NATO-Ukrainian Moldova Gambit

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by Gordon M. Hahn

 For the Kremlin, a threatening convergence of events occurred last week in Ukraine and Moldova. First, NATO organized a military exercise in the Black Sea and Odessa, Ukraine, the scenario of which targeted Russia. Second, Weimar-like Maidan Ukraine, still plagued by a grave democracy deficit little better than Russia’s own and a creeping neo-fascist takeover, took steps with Moldova to set the stage for a blockade of the latter’s breakaway republic of Transdniestr, whose largely ethnic Russian separatists were backed by Moscow in the early 1990s creating the breakaway republic in what is a frozen conflict ongoing for nearly a quarter of a century. Third, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine and former US ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, issued some heated rhetoric in a visit to the Ukrainian side of the Donbass front, blaming exclusively Russia and “Russian aggression” for a separatist crisis that Kiev escalated into war in April 2014 with a declaration of war on Donbass it called a ‘counter-terrorist operation. He added: “Our main task is to restore the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine” (http://112.international/conflict-in-eastern-ukraine/theres-not-frozen-conflict-but-hot-war-in-donbas-us-special-representative-19183.html). The State Department issued a statement using the same language, noting that Volker would be in Kiev today to meet with Ukrainian officials “to discuss the path to restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (www.rferl.org/a/us-special-envoy-blames-russia-for-hot-war-eastern-ukraine/28633649.html). It is important to note that in February 2015 Volker recommended deploying NATO troops to “Moldova, Romania, and western Ukraine near Transnistria” (http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/18/lets-call-the-ukrainian-cease-fire-what-it-is-russia-putin/).

Such an approach is unlikely to translate the new American role in resolution of the conflict into an actual resolution of the conflict. To the contrary, it is only likely to escalate the conflict, risking the same kind of blind support for anti-Russian nationalists that helped spark the February 2014 revolt and overthrow that created the Crimean and Donbass crises and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s miscalculation in starting the August 2008 war in Georgia. John R. Haines notes: “It is possible that a metastatic conflict in eastern Ukraine might spread west to reignite smoldering separatism in the eastern Moldovan territory” (www.fpri.org/article/2015/03/between-two-fires-ukraine-amidst-transdniestria-and-the-donbas/#_ftn5). Events could unfold in reverse fashion, with the frozen conflict in Moldova/Transdniestr reigniting the largely frozen conflict in Donbass, Crimea and perhaps elsewhere in Ukraine.

There should be little doubt that the Kremlin will view these simultaneously-occurring events as likely part of a single whole–a coordinated effort to put pieces in place for an unfreezing of both the Donbass and Transdniestr frozen conflicts frozen since 1993. This risks a possible military-political or purely military gambit on the part of Kiev and and/or an overreaction on Moscow’s part.

NATO’s Sea Breeze 2017 military exercises and the accompanying strategic communications campaign clearly targeted Moscow. For NATO’s stratcomm threatening Russia https://twitter.com/RFERL/status/887341244556365824 and http://www.rferl.org/a/odesa-exercise/28612801.html). NATO’s stratcomm video explicitly states that the exercises are intended to prepare for conflict with Russia and continues the Western distortion of historical reality by claiming that the instability in Ukraine “began” with Moscow’s move into and reunification of Crimea with Russia, leaving out the Western-supported Orange and Maidan regime change ‘color revolutions’ of 2004-05 and 2013-14, respectively. This distortion will also further underscore the impression that Western democracy-promotion programs are intended to bring NATO-friendly factions to power in post-Soviet states in order to continue NATO’s continuing march along Russia’s borders. Almost simultaneously in mid-July, 25,000 NATO forces from 20 countries held exercises called ‘Saber Guardian in Ukraine’s neighbor Hungary as well as Bulgaria and Romania (https://twitter.com/hashtag/SaberGuardian?src=hash). 

At the same time, these exercises were occurring tens of miles from Russian territory on lands historically Russian territory, Ukraine and Moldova opened up the first of 14 planned joint border check and customs posts along the border of Kishinev’s breakaway republic of Transdniestr. Beleaguered Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko demonstratively visited the first border post’s opening with Moldovan prime minister Pavel Filip with tens of television cameras in tow on July 17th. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine is prepared to do the maximum to facilitate the restoration of Moldova’s territorial integrity” (https://novostipmr.com/ru/news/17-07-18/ignatev-proslezhivaetsya-chyotkaya-strategiya-po-razzhiganiyu). 

Moldova has been a constant focus of the NATO-Russia security dilemma for some time, and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border installations will make a blockade of breakaway Transdniestr possible. This will be seen in Transdniestr and Moscow as setting the stage for a coercive reintegration of the breakaway republic. Moldova’s newly elected president Igor Didon initially signaled that he would oppose NATO’s presence in Moldova, sparking outrage from the opposition. The Moldovan regime is deeply split between pro-Russian, pro-European/pro-Rumanian elements, much as Ukraine’s pre-Maidan elite was. Now Didon appears to be counterbalancing his anti-NATO policy with an anti-Russian measure or at least acquiescing to the latter under domestic pressure. Transdniestr President Vadim Krasnoselskii called the border gambit an effort by Moldova to prepare for NATO membership and a “hit against Russian interests” (www.ng.ru/cis/2017-07-18/1_7031_moldova.html). NATO is reluctant and in some sense has a policy of rejecting membership to states that have a ‘stateness’ or territorial integrity issue. Moldova’s lack of control over its eastern border in Slav-, mostly Russian-dominated Transdniestr mirrors Ukraine’s situation in Donbass, minus its slow-burning civil and Western-Russian proxy war. 

The Transdniestr issue is closely related to Ukraine as well as Russia. There is a substantial ethnic Ukrainian population in the region and it borders Ukraine precisely near Odessa. Thus, Krasnoselskii noted: “There are 220 thousand Russian citizens in Transdniestr. It is precisely in relation to them that passage to Odessa Oblast will be limited, and their rights violated.” He promised to “insist on their rights” and hoped “Russia will not abandon its citizens.” Moscow has made Russian passports available to residents of Transdniestr in its effort since the 1990s to support the breakaway republic’s economy by among other things giving Transdniestrians access to Russia’s welfare and pension systems.

Ukraine may be acting to prevent Russian troublemakers from entering Odessa through Transdniestria. However, Odessa has enough ‘troublemakers’ of its own. On 2 May 2014, the Donbass civil war became all but unavoidable after Ukrainian ultra-nationalists burned alive and otherwise killed over 40 anti-Maidan activists in Odessa’s Trade Union House. Odessa is perhaps the most pro-Russian oblast (region) in Ukraine’s most pro-Russian mega-region — the southern mega-region (excluding Donbass and Crimea) that besides Odessa includes Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, and Kherson. According to a recent Ukrainian opinion poll, by May 2017 68.5 percent of respondents in the south had a positive opinion of Russia, 19.2 percent a negative. In the Ukrainian nationalist west, the percentages were 24.7 and 55.9, respectively. At the same time, 72 percent of respondents in the south think that Ukraine and Russia should be independent but friendly states with open borders, no visas and customs observed, while only 21 percent think that relations between the two countries should be the same as with other countries. For comparison in the Ukrainian nationalist western mega-region 27 percent support open borders, no visas, and customs in relations with Russia, and 65 percent support closed borders, visas and customs relations (http://kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=707&page=1). Thus, the southern region’s support for Russia almost attain levels in separatist Crimea and Donbass and differ sharply from western Ukraine, which is the crucial pillar of Kiev’s Maidan regime. 

Ukraine’s border efforts with Moldova could further limit the south’s support for Kiev and are very liekly to escalate Kiev’s confrontation with Russia, an escalation apparently supported by Washington and Brussels. Kremlin defense strategists will see the risk of the Moldova-Transdniestr ‘frozen conflict’ heating up, threatening a Transdniestr blockade and a broader conflict with Ukraine that could draw in NATO and challenge Moscow’s renewed control of Crimea. Even Russia’s pro-democracy, pro-Western independent newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta interpreted the Ukrainan-Moldovan gambit as “Moldova beginning the coercive reintegration of Transdniestr” and “opening up a road for itself to NATO” membership (www.ng.ru/cis/2017-07-18/1_7031_moldova.html). 

The Ukrainian effect on the Moldovan crisis goes beyond the aggravation of tensions on the ground. Ukraine is a mediating member along with Russia and the OSCE in the 2+5 group that serves as a forum for resolving the conflict along with the conflict’s parties Moldova and Transdniestr and the US and EU as observers. With Ukraine and Russia virtually at war, the 2+5 format is dead in the water, making rising tensions and restart of the conflict more likely, putting aside provocations on the ground. 

The Moldovan events occur on the background of NATO’s military buildup across Eastern Europe and along Russia’s borders, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Ukraine Rada’s decision to amend Ukrainian law positing that NATO membership is the central goal of the country’s defense doctrine, Poroshenko’s assertions of NATO’s importance to Ukraine and Ukraine for NATO during NATO Secretary General Staltenberg’s recent visit to Kiev, and the Trump administration’s appointment of former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker as special envoy to Kiev, and . The Trump administration would do well to put an end to such provocative military and political gambits as well as to NATO expansion in general, for the Russian response can be an overreaction. Already, Moscow has Russian military maneuvers scheduled in northeast Russian bordering the Baltic states and could be behind the recent announcement by separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) leader of the breakaway region’s establishment of a the state of Malorossiya, which seems to threaten a greater territorial writ for the rebels. The fact that the other separatist region, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), refused to join the DNR’s Malorossiya project suggests that either Moscow was not behind the DNR move or that Moscow has less leverage over either the DNR or LNR or both than thought by most.

Unfortunately, owing to his vast inexperience in global affairs, the US president lacks his own national security, European-Eurasian and Russia policy vision and strategy. In lieu of said, he is being influenced even more than was his predecessor by a cohort of pro-NATO expansion national security and military advisors. Many of these advisors were appointed by Trump guided by desire to ‘show toughness’ and a ‘new resolve’ supposedly needed to ‘make America great again’ and counter charges he was doing Putin’s bidding. Trump’s input is largely limited to the shaping of appearances for media consumption, partially implemented by means of tweets and more traditional strategic communications/ propaganda measures. The optics of seemingly friendly meetings with Putin and efforts to limit uncertainty between the two nuclear powers in Syria and Ukraine do not amount to a policy let alone a strategy. Others in the administration likely have a vision and a strategy and control levers they can use to implement it or face Trump with a set of fait accomplis forcing him to do so.

So NATO expansion has defined the US elite’s geopolitical vision and strategy as well as US-Russian relations and the US-Russian and larger Western-Russian relationship and their futures since the early 1990s. It continues to do so today to the detriment of Western-Russian comity and international stability and security.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com; a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, and three well-received published books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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About Gordon M. Hahn