The current crisis in Crimea might remind one of the old Soviet days that we all believed to be a thing of the past. The Sochi Olympics were supposed to be an attempt to showcase a new Russia: a Russia that has shed the stereotypes of the Cold War and that is ready to make a name for itself in the global arena. Instead of heading down the path to modernization and integration into the global economy, Putin did the unthinkable and annexed Crimea.
The question that lingers now is, who is next?
Moldova is likely. Transnistria, an area consisting mostly of ethnic Russians, claimed independence from Moldova in 1990 and is reaching out to Russia. In 1992, Russia and Moldova had a spat that led to Russian peacekeepers entering Transnistria. Transnistria has twice now asked to join Russia, and Putin might take them up on the offer. Transnistria borders Western Ukraine, and the Ukrainian city of Odessa lies nearby on the coast of the Black Sea. Putin could potentially move his troops from Transnistria into Odessa and block Kiev from the sea, cutting off any chances of Ukrainian energy independence.
The Baltic States have always been a desirable asset throughout Russian history, and still are today. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are the only three former Soviet states to be included in NATO, and did so because of fear of Russia. NATO refused to station troops in the Baltic countries or create defense plans in fear of provoking Russia. Since 2009, Russia has doubled its troops in the Baltic region. There is a large number of ethnic Russians in the Baltics, and Putin might use this as an excuse to come into the region. If Putin does decide to invade however, NATO will be forced to intervene.
The South Caucasus states should be afraid of Putin. The countries of the Caucasus region link Eurasian gas to Europe, and this is a vital strategic area for Russia. We saw Russia’s first act of aggression in 2008 with the detaching of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Tbilisi’s control. Georgia, like Ukraine, had expressed interest in joining NATO. Armenia has links with Russia, but Azerbaijan is another state in this region that is understandably nervous. Out of all the ex-Soviet states, it is the third largest oil producer, and a major energy supplier of the EU. This area will be of major importance to Putin, and it would not be a surprise if he did not show interest in the region.
It is highly unlikely that Putin will invade Finland, but the Finns are still worried. The Russians have staged military drills near the Finnish-Russian border, and a former adviser to Putin claimed that Putin’s intentions are to reclaim the lands that were once Russian. Finland is not a NATO member, so NATO would not be obligated to defend the Finns. It is however a member of the European Union, and any military action would provoke major backlash from the Europeans. Despite the fact that Putin might desire Finland, the risks of an invasion are very minimal.
Northern Kazakhstan has a large population of ethnic Russians. Despite the fact that Kazakhstan and Russia have a strong alliance, Kazakhstan is worried that Russia will not respect its territorial integrity. Kazakhstan’s president Nazerbayev is leery of angering Putin, but he does not want Kazakhstan to become Russia’s next reintegration project.
Putin claims that no one is next on the list. We cannot quite figure out how Putin’s mind works; is he acting as an opportunist, or does he have a grand plan to reclaim what once belonged to Russia? Perhaps the aggression will stop with Crimea. The only thing we can know for certain is that he cannot be trusted. Putin is wildly unpredictable, and only time will tell what he will do next.