Who could be next?
As Russia’s invasion force grinds further into Ukraine, other post-Soviet countries also have reason to fear for their future.
Five countries besides Ukraine—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova—are classified by the EU as its neighbors in the Eastern Partnership. Three of them marked the thirtieth anniversary of their accession to the United Nations on Wednesday, March 2. Yet they are still stuck in a grey zone, outside the EU and NATO.
There is much to be said about the failures of governance and flawed institutions in all these countries. But three decades after the fall of the USSR, they are all fully-fledged sovereign states. The hideous paradox is that even in the worst days of their fragile statehood in the 1990s, none of these countries faced the challenge to its very existence that Ukraine confronts in 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin is no longer just revisiting 1991, he is sending us back to 1939, or even 1918, when an imperial power could roll its army into a neighboring state.
Overnight the EU has to change a neighborhood policy focused on incremental reform into one that is about the survival of these countries as states.
It’s worth considering the vulnerabilities of these five countries and how each can be supported.
In Belarus, the Russian takeover has already happened. It is Moscow’s full military partner in the new war. Amid the carnage in Ukraine it is easy to overlook that Russia has now effectively swallowed Belarus whole and that it is lost to Europe for the foreseeable future. A country of nine million people has now surrendered its independence. Yet just eighteen months ago it experienced a democratic uprising that almost toppled President Alexander Lukashenko. How different would it be if those mass protests had succeeded? The EU must continue to support Belarus’s brave democratic opposition, but it is a very long haul.
Russia wields an awful lot of power in Armenia, which is a member of Russian-led military and economic blocs, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia now also effectively runs the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorny Karabakh after the end of the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power wanting to move Armenia toward Europe. In his quixotic populism, he resembles no one in the post-Soviet space so much as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But Ukraine and Armenia are on different sides of the geopolitical divide. It was an achievement that Armenia even managed to abstain in the United Nations General Assembly vote denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 2, 2022.
One Armenian expert describes the prime minister as being a “useful trophy for Putin” as the man who committed to implementing the Russian-imposed ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war. But Russia has many longer-term economic and political levers in Armenia it can use—and many useful friends such as former president and opposition leader Robert Kocharyan.
The EU, through its Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), and also the Armenian diaspora organizations that opposed Pashinyan because of the 2020 war, should now move to explicitly support the country’s democratically elected government.
Azerbaijan balances uncomfortably between Russia and Ukraine. President Ilham Aliyev traveled to Kyiv in January. Then he was summoned to Moscow just two days before the Russian invasion to sign an already drafted “cooperation” agreement with Putin. The optics were horrendous for Aliyev, but it did provide him with some guarantees. The first point of the agreement talks of territorial integrity and “adherence to the principles of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.” (Note how brazen it is to use this normative language given what Putin did two days later). This, together with a much tighter agreement with Turkey, has bought Aliyev an insurance policy of sorts.
But Azerbaijan is more vulnerable in the economic sphere. The agreement binds Baku to Moscow more closely, containing a lot of language about economic cooperation, which could make Azerbaijan an escape hatch for Russian companies trying to avoid Western sanctions. And there is a pledge to “refrain from carrying out any economic activity that causes direct or indirect damage to the interests of the other Party” that, on paper at least, seems to give Moscow a say in Azerbaijan’s future energy projects.
Finally, to the two countries most in danger.
In Moldova, geography is destiny. It is close to the EU and far from Russia, though constitutionally neutral and formally bound not to join NATO. The pro-European government of Maia Sandu still faces a fairly strong pro-Russian opposition—and a short-term a crisis as tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees enter Moldova.
The nightmare scenario now is if the Russian advance continues along the Black Sea coast to Odessa and troops link up with those in Transdniestria, the breakaway province of Moldova financed and armed by Russia for thirty years. The de facto administration in Transdniestria currently wants to keep its head down and have it both ways: getting political support from Moscow and keeping a small Russian military force on its soil while relying on Moldova and the EU as its economic partners.
Russia has little interest in Transdniestria for itself, but it could have a strong interest in it as a new forward military base. Moldovans will have been terrified to see Alexander Lukashenko inadvertently rolling out an invasion map that showed an arrow pointing into Moldova from the south.
Meanwhile, Georgia is in many ways Ukraine’s twin. The Bucharest declaration of 2008 committing both countries vaguely to NATO membership left them in the worst of both worlds: without a formal membership plan and with Russia more antagonistic.
Tbilisi has seen mass demonstrations in support of Ukraine for several days now. The president, Salome Zurabishvili, is reflecting the public mood, backing Ukraine and touring European capitals. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili—his is the more powerful position—has been lamentable and cowardly in comparison, refusing to condemn Russia explicitly and earning a rebuke from his Ukrainian counterpart in the process.
The Georgian Dream government’s once quite successful policy of managing Russia is in tatters. Tbilisi has fallen out with both Brussels and Washington over its backsliding from democracy. With mild appeasement to Russia while not reaching out to its traditional Western allies Georgia could get the worst of both worlds. Moreover, the war has galvanized the opposition and is exacerbating the country’s protracted political crisis.
Should Putin harbor ambitions to take over Georgia in one way or another, he has even less to work with than in Ukraine. Support for Russia stops definitively at the de facto boundaries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The younger generation barely speaks Russian. No political party advocates union with Russia. Yet we see in Ukraine that Putin can conjure a casus belli from thin air.
On March 3, first Georgia and then Moldova made the historic decision to bring forward its application to join the EU. The EU talks a lot about resilience. Now is the time to work quickly to strengthen it—not just in Georgia and Moldova, but in Armenia and Azerbaijan as well.
Update: The conclusion of this Strategic Europe blog post has been updated to reflect breaking news of the date of publication.