Expert on Russian Politics Talks Putin, Ukraine and the Future of Transnistria

Released: 2-Apr-2014 3:00 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Vermont
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Newswise — Not that she likes saying it, but “well played” is Michele Commercio’s assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suspiciously quick and successful takeover of the Crimean peninsula in late March. “He’s pulled off quite a stunt,” she says. Commercio, who was recently interviewed by Voice of America on the potential fate of the Baltic States, specializes in comparative politics, focusing on issues related to regime transition and ethnic politics in post-Soviet states. University of Vermont associate professor of political science, she is the author of Russian Minority Politics in Post-Soviet Latvia and Kyrgyzstan: The Transformative Power of Informal Networks, published in 2010 by University of Pennsylvania Press. Commercio earned her doctorate from Penn, after obtaining a master of science from the London School of Economics. With Cold War dynamics shifting from a spot on the historical timeline to the top of the news, we talked with Commercio about recent events, where they’re likely to head and what options are open to the West.

What do you think President Putin’s motivation is for taking Crimea?

Michele Commercio: I think he’s been quite clear since he first became president in 2000 that he views the collapse of the Soviet Union, as he famously said, “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Seizing Crimea was a window of opportunity -- one he may or may not have helped create -- to acquire lost territory that used to belong to Russia, redressing a historical legacy he inherited.

It’s about a leader who feels that his country was humiliated. He saw his country contract dramatically and he has grievances over the West’s attempt to exert influence over what Putin views as his backyard. What he did was quite rational from his point of view. I don’t think any other Russian leader would have done this differently. In terms of international relations, the one thing that states will not do on a voluntary basis is contract. It’s a sign of weakness. And whenever possible they will expand. Putin saw an opportunity, and he grabbed it.

How far do you think he might go? NATO's top military commander said the Russian force at the eastern Ukrainian border was "very, very sizable and very, very ready."

I don’t think he’ll go further in Ukraine because western Ukraine is very pro-European Union. Eastern Ukraine, the area that’s heavily populated by ethnic Russians as well as Russian speakers, would be difficult to annex and would be a step that would be considered by the West to be an international crisis. He absolutely won’t touch the Baltic States because they’re members of the EU and NATO, and they don’t want him there. Crimea was just this little peninsula where Russia already had its Black Sea fleet. Who knows how legitimate the referendum results were, but the people did vote for annexation. I think the troops are there to remind the world that this is Russia’s sphere of influence.

Some have said that it would be easy for Putin to take Transnistria.

I think that’s the only place he might go. The brief story behind Transnistria is that it’s a region of Moldova populated by ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Transnistria fought a war for independence from Moldova, and Russia jumped right in, offered aid and that was the end of it. Now Transnistria is an autonomous republic within Moldova. No one recognizes it as an independent state, but that’s how it operates. The troops that Russia sent in 1992 were supposed to have been withdrawn, but they never left. Moldova is similar to Ukraine and Georgia in the sense that these three post-Soviet states are really trying to figure out their identity -- are they going to go East or West? But Transnistria has been acting as an independent state. It’s extremely poverty-stricken -- Putin has been paying the pensions of the residents since he came into office. Prior to that, no one was paying the pensions. So there’s strong support in Transnistria for Russia, and Putin would gain a bit of state expansion.

He’d really have to weigh it, though, because now he’s got this Crimean project, which is very expensive. He’s promised to pay higher pensions and salaries to Crimeans, and he has to build infrastructure -- including a bridge to Russia. On the other hand, he’s establishing an entire ministry to deal with incorporating Crimea into Russia. He’s got money, he’s staffing the ministry…. Many Transnistrians have Russian passports, he’s already paying their pensions, there are Russian troops there, so the groundwork has been laid. He might be too busy -- that’s one argument. The other argument is to do it while the international community is down; they don’t know how to handle you, so just snatch it.

Russia is increasing the price of gas sent to the Ukraine fairly dramatically. Why are they doing that?

Punishing western Ukraine. Ukraine, I believe, gets all of its natural gas from Russia, whose main gas company, Gazprom, is state-owned. They’re really warning Ukraine, basically: don’t go to NATO. Russia’s argument has been clear in terms of the Ukraine and Georgia. We don’t want NATO in our sphere of influence.

What options do the U.S. and Europe have right now?

One of the problems with sanctions is that the U.S. is all gung ho, at least in terms of rhetoric, but in reality, the American business community is starting to express concern that wider sanctions will adversely affect American businesses operating in Russia. And there’s far more European investment in Russian, so they’re really worried about the potential impacts of wider sanctions on their economies. Europe is also dependent on Russia for its gas imports. So the sanction route is limited. I don’t think we’ll see sanctions go much further than where they are now, and they’re not a game changer.

The West has a predicament because basically Crimea is a done deal. In terms of preventing future actions, the West might just want to say to itself that this part of the world really isn’t in the Western orbit; it really is Russia’s sphere of influence. If these small republics really want to become part of Russia, is that the end of the world? Go to war over Transnistria? Bottom line is the West really doesn’t care about Transnistria. It really doesn’t care about Crimea. But you could argue that this is a form of appeasement, and it’s risky, right? The notion of appeasement terrifies the international community.

Another thing that hinders the West is Russia’s seat on the U.N. permanent Security Council. Russia is a powerful country. And the bottom line is the West needs Russia. It needs its intelligence, it needs its help in parts of the world where the West doesn’t have very much influence -- like Syria and Iran. Russia’s economy is absolutely part of the global economy. It can’t afford to be ousted from the global economy entirely. If it can’t export its gas and oil, it’s sunk. But the world needs its gas and oil -- that’s just a reality. At this point you could argue that the West needs Russia more than Russia needs the West.

Putin is really savvy. He’s really savvy. I think the international community definitely underestimated him. Now they know.


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