukraine, warning that if Moscow sees human rights violationslike the Srebrenica Massacre (referring to the Serbian massacre of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica during the 1995 Bosnian War), Russia would have no choice but to intervene to save Russian citizens. Russian President Putin’s point man for Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, said that if such an escalation occurs, Russia would shoot Ukraine “not…in the leg, but in the face.”

The ships from the Caspian Flotilla being deployed are precisely the ships Russia would use for an amphibious invasion of Ukraine. The convoy, according to videos of the ships, seems to comprise of Serna-class amphibious landing craft and Smel-class artillery boats.

The Serna-class amphibious vessel is 84-feet long and displaces 100 tons with a full combat load. The Serna can either carry one T-72/T-90 or T-80 main battle tank, two BTR-80 wheeled armored carriers, or up to 92 troops. The Shmel, which displaces about 71 tons, has a primary armament of a 76mm D-56TS gun on its bow, and two 25mm cannons on the stern. The Shmel is designed especially for coastal bombardment and is capable of laying sea mines.

While the Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet both fall within the jurisdiction of the SMD, troops have been deployed to the region from well without its jurisdiction. Convoys of troops and hardware have journeyed to the Ukrainian border from Siberia  and the 76th Air Assault Division based in Pskov was deployed to Feodosia in Crimea. The last time the 76th Air Assault Division was deployed to the SMD, they took part in the amphibious assault on Abkhazia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.  

As always, it is difficult to ascertain the true intentions of the Kremlin. This is because the Russian leadership makes sure never to reveal their true objectives. This policy brings Moscow two primary benefits: it prevents a coherent response from its adversaries who have to spend time preparing for numerous contingencies, and it lets Russia select the least costly option without losing face. 

Russia could simply be sending a message as Ukraine continues to call for NATO membership, demonstrating what Russia is capable of doing to Ukraine. The very lack of secrecy behind these troop deployments gives credence to the idea that this is a shakedown. However, the current troop deployments are even larger than those used to invade Crimea in 2014. Russia could be preparing to seize Mariupol, finalizing its total control of the Sea of Azov and establish a land bridge to Crimea. This would also allow Russia to restore the freshwater flow to Crimea; Ukraine has dammed the North Crimean Canal that provided the peninsula with between 85-90 percent of its freshwater. Alternatively, Russia might attempt to seize all of Ukraine’s Black Sea littoral. This would also connect Transnistria, occupied by Russia and effectively detached from Moldova since 1992, to the Russian mainland.

If Russia believes that the West will not respond to a Russian invasion, then the invasion will come. The United States must rally its allies around Kyiv and show Russia that not only does Ukraine have the firm support of the West and NATO, but that real, actionable consequences would follow an invasion. The principles of freedom and self-determination are being tested. The West must decide whether these principles are something we wish to keep. 

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Do Russian Military “Drills” Invite a War in Ukraine?

The ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has been steadily rising in stakes and intensity in March and April, 2021. Russian-led insurgent forces broke the ceasefire hundreds of times in March, resulting in numerous Ukrainian casualties. In April, Russian self-described routine military drills might portend a second Crimean annexation, this time in the Donbas. While one American official quoted by the New York Times estimated  4,000 Russian troops, Ukraine’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Ruslan Komchak said the number is likely between 20-25,000. These troops are being deployed in Crimea and along the northern and eastern Russian-Ukrainian border. 

This move comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to consolidate control, both over his sphere of influence and internally.  President Putin’s personal rule was threatened by protests, unprecedented in scale, over the arrest of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. The protests themselves were inspired by the similarly extraordinary nation-wide protests that racked Belarus as the people decried the reelection of six-term Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Meanwhile, Russian primacy in the post-Soviet states has weakened with the October 2020 Kyrgyz street revolution and 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani war that saw Turkey gain a role in the ceasefire settlement. Russia’s influence is being challenged further in Moldova by the pro-Western agenda of the recently elected pro-EU Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who defeated the pro-Russian incumbent President Igor Dodon.

Ukraine has become increasingly vocal about its desire to join NATO, a foreign policy (and cultural) nightmare for the Kremlin, which sees Ukraine as a natural part of Russia. On January 28, Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia Today’s English-language channel, went to Donetsk and in a speech demanded Russia annex the Donbas. While the Kremlin denied that Simonyan’s call for annexation reflected official policy, it fits within Russia’s foreign policy approach of coopting non-official agents to advance its international goals.

Simonyan’s speech comes after continued Russian subsidization of the breakaway Donbas regions, including mass distribution of Russian passports. These actions typically represent the initial Kremlin groundwork for eventual annexation. Meanwhile, the mass protests over Navalny reveal faltering support for President Putin. Annexing the Donbas, and saving the Russians there from the supposed junta ruling in Kyiv, would help shore up his nationalist popularity.

President Putin, however, is a pragmatist and opportunist, and would likely proceed with annexation only in a low-risk environment; in recent years, general Western support for Ukraine has been lukewarm.

For example,  French President Emmanuel Macron, in his drive for restoring France’s global influence, has tried to court President Putin so French power could be directed in theaters away from Eastern Europe. This approach is in contrast to the  French political and military establishment that still sees Russia as a major security and political. Nevertheless,  the balance could shift  should the increasingly popular far-right populist Marine le Pen (whose National Rally Party has received funds from the Kremlin) win the upcoming French presidential election. Moreover, in Germany, plans for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline delivering Russian gas to Europe continue. The cheap source of gas not only strengthen Russia’s economy and foreign policy options, but send signals of weakness to a Kremlin that historically only respects strength.

As for the United States, the Biden administration has begun to rouse European Union and other Western governments—including Paris and Berlin—to consider a more robust  defense of Ukraine. If the Russian troop deployment along the border is meant to test this resolve, the United States will have to take the lead, and so far, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised such leadership. Indeed, between March 31 and April 6, Western leaders have assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba of their commitment to Ukraine’s defense. European Union Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have stated their serious concern over the Russian troop movements and their ‘unwavering support’ for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Seven joint exercises are scheduled to be held in Ukraine, starting with the British-Ukrainian Cossack Mace 2021 exercise to be held in the summer, which will host 1,000 troops from five NATO states. And the U.S. European Command raised its alert status to the highest level. Perhaps Russia has not yet maneuvered itself into a situation where a withdrawal would risk losing face, but the current ‘drills’ do not, based on the evidence and past practice, avail themselves to something routine or ministerial. Over the past week, paratroopers from Pskov and troop convoys from Siberia are being deployed to Crimea and the Ukrainian border respectively, and on April 8 ten warships from the Caspian Flotilla were deployed to the Black Sea. These deployments are provocations. Responses this Spring and likely Summer of 2021 in the West, Moscow, Washington, and Kyiv will dictate whether this ‘frozen conflict’ will become a hot war.

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Will Russian Influence in Moldova Decline as Country Heads for Snap Parliamentary Elections?

On March 25, the Moldovan Parliament failed to confirm Igor Grosu, Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s nominee for Prime Minister. This is the second time the Parliament rejected President Sandu’s pick; the Socialist-dominated Parliament rejected President Sandu’s first pick, Natalia Gavrilita on February 11. According to the Moldovan Constitution, should the Parliament fail twice to endorse a new government within 45 days of the President’s first request, the President may call for snap parliamentary elections. Parliament’s rejection of Mr. Grosu now sets the stage for President Sandu to call for new elections, a priority for the new President if she wants to pass legislation.

President Sandu campaigned largely on a reformist, anti-corruption, pro-democracy agenda. The Moldovan electorate, including the diaspora numbering between one and two million, came out in an unprecedented turnout to elect her to the presidency, ousting the Socialist, pro-Russian President Igor Dodon. However, the Moldovan Parliament is still dominated by the Mr. Dodon’s Socialist Party, which favors close ties to Moscow and is working to discredit President Sandu’s reform agenda. Polls have shown that if snap elections were called, President Sandu’s party, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), would win.

This has set the lines of battle in Moldova since the presidential election. The PAS, not recognizing the legitimacy of the current Parliament (arguing the Socialists artificially control Parliament), vowed not to support any nominee for Prime Minister. The Socialists and Democrats (the political party of the exiled oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc) fought President Sandu.

After the Parliament rejected Ms Gavrilita, President Sandu tried to renominate her hours after the vote. The Socialists took this to the Constitutional Court which blocked the President’s attempt to nominate Ms Gavrilita a second time. The Socialists were also pushing to take President Sandu’s mandate, though the Court stopped short of such a ruling.

When the Court ruled that President Sandu’s nomination of Mr. Grosu was constitutional, the battle lines were reset. The PAS again said they would not confirm Mr. Grosu, saying new elections are still needed, and the other parties rejected Mr. Grosu. Now that a Constitutional Court-approved path to snap elections has been cleared, the PAS and pro-reform, pro-Western forces seem set to become a deciding voice in Moldovan governance. Accordingly, though the domestic political situation is in flux, President Sandu’s hand is now strengthened in resolving this this decades-old frozen conflict in regarding the break-away region of Transnistria.

While President Sandu campaigned largely on a domestic issues’ platform, focusing on problems like corruption and democratic reform, she did touch on the Transnistrian conflict. Reflecting on the largely pacific nature of this conflict, with no violence since the ceasefire, Sandu called for the withdrawal of the Russian Operative Group of Russian Troops (OGRT) based in Transnistria. She also argued for the replacement of the multinational peacekeeping force (comprised of Moldovans, Transnistrians, Russians, and Ukrainians) with a civilian monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ukraine has voiced its support of this proposal.

While President Sandu did not issue a deadline for such steps, the statements predictably drew a swift rebuke from the Kremlin. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov,         called the request an ‘irresponsible demand,’ while the outgoing Moldovan president, Igor Dodon, asserted the OGRT force has kept the peace since the 1994 ceasefire. Russia currently stations between 1,500-2,000 troops in Transnistria. Transnistria’s military arm numbers as many as 15,000 soldiers supported by tanks and combat aircraft, and annually holds more than 100 joint exercises with the stationed Russian forces. By contrast, Moldova’s army numbers around 6,000 troops with a negligible number of armored vehicles and combat aircraft.

This recent internal development thus illustrates the proclivities of Moldova’s political parties regarding to either resolve the on-going conflict or prolong the status quo. Igor Dodon has long been attentive to Moscow’s needs. Igor Dodon until 2019 publicly argued for a federal solution to the conflict, giving Transnistria. Russia, who in addition to being Transnistria’s economic and security guarantor, has issued over 200,000 Russian passports to the territory, would thus have a say in Moldova’s domestic and foreign policy. However, the Socialist Party (headed by Mr. Dodon) still argues on its website that federalization is the best solution.

But now with snap parliamentary elections likely on the horizon, the internal forces benefiting from the prolonging of the conflict in are likely to recede. While Russia maintains influence through Igor Dodon (who after his electoral defeat went on a Russian-funded trip to Moscow), a PAS-controlled government is likely to come to power. Beyond strengthening Moldova’s domestic institutions and removing corruption, such a government is likely to pursue a less conciliatory approach to Moscow. For the Moldovan Europhile, there is reason to be hopeful.

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Another Donetsk Diplomatic Mission is Shuttered in Western Europe

On March 23, France’s Court of Appeals ordered the closure of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) representative office in Marseilles. This comes following a years-long legal campaign by the Ukrainian government to shut down the diplomatic outpost of the rebel territory. The legal battle over the DPR’s representative center began in 2018 when a French court in Aix-en-Provence struck down the Ukrainian government’s suit.

The court cited no violation of the 1964 Vienna Convention which set the framework for most diplomatic law governing embassies and diplomatic missions. The association was established in Marseilles in 2017 by Hubert Fayard, a former deputy mayor of the town of Vitrolles, himself a member of the French ultranationalist National Front Party.

But this is not the first time a DPR representative center has been shut down in Europe. The DPR established a representative in the Czech city of Ostrava in 2016, the first such center in a European Union (EU) member state. A Czech court later ordered the center’s closure in 2017. The only remaining DPR representative centers in the EU are now in Italy (Turin in 2016, Verona in 2019), Greece (Athens in 2016), and Finland (Helsinki in 2016). Additionally, the unrecognized Luhansk Republic has managed to open one representative center in the Italian city of Messina in 2018.

While such centers were established ostensibly to develop economic, trade, and cultural linkages between the insurgent territory and the sovereign EU states, the reality is that these centers function as Kremlin propaganda centers. The DPR centers, theoretically diplomatic outposts of the Donetsk government, resemble little more than Bizarro embassies, operating in places ranging from dance studios to apartment hallways. And all were created and run by foreigners. The chairmen of these DPR centers come from diverse backgrounds, but are all united by disreputable pasts and hostility to Western unity and NATO.

The head of the Turin center, Maurizio Marrone, is a member of the rightist Italian Party Fratelli d’Italia, which has a sympathetic view of Mussolini. The man who established and runs the Verona center, Palmarino Zoccatelli, is a Venetian nationalist who advocates for Venetian independence and is associated with Italy’s Northern League, which also advocates for separatism. The Greek center’s chairman, Andreas Zafiris, is part of SYRIZA, left in its political leanings but equally hostile as other centers to the West and NATO.

Hubert Fayard, the National Front member who established the Marseille center, was arrested in 2019 on charges of pimping and procuring (though he was later released). Mr. Fayard also created a dating agency in 2007 which assisted in finding Russian women for French men; the registered address for this company was the same as the DPR representative center he operated. But while these stories of diplomatic outposts paint an almost risible picture of the DPR’s attempts at diplomatic outreach and normalization, they do have a darker aspect, as is demonstrated by the DPR representative center in Finland.

The Finnish DPR representative center is run by Johan Backman. Mr. Backman is a regular commentator in Russian news, frequently espousing anti-Western, anti-Ukrainian, and anti-NATO views. A self-styled human rights activist, Mr. Backman was extradited from Andorra to Finland in 2019 for his part in a three-year online hate campaign against a Finnish journalist. The campaign, which used of Russian troll farms, resulted in a suspended one-year prison sentence, which was later appealed to a suspended three-month sentence.

Mr. Backman has used his center to push Russian narratives on the Ukraine conflict, as well as to host tours in the occupied Donbas. But beyond this, Mr. Backman has used the DPR Representative Center as a means to create a Finnish platoon, called “Bear,” to fight against the Ukrainian government in the Donbas.

The DPR representative centers are not diplomatic outposts of the rebel Ukrainian provinces. They are sources of Russian propaganda that make use of fifth columnists within the West to try and weaken European support for the Ukrainian government in its fight against Russian aggression. For this reason, the centers cannot find shelter under the Vienna Convention as the Marseilles DPR representative center originally did.

Beyond attempting to create recognition in Europe of illegal governments, these centers act as sources of disinformation at best, and mercenary recruitment centers at worst. The Finnish, Greek, and Italian governments would do well to follow the example of Czechia and France and shut down the remaining representative centers of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. 

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Romanian Unionist Party to Open in Moldova

The Romanian populist party, the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), will be opening its first Moldovan branch on March 27. The little-known AUR which was founded in 2019 and whose primary message is for the reunification of Moldova with Romania, scored a political upset in the Romanian 2020 elections, winning nine percent of the vote. This gained the party 47 seats in Romania’s 465 seat parliament. In addition to its nationalist message of union, the party is conservative and nationalist, with a pro-religion, anti-LGBTQ platform.

The Party’s leader, George Simion, is a long-time Romanian unionist. He has been declared persona non grata in Moldova three times and banned from entering the country for five years in 2018. The ban took place during a pro-union march he organized from the Romanian city Alba Iulia to the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. On March 14, he was again turned back from the Moldovan border. Mr. Simion argued that this was “inadmissible” due to his current status as a Romanian parliamentarian. Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s office replied that he would have to follow legal recourses to be permitted entry. Mr. Simion’s last attempt to overturn the ban, lodged on February 17, was rejected by Moldovan courts. The next hearing will be on April 7.

This drama reflects the unresolved issues that led to the current frozen conflict in the Russian-majority Transnistrian region. Moldova, a Romanian-majority country, was historically part of Romanian Bessarabia. Annexed to Russia in 1812 from the Ottoman Empire, Romania unified with Moldova in 1918. The Soviet Union held on to contemporary Transnistria, which became the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic with its capital in Tiraspol. Stalin annexed the rest of contemporary Moldova from Romania in 1940. The Soviet Union pursued russification policies in Moldova until 1990, when a Romanian nationalist party replaced the Communists.

The Russian minority, fearful of losing their rights under the Romanian-nationalist government in Chisinau, formed their own republic in the wealthy and industrialized Transnistria, with their capital in Tiraspol. With Russian military support, Moldovan government forces were beaten back from Transnistria in 1992.

Following the government’s failure to retake Transnistria, the Gagauz in Moldova’s south agitated for greater rights. The Gagauz, a Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christian community, secured autonomous status within the newly formed Moldovan republic in 1994. The autonomous territory today is composed of four noncontiguous districts, numbers about 161,000 inhabitants, is primarily Russian speaking, agricultural, and is the poorest area in Moldova – already Europe’s poorest country. Most citizens in the territory do not speak Romanian, with a majority of people in Gagauzia (and Moldova in general) getting news from Russian sources. Gagauzia is highly skeptical of European integration and a fierce opponent of union with Romania over fears of losing their culture.

This fear is not without reason. The Turkic Gagauz language is dying out as the region’s young, who primarily speak Russian and not Gagauz, are leaving to find jobs either in Moldova or abroad. And Romania has been pressing for greater ties with Moldova, often saying that Romania and Moldova are the same. In 2013, the Moldovan Constitutional Court ruled that the Moldovan and Romanian languages are the same. In 2017, the same court ruled Romanian as the official language of Moldova. Meanwhile, unification is popular in Romania, with the Romanian parliament symbolically backing reunification with Moldova in a 2018 vote.

All of these actions give credence to Russian propaganda in Transnistria and Gagauzia that portrays any reformist, pro-Western government as anti-minority. And it is not hard to paint unification with Romania as a nightmare for the non-Romanian communities. Parties like the AUR are openly hostile to the minorities, whether they are Hungarian or Russian-speaking, and have often said granting Gagauzia autonomy was a mistake. Such arguments assist Kremlin propaganda trying to convince Russian-speaking Moldovans that it is in their interest to side with Russia versus the West.

However, while Russian propaganda is strong in Moldova, it has not yet managed to savage Eurointegrationists like Moldova’s President Maia Sandu. Reformists like President Sandu understand that Moldovans, for now, largely prefer independence. In April of 2018, a poll recorded that 44 percent of Moldovans wanted unification, up from 27 percent in January. Such sentiment may well increase when the AUR begins operating in Moldova.

AUR activism may well serve Russian propaganda to Moldova’s anti-union Eurosceptics. The nationalist language used by the AUR and other pro-Union parties will only further alienate the non-Romanian communities in Moldova and impede a negotiated settlement to the Moldovan conflict.  

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The Normandy Format Has Failed – For Ukraine and For Europe, Biden Should Administer the Coup de Grace

One week into March, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky called to convene the Normandy Format. The purpose of the Normandy Format, which consists of the heads of states of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, is to arrange for a peaceful, negotiated end to the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The last Normandy Group summit was in 2019 in Paris; the 2020 summit, despite support from Berlin, Kyiv, and Paris, was not held due to Moscow’s opposition. President Zelensky has vowed to pursue the Normandy Format. However, he noted that if no 2021 summit occurs in the next few months, he will speak with the Normandy Format’s members in individual bilateral talks with the aim to discuss a new forum altogether.

The Normandy Format, however, holds no value but to assist the Kremlin’s aim in prolonging the conflict to create maximum instability within Ukraine. Moscow insists that the Minsk Group (itself a derivative of the Normandy Format) should be the main forum for negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. Russia has in effect three chairs in the Minsk Group given the representation of the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, and there is no direct Western participation other than the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russian President Putin has long insisted that federalization of Ukraine should be amended into the Ukrainian Constitution to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians. And Russia’s Normandy Format representative Dmitry Kozak has insisted in 2020 to include the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics into the Normandy Format; Berlin and Paris then conceded to his demand to allow the Minsk Group’s moderator to participate in future Normandy meetings.

Within this multilateral grouping, Kyiv is disadvantaged. In France, Ukraine is seen as expendable. French President Macron is willing to sacrifice Ukraine in order to incorporate Russia into a common European security structure to rebuild France’s international clout. And Macron’s rival for the presidency, French ultranationalist Marine le Pen, has close ties to the Kremlin. Germany, in its pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, has already shrugged off Ukraine. The only country in the Normandy Group interested in Ukraine is Russia, and not in the way Kyiv would like. As it is, the Normandy Group cannot achieve a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Ukraine.

The United States should take advantage of the Normandy Group’s failure to insert itself into the ongoing negotiations. Washington has long been Ukraine’s staunchest defender against Russian aggression, and U.S. President Joseph Biden has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to a sovereign Ukraine. The Biden Administration should thus encourage the dissolution of the Normandy Format in favor a new multilateral negotiation process that includes the United States. This new grouping should include the United States, Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany, and Turkey; the new forum should also specifically exclude the illegitimate Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

This new forum would benefit Ukraine, the United States, and Europe. With the United States involved in the negotiations, Washington can prevent Moscow from strongarming Kyiv into disadvantageous terms. Additionally, participating in such a multilateral forum, beyond demonstrating firm U.S. commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty, would help the Biden administration restore confidence in the world of a United States committed to its alliances and a rules-based world order.

Bringing Turkey into the discussion would also be beneficial to the region. Relations between Turkey and the West have deteriorated since Turkey’s air force downed a Russian fighter in 2015, and exacerbated by Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and its naval gas exploration expeditions in Cypriot waters. However, Turkey is an important member of NATO and partner of the West, its value going beyond its control of the Bosporus and Dardanelle Straits. Ankara has successfully balanced Moscow in the South Caucasus, and is contributing to Ukraine’s defense. Involving Turkey in a new forum would not only benefit the negotiations by bringing in a genuinely neutral mediator to the conflict, but also as a step to restoring relations with a strategically important partner. Should Russia reject a new multilateral format as described, then Moscow should be excluded until it agrees to join. Such exclusion would show the Western resolve needed to convince the Kremlin to curtail its aggressive acts and pursue reasonable negotiation. It is time for President Biden to end the failed Normandy format and show to Ukraine and the world that Washington stands with Kyiv.

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Should Georgia and Ukraine Join NATO? Yes, Just Not Now

In a late January interview, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said he would like to ask U.S. President Joseph Biden one question: Why is Ukraine still not part of NATO? It is a fair question, since at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest the Alliance endorsed granting Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans. Almost thirteen years later, both countries are still waiting to join. 

Both Ukraine and Georgia have in-depth experience in dealing with Russian conventional and hybrid warfare. And the two countries are strong partners with NATO. Georgia has regularly hosted military exercises with the United States and other Western partners. Tbilisi also contributed troops to NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile Ukraine has contributed to NATO operations and helped deploy medical supplies to NATO members. 

In Georgia and Ukraine, the majority of the population supports NATO membership. The countries have demonstrated their resilience to Russian aggression, contributed to NATO operations, and are on course to achieve interoperability with NATO on political and military levels. The question remains: Why have these countries not acceded to NATO?

The answer is equal parts Russia and a lack of consensus among Western powers on how to deal with Russia. One of the most popular narratives explaining Russian aggression is that it’s a response to Western expansion; the West provoked Russia by bringing NATO up to Russia’s borders. Russia perceives itself as a besieged power nobly fighting a West whose values are a threat to everything Russian. But peace could be reached if the West respects what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls Russia’s “exclusive sphere of interest;” such a sphere covers all of the former Soviet countries.

This narrative is only partly true. Russia does see itself as a besieged nation. But that is not because of NATO (or EU) expansion. Russia’s collective memory, stemming from numerous invasions, has led to a permanent belief that Russia is surrounded by hostile forces. And so even as the West seeks to accommodate Russian security concerns, Russia continues to fight like any encircled power would. If Russia will always claim its surrounded, why bother reach accommodation, why not grant NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine? Because the Alliance is at odds on how to respond.

Europe’s leading powers, France and Germany, have so far treated Moscow with kid gloves. Despite pressure from the United States and European allies, Berlin continues to press forward with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russian gas to Europe through the Baltic, bypassing Ukraine. French President Macron has also indicated that Pariswould sacrifice Ukraine and Georgia to bring Russia into a new common European security framework. 

Meanwhile, European allies are still concerned that the United States could return to the NATO-bashing, isolationist stance of the past four years. All of these factors lead Russia to conclude that NATO and the West are in disarray. Moscow can, in the Kremlin’s analysis, can continue attacking the Alliance without any repercussions.

And Russia does seek the destruction of NATO. Moscow has sought to test NATO, running exercises in the Baltic, launching cyber-attacks on NATO members, violating Turkey’s airspace; the list goes on. This is because Russia respects strength, and the Kremlin has not seen any strong responses to its violations of international norms beyond sanctions.

Russia will always seek to test the credibility of NATO, hoping that the Alliance will collapse. With troops already in Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s tests of NATO resolve would be even more dangerous. In one scenario, NATO does not respond to further Russian aggression in its new member states. Disintegration would likely follow. NATO’s demise, a Kremlin policy objective since its foundation, would be achieved. War between nuclear powers is the other scenario. 

Before admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, Russia must realize NATO’s strength has returned. The United States needs to first demonstrate that, no matter what administration or party is in the White House, U.S. support to NATO is unyielding. A consensus must be reached between Berlin, Paris, and Washington on defending Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty, as well as develop strong responses to Russian violations of international norms. One possible step could be, as former commander of U.S. Armed Forces Europe Lt. General (ret.) Ben Hodges suggested, to label any Russian ships coming from occupied Crimea as contraband. Russia needs to understand that there is strong resistance in the West to its actions, and that Ukraine and Georgia will be protected. Once this is achieved, NATO membership should be extended to the two countries. 

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Russian Passportization Poses Long-term Threat to Ukrainian Sovereignty

A major component of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is ‘passportization.’ Passportization is Russia’s policy of offering passports (and citizenship) to residents of occupied territories. In conjunction with the Kremlin’s tactics of sustained disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks, passportization allows Moscow to wage war without risking its own soldiers.

This policy, in combination with Russian disinformation and cyber-attacks fits within an old Soviet strategy of ‘reflexive control.’ Reflexive control is a method in which a (typically weaker) party can influence a partner or opponent into unwittingly choosing bad options by influencing perceptions. From the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin has hidden its true goals from the public; this follows a strategy of reflexive control as Moscow can portray the attainment of actual goals as victory, deny failures, and above all prevent a coherent response from its adversaries.

Thus, in the first year of the conflict, President Putin began speaking of ‘Novorossiya,’ a Russian imperial inventioncomprising the southern third of Ukraine’s territory which holds 45 percent of its population. At the time, the Kremlin likely desired to use the illegitimate Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in the Donbas as a launching pad to create a puppet Russian state across the widely Russian-speaking ‘Novorossiya’ which would link Russian-occupied Transnistria and Crimea with Russia proper. This plan failed when Ukraine secured the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov from Russian-backed separatist forces in mid-2014. Following this defeat, the Kremlin quietly dropped the notion of ‘Novorossiya’ and it was as if the plan never existed.

As President Putin’s dreams of Novorossiya vanished, the Kremlin quietly transformed the crisis into another frozen conflict. Russia’s overall objective, like its policies elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, is to prevent these countries from pursuing integrative policies with the West, or at least separation from Russia. Passportization allows Russia to effectively disrupt integration under the guise of humanitarian assistance. It also provides Russia an opportunity to address its demographic woes as well as provide means of influence in target countries.

In 2019, Russian deaths exceeded births by 316,000. According to some estimates by the United Nations, the Russian population may well contract from a 2020 population of 146.7 million to between 135.8 and 124.6 million by 2050. For Moscow, Ukrainians provide a fellow Slavic population with close historic, linguistic, and religious links that can easily integrate into Russian society and revitalize Russia’s declining population. In part, passportization helps ameliorate Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis by siphoning off other countries’ citizenry.

This passportization policy also enables the Kremlin to meddle with the internal affairs of a country. The most obvious form this takes is by providing the Kremlin a casus belli. Prior to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia had flooded Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russian passports. When Georgian Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili moved to reassert government control over the renegade South Ossetia, Russia responded with invasion, claiming it was defending Russian citizens. 

Moscow has, supposedly for humanitarian reasons, provided over 441,000 Russian passports in the occupied Donbas territories, and facilitated the issuance of over 1.2 million Luhansk and Donetsk passports. And in 2019, President Putin fast-tracked naturalization for any Ukrainian who lived or lives in Ukraine’s east, who works in Russia, and any Ukrainian who was born in Crimea but left prior to the annexation, as well as their families. In the spring of 2020, Russia passed an amendment nullifying restrictions on dual citizenship for Moldovan, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Kazakhstani citizens applying for a Russian passport. 

Russia’s passportization of the Donbas allows it to prepare for two contingencies. The first is to engage openly in war on behalf of its newly minted citizens should Ukraine launch a fresh, Western-backed offensive. The second is to give up the provinces back to Kyiv as poison pills. While Russia’s campaign has bolstered anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, Moscow’s information campaign in the Donbas has painted Ukraine as a gang of fascists. A reincorporated Donbas will thus function as a Ukrainian pressure point for Russia.

By inserting a pro-Russian population into Ukraine, Russia can create a time bomb that could provide Russia a dishonest justification to seize ‘Novorossiya,’ or at least keep Ukraine within Moscow’s orbit. One way that Kyiv can nullify this issue is by providing comprehensive services and assistance to the people in the occupied territories if and when they are recovered. Such assistance would combat Russia’s plans in two ways – it would diminish incentives for Ukrainians to work in Russia as well as show them that Kyiv is not the fascist junta portrayed by the Kremlin. However, for this to work, the West must provide both political and economic support to Kyiv, even after territorial reunification.  

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Moldova’s Political Standoff Jeopardizes Pro-Western Progress

In the, November 2020 Moldovan presidential election, the pro-Western/EU and anti-corruption candidate Maia Sandu widely defeated the incumbent pro-Russian Socialist candidate President Igor Dodon. This political upset was hailed by European and American news as a victory for Western forces in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, and the host of the continent’s oldest frozen conflict. 

Shortly before her inauguration on December 24, Moldova’s Prime Minister Ion Chicu and his cabinet resigned. The decision was made after a discussion between Mr. Chicu and President Dodon on December 23. At the time, a vote of no-confidence in the government, which would have triggered snap parliamentary elections, was scheduled for December 23. By resigning, Mr. Chicu delayed the vote, strengthening the Parliament where President Dodon’s Socialist Party (PSRM) held a one-seat majority in the 101-seat Parliament in an unofficial alliance with the Shor Party. The snap elections are widely predicted to President Sandu’s Party for Action and Solidarity (PAS) the greatest number of seats (though ten short of a majority), followed by the PSRM.

With Prime Minister Ion Chicu’s resignation, President Sandu was required to nominate an interim prime minister from the former cabinet until a new prime minister could be chosen. She could then provide her own nominee for prime minister. If the parliament then failed twice to select a new prime minister, snap elections would have to be held. President Sandu nominated on January 27 the deputy head of the PAS, Natalia Gavrilita, for prime minister. The PAS announced it would not vote for President Sandu’s (or any) nominee so that snap elections could be held. On February 11, the parliament rejected Ms Gavrilita, who did not receive a single vote. They then voted for former Ambassador Marianna Durlesteanu, who received 54 of the 101 votes.

President Sandu renominated Ms Gavrilita hours after rejecting Ambassador Durlesteanu. While President Sandu’s decision was made in order to force another rejection of her candidate and thus trigger snap parliamentary elections to clear the path for her anti-corruption agenda, it may backfire. The PSRM, under Igor Dodon’s leadership, is now appealing her rejection of Ms Durlesteanu as prime minister to the Constitutional Court. This could lead the way for a parliamentary vote to suspend President Sandu from office and initiate a referendum regarding to revoke her mandate.

The PSRM has worked to create controversy for President Sandu, obstructing her efforts to govern. Prior to her inauguration, they with President Dodon, passed a package of eleventh-hour bills to transfer control of the Information and Security Service from the president to the parliament. The organization is responsible for state security, but also is the main government organ dedicated to fighting corruption, a key promise of President Sandu. The PSRM also blocked aid from the International Monetary Fund. 

Additionally, the PSRM voted for a bill to make Russian a state language. The official status of Russian is fraught with history in the majority-Romanian country. Only 14 percent of the population (excluding separatist Transnistria) speak Russian as their primary language, primarily in Gagauzia and Comrat, respectively home to the Turkish-speaking Christian Gagauz and Bulgarians. This Constitutional Court overturned the bill. 

All of the PSRM’s meddling comes amid Mr. Dodon’s recent family trip to Moscow, paid for by the Russian Embassy in Chisinau. While Mr. Dodon has said that he needed an official invitation to Moscow under current Covid-related restrictions (which was untrue), he failed to explain why the embassy paid for the trip. 

This trip seemed to confirm for analysts that the pro-Russian Dodon is in the pocket of Kremlin benefactors. Anatol Taranu, Moldova’s ambassador to Russia from 1993-1994, said that he “find[s] this gesture of the Russian Embassy in Chisinau as indicating that Moscow financially insures Dodon. It is not normal for a foreign state to buy plane tickets for a ruling party leader.” The timing of Mr. Dodon’s visit to Moscow, coinciding with the PSRM’s political offensive against President Sandu, seems to indicate Russia is behind efforts to overturn the 2020 Moldovan election.

The situation in Moldova is precarious, it’s recent pro-Western steps at risk of being erased by pro-Russian forces. The PSRM is calculating it can return to power and restore anti-Western, pro-Russian policies by blaming President Sandu for the problems they themselves created. The West cannot tolerate such anti-democratic behavior on its frontier. The Western countries should thus expand Russian and Romanian language broadcasting in Moldova to demonstrate the PSRM’s culpability in the current political crisis. Should the Kremlin succeed in ousting President Sandu, it is doubtful we will see another pro-Western government again in Moldova. 

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