Moscow’s declaration that it intervened in Ukraine to protect Russian “citizens and compatriots” and would do so again has sent shock waves across former Soviet republics that have large, and often restive, ethnic Russian minorities.
Iurie Leanca, prime minister of Moldova, Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor, warned on a visit to Washington this week that the crisis risks becoming “contagious” if not promptly addressed.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili last week said the dramatic events unfolding in Ukraine underscore the immediate need for the EU to give a “clear promise of membership” to countries like his.
Unless that happens, “this crisis similar to Ukraine will happen again and again,” he told the Atlantic Council during a visit to Washington.
Russia’s justification for intervention is a “dangerous concept,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“Given the tens of millions of Russian speakers living abroad, such a doctrine threatens to radiate tension and instability in numerous countries.”
The warnings and anxieties are firmly rooted in recent history. Russia claimed it was protecting its citizens when it sent its troops into Georgia in 2008 to support rebels in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Before doing so, it sent Russian passports to ethnic Russians in Georgia.
Russia once again is involved in “a number of provocations” against Georgia, Mr. Garibashvili told The Washington Times.
On the eve of last month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia erected barbed wire fences in Abkhazia, explaining it was a temporary measure to expand a security buffer zone around Sochi.
Mr. Garibashvili said Russia has resumed constructing the fence around South Ossetia even after the conclusion of the games. He did not rule out the possibility of an increasingly assertive Russia lashing out at its neighbors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week warned that if Russian-speaking residents in eastern and southern Ukraine ask for help, he will “use all available means to protect those people” and that this would be “absolutely legitimate.”
His foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, sought to justify the Russian intervention in Ukraine as being about the “protection of our citizens and compatriots.”
NATO, which held a special meeting in Brussels this week after Poland expressed alarm about the situation in Ukraine, said the developments “present serious implications for the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.”
Even the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — are getting jittery, even though they are thought to be shielded from Russian adventurism by virtue of their membership in NATO, which they joined in 2004.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which says all NATO member states “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”
Article 4 has been invoked only three other times in the past 65 years — each time by NATO member Turkey during Mideast conflicts since 2003.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves urged the Baltic states to increase defense spending in light of the developments in Ukraine.
The upheaval in Ukraine “sends a clear signal to Estonia and the [other] Baltic States: We must invest more in our national defense,” he said last week at the Baltic Defense College in Tartu, Estonia.
In April and May 2007, pro-Kremlin hackers unleashed cyberattacks that crippled government and corporate websites in Estonia for weeks. The cyberattacks followed Estonia’s decision to move a Soviet-era World War II memorial from downtown Tallinn that provoked an angry response from Moscow and violence in Estonia’s ethnic Russian population.
Estonian authorities blamed Russia for the attack, but Moscow denied the allegation.
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus are among the more vulnerable states to Russian threats, said Steven Bucci, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
“This idea of protecting your ethnic cousins in the way that Putin is claiming to do in the Crimea is a time-honored tradition,” said Mr. Bucci. “It worked for Hitler.”