While Russian President Vladimir Putin is focused on Ukraine now, his goals are broader. He is intent on keeping Russia’s neighbors looking to Moscow, and not to the West. He also wants to ensure those neighbors do not become successful democracies—i.e., possible inspirations to Russians to question his corrupt and authoritarian rule.
The possibility that Putin will order a massive invasion of Ukraine is a tacit admission that his tactics to coerce the smaller country into accepting Russian hegemony are not working. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reaffirmed his country’s interest in seeking NATO membership after a week in which the rhetoric from him and other Ukrainian officials suggested that position might have softened.
Just because Ukraine is standing strong, however, doesn’t mean other victims of Putin’s bullying are or can. While he has yet to bully or coerce Ukraine into submitting to his whims, he has solidified his power and influence over other neighbors, and established himself as the sole arbiter of security in Russia’s region (with the exceptions of the states that were lucky enough to have been accepted into NATO).
For Putin, preventing neighbors from adopting Western, democratic standards, and forcing them to stay in the Russian orbit are existential. His narrative of Eurasian exceptionalism—that liberalism is incompatible with Russian history—will collapse if other countries with a similar history succeed in establishing Western-style liberal democracy. The recognition of this free, democratic threat to his rule, and therefore to his personal enrichment as well, spurred his 2007 plan to create a Eurasian Union. It was designed as a counterbalance to the European Union in a number of ways, not least as a community of political and cultural values distinct from those of the West.
Putin has called the West’s idea of liberalism “obsolete” and its tolerance of multiculturalism and homosexuality anathema to the values of people in Eurasia. The Eurasian Union never amounted to much, but the neo-imperial policy behind it has been frighteningly successful.
Aleksandr Lukashenko, dictator of Belarus, once adroitly maneuvered between West and Russia, playing each against the other. Not anymore. He is now firmly in Putin’s thrall, meekly agreeing to host Russia’s 30,000-strong strike force against Kyiv on Belarus’ border with Ukraine. On Sunday, Russian military leaders announced that their forces would remain in Belarus indefinitely, extending the threat of a Russian-led military assault from Ukraine’s north. This announcement also reflects how Lukashenko has sacrificed Belarus’ independence and sovereignty in exchange for life-saving support from Putin, against the will of the Belarusian people.
Last month, amid what may have been an intra-governmental power struggle, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was forced to request a Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) unit to quell anti-government riots, putting him firmly in Putin’s debt. Tokayev was in Moscow last week to kiss Putin’s ring. In the South Caucasus, after negotiating a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region, Putin compelled both sides to accept a long-term Russian peacekeeping force, elbowing out the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which Russia had once agreed would field the operation.
Most surprisingly, the country with the strongest public support for joining NATO, Georgia, has also been doing its best to appease Russia. Where once it welcomed Russia’s dissident freedom fighters, it has recently, and without explanation, turned away at least three prominent critics of Putin and supporters of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksey Navalny. Unlike Ukraine’s other partners, Georgia has not provided material support for Ukraine’s defense and the Georgian Prime Minister has not even called his Ukrainian counterpart. In a development widely seen as appeasement, a recent draft resolution in parliament about the crisis does not even mention Russia.
Apart from Ukraine, the other standout has been Moldova. The pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, after winning the presidential election in 2020 and leading her party to victory in last July’s parliamentary elections, has stood tall against Russian pressure, including threats to cut off gas at the end of last year.
Nearly eighty years ago, George Kennan wrote, “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.” While Western attention appropriately remains centered on Ukraine, we must not forget about the region’s other nations, whose democratic aspirations are being crushed by Russian domination.