Russia is facing a barrage of sanctions and threats of an appropriate response from the West, but security and diplomatic experts on both sides of the divide have suggested that President Vladimir Putin may not stop at Ukraine.
Putin’s recent speeches and statements indicate that Ukraine might just be part of his bigger ambition to restore some of Russia’s past glory. He has been deeply hurt by the way the end of the Cold War ended the Soviet Union and Russia’s global influence.
With the invasion of Ukraine, Putin now believes he has a strategic buffer between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) to further his security interest and pursue the Great Russian Dream.
Nato had been expanding rapidly bringing many Soviet constituents (in his neighbourhood in eastern Europe) into the US-dominated military alliance. Having invaded Ukraine, an emboldened Putin may continue trying to redefine post-Cold War security and border arrangements, experts have said.
WORRY AFTER SHOCK
Vladimir Pastuhhov, senior research associate, University College London, has said Putin looks more like Ayatollah (Iran’s supreme religious leader) who is showing religious zeal to ensure his place in history books.
“He will do everything to go beyond Ukraine if he can,” Pastuhhov has told BBC.
William Taylor, former US ambassador to Ukraine, has also said that an emboldened Russia is unlikely to stop merely at its Soviet-era constituent Ukraine. Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic will be very concerned as they see Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine, Taylor has said in an interview.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also shocked Baltic countries that joined Nato in 2004 and have backed Ukraine in the current conflict. Multiple reports show that many Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, who once lived under Soviet control, fear that they could be the next Russian target.
James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, has said the Balkans is vulnerable now. “The Balkans is less watched over by the West, and thus, could be next Russian targets. Hungary and Serbia, for example, are willing supplicants already.”
A Russian-speaking separatist region in Moldova called Trans-Dniester could be another flashpoint as the communist leadership there is pro-Russia. Nato has termed the Moldova situation worrisome.
When Russia invaded another former Soviet republic, Georgia, in 2008, it said its use of force was needed to save Osseitians from Georgian genocide. However, not much legal justification was found later.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a swath of Ukraine territory between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine failed to provide a military response, and Russia invaded it despite assurances of not doing so. This
Putin has also been aggressive toward other neighbours and former Soviet states like Belarus. Putin believes Russia is an empire, and like Ukraine, Belarus is no state and must be reunited with Russia. Putin has used Belarus’s territory to enter Ukraine.
SOVIET COMMANDERS ECSTATIC
News reports have also quoted several former commanders of the erstwhile Soviet Army as saying that Ukraine won’t be the only country to return to Russia. Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and some others will do the same, the former commanders have said.
And the strategy, according to them, will be similar to the one seen in Ukraine:
-Recognise rebel-influenced regions’ independence.
-Send forces there.
-Have a referendum and expand Russia’s boundary.
“The 1990s could not kill us, it made us stronger. Nato will have to retreat,” a former commander of the erstwhile Soviet Army has been quoted as saying.
NO IMMEDIATE THREAT OF WAR WITH THE US
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Nato is ramping up its presence in eastern Europe but has no plans to enter Ukraine. The US has also said its forces won’t engage the Russians unless a Nato member-country is under attack.
However, it’s strengthening its military presence in Russia’s neighbourhood: Poland and Romania.
The Nato charter mandating all allies to defend any member under attack will be a deterrent for Putin, but those countries’ will to fight has to be there.
“It’s a battle for Europe. Putin would want to go further,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has warned.
WHY SANCTIONS MAY NOT REALLY DETER RUSSIA
Putin has indicated he will absorb sanctions from the West to further his security interests in eastern Europe. He believes Russia’s financial systems, hit with sanctions in 2014 after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, have made adjustments — reducing foreign debt, besides boosting foreign currency reserves and domestic agricultural output and production in other sectors — to withstand further isolation.
“We knew sanctions would come. The West has repeatedly used this tool. Sanctions don’t mean anything,” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told BBC.
What about Russia’s reputation in the West?
“What about the reputation of the West itself? It’s soaked in blood,” Maria Zakharova said.
Researcher Vladimir Pastuhhov also says the West thinks sanctions will be a game-changer, but Putin is firm.
SUSPENSE AND TENSION
As of now, there is little clarity regarding how things will pan out. For the record, the Kremlin has said Putin will decide how long the military operation in Ukraine would last “based on its progress and aims”.
“Putin’s favourite tool is suspense; he loves maintaining tension,” Lilia Shevtsova, who wrote the book Putin’s Russia, told BBC.