Russian President Vladimir Putin said categorically on Tuesday that Moscow has no intention of repeating the support that led to Crimea's reported decision to leave Ukraine.
"Don't believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other [Ukrainian] regions will follow after Crimea. We do not want a partition of Ukraine, we do not need this,” Putin said before a cheering joint session of the Russian legislature on Tuesday.
But that promise may not extend elsewhere along Russia's European borders, known in foreign policy circles as the country's “near abroad." Its latest moves in Crimea, along with its 2008 invasion of Georgia, signal the former Soviet power could be positioning itself to reclaim the geographic influence it wielded for the latter half of the 20th century.
Veteran foreign service officer William Miller served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has seen these maneuvers from Russia before.
“They’re nibbling away at the so-called ‘frozen conflicts,’” Miller says. “They’re nibbling away at Georgia, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
Russia’s keen interest extends into Moldova and throughout the Caucasus, says Miller, who served as ambassador under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1998. “These are all areas in which ethnic conflict and other causes can erupt and will be stimulated.”
Miller points to Crimea’s original constitutional crisis in the early 1990s, when Russia backed local citizens' overwhelming vote to become an independent state. It eventually became a part of Ukraine following negotiations between Clinton and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, though Russia’s Black Sea Fleet remained docked at its shores.
“It’s a mirror image of what’s happened just now,” Miller says.
All regional states have good reason to be worried about Russian intervention, he says, but not as much as former Soviet states do.
“It has obviously been a part of Russian thinking since the end of the Soviet Union that the ‘near abroad’ should return, and Ukraine is seen as a key factor in a restored Russian state," he says.
Putin’s goodwill sentiments Tuesday have done little to quell the concerns of regional powers, who see the military intervention in Crimea as a harbinger of yet another slow creep of Russian influence west and south across the continent.
Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are in “great danger,” Romanian President Traian Basescu said in a Monday interview with The Associated Press, pointing to the social instability in those countries that Russia might try to use to its advantage. A “chain of frozen conflicts” around the Black Sea “can be set off at any time,” he said.
The Russian government is considering how it will handle the Transnistria region in eastern Moldova at the Ukrainian border, which wishes to separate and become a part of Russia, Moldovan news service AllMoldova reports. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the situation will “become even more complicated if Moldova will sign the [Association] Agreement with the European Union,” solidifying its economic relationship with the organization. Ukraine was on a similar trajectory with the EU late last year until pressure from Moscow forced ousted President Viktor Yanukovych to turn instead to a Russian bailout.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Tuesday the crisis in Ukraine represents a threat for the whole of Europe.
“Both Estonia as well as Poland understand that this is not just an issue of Crimea, of the relations between Ukraine and Russia,” Ilves said while visiting Poland, according to the Estonian public broadcasting station. “It is a geopolitical shift that will, at least for the immediate future, change the entire security situation in Europe and the interaction of democratic states with Russia.”