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Eastern Europe

Blueprint for Russian expansionism

Russia is responsible for the protection of all Russians no matter where they live, comes the message from Moscow. That strikes fear into its former Soviet Republics - and reminds them of recent history.

There are flowers - bouquets and single roses - near the fence of the Ukrainian embassy in Riga, Latvia's capital. Demonstrators have put them there to protest Russian intervention in Crimea. Many Latvian feel close to the crisis in Ukraine. And they're concerned.

"In 1991, we were also threatened by Russian tanks," says a passer-by, recalling Moscow's attempts to prevent Latvia's independence efforts after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Historically and ethnically, Latvia's situation is comparable in some respects to Ukraine's. Latvia also has a large Russian minority: nearly 27 percent of its population generally, and in the capital, upwards of 50 percent. Most of them arrived in Latvia during the Soviet era.

Latvia's fear of Russia

Today, Latvia's society is virtually divided, says Latvian sociologist Arnis Kaktnis. There are Latvian schools and Russian schools. Russian-speaking Latvians have their own theaters and their own media, the latter of which reports its own reality of the crisis in Crimea. Russian media, primarily financed by Moscow, praise the intervention in Crimea - all while the Latvian press reports on protests against Vladimir Putin in Riga.

Young people in Russian military uniforms and Russian flags walk in the street
(Foto: Gederts Gelzis/DW)

Russians in Latvia are proud to be Russian but prefer to stay in Latvia

"The Russians in the country admire Putin and love Russia. The Latvians on the other hand are very afraid of Russia, due to the traumatic history," said Kaktins in an interview with DW.

Norbert Beckmann-Dierkes, who directs the German non-profit Konrad-Adenauer Foundation office in Riga, says those recollections are vivid.

"Latvia's remembrance and the collective memory of Soviet policy after 1940 is still very much alive, and the older people especially clearly express that Russian policy on Crimea reminds them of that time," he told DW.

That said, as a member of NATO and the EU, "the Latvians feel secure and trust that the alliance will be helpful."

NATO-EU insurance policy

The situation in the Baltic states differs, however, from that in Crimea.

"The Russian speaking population [in Latvia] clearly says, 'We're Russian.' But they also say, 'We want to stay in Latvia, we don't want to go back to Russia'," said Beckmann-Dierkes. More than anything, they don't want give up the advantages Latvia offers them as an EU member, he says.

For Sabine Fischer at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Crimea-like development in the Baltic states is unlikely.

"The Baltic states have been NATO members since 1999 and EU members since 2004," the political scientist told DW. "Here, there are facts which have been established which make it too dangerous for Russia to escalate the situation in the Baltic states.

But the situation in the Republic of Moldova, she says, is different.

Crimea a second Transnistria?

For Moldova, the former Soviet satellite at the far east of Europe, Ukraine's current predicament has been reality for 22 years. In 1992, Russian separatists declared an independent state, the Republic of Transnistria, after a short secessionist war east of the Dniester River. It is not internationally recognized. Russian troops of the 14th Army, officially a peace operation, have been stationed in Transnistria ever since. The territory, just 200 kilometers (124 miles) by and six kilometers wide, is economically dependent on Russia.

The conflict in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, "will have negative effects on the situation of the Republic of Moldova and the Transnistria conflict," says Sabine Fischer. "It is very likely that, in the coming months, Moscow will try to exploit that conflict even more."

The political scientist added that Moscow will be watching Moldova as the latter plans to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in August.

New fears in Moldova

Mike Rogers, chairman of the US Committee on Intelligence, has come to the same conclusion. He believes Putin wants to strengthen and expand the buffer zone around Russia.

"His next target will be the Republic of Moldova, and other regions will follow," he said during a television interview. In the light of the developments in Ukraine, the fear of Russian intervention has increased in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital.

A border post at the automous region of Gagauzia
(Foto: Julia Semenova/DW)

Moldavians in the autonomous region of Gagauzia voted to join Russia in a referendum

Recent events in southern Moldova are adding to those worries. In February, the autonomous region of Gagauzia voted by an overwhelming 98.5-percent majority for a tariff union with Russia. That result recalls the Soviet era, and observers don't rule out that Moscow was involved.

But if Gagauzia asks Moscow for military protection, the Crimea crisis could become the blueprint for an expansionist Russian policy there.

For former Soviet Republics, there's another warning sign: Russia is considering a law which would ease access to Russian citizenship for the Russian-speaking populations of the former Soviet satellite states.

For Latvian political researcher Andirs Spruds from the n-ost Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe, the international community cannot be inactive when it comes to Russia's actions in Crimea, since doing so would only encourage Russia to "defend" the Russian-speaking population. Its motto, he says: "Nobody reacts - then we'll occupy the next country."

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