Putin’s Mission To Reclaim Former Soviet Territory

Photo is of a watch with Vladimir Putin waving on the face. the watch is on a hairy arm.
Photo by author (Joyce O’Day).

Putins’s land-grab resembles Hitler’s Anschluss and takeover of Eastern Europe.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended Russia’s domination of Eastern Europe and Central Asia and their status as a world power. In the past decade, Vladimir Putin has worked tirelessly to reassert Russian power and influence by supporting the breakaway state of Transnistria in Moldova, by liberating South Ossetia and Abkhazia from the nation of Georgia, by reclaiming Crimea and supporting separatists in the Eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and now by poising to invade Ukraine. Almost a century ago, Hitler engaged in a similar land grab.

Transnistria’s Odd Situation 

Transnistria is a 400-kilometer slice of territory in Moldova that lies between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border. It is composed of Russian speakers who hold fast to their Soviet roots. In 1990, Transnistria broke off from Moldova following repression of the Russian language. A war of sorts broke out in 1992, leaving about a thousand dead. Since then, Transnistria has been largely left to themselves. Russia continues to supply the breakaway state with military and moral support.

Russian Expansionism

The beginning of Russia’s expansionist desires can be traced back to the Bucharest Summit in 2008, wherein NATO indicated that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually be offered membership. This declaration unleashed fear that Mother Russia would be surrounded by nations with military ties to the West. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had already been accepted into both NATO and the EU in 2004. Vladimir Putin became determined to thwart NATO from gaining any other former Soviet Republics.

Georgia: The Russo-Georgian War aka The Five-Day War

The Geographic Significance

Transcaucasia, the geographic area between the North Caucasus region of Russia and the Middle East, has long been a buffer zone for Russia in the south. The area is of geopolitical interest due to its proximity to the oil-rich Middle East and in the case of Abkhazia its location on the Black Sea. 

Georgia’s Problem Areas: Adjara, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia

Located in southwest Georgia on the Turkish border, Adjara was a criminal fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, who was infamous for smuggling. Adjarians were often referred to as Muslim Georgians, but that term is inaccurate since only 40% of Adjarians are Muslim. In 2004, Georgia took back Adjara, and Abashidze went into exile in Russia. The Abkhazians and the Ossetians are ethnic minorities separate from both the Russians and the Georgians. Both groups enjoyed a brief period of autonomy after the Russian Revolution. On July 23, 1992, the Republic of Abkhazia on the northwest coast of Georgia declared independence from the Republic of Georgia, but was only recognized by seven of the 193 United Nations member states. Likewise, South Ossetia on the northern border of Georgia had been existing in a largely autonomous position since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. 

The Rose Revolution 

Georgia’s bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003 occurred after a fraudulent election kept President Eduard Shevardnadze in power. Shevardnadze had ruled Georgia for over 30 years. The opposition took to the streets armed with roses, eventually storming parliament. Afterwards, pro-Western Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president. Under Saakashvili, Georgia sought to reclaim the regions that had broken away after the fall of the Soviet Union: Adjara, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

Liberating South Ossetia

After a failed attempt to capture South Ossetia in 2004, Georgia withdrew to build up their military, stocking up on Czech, Ukrainian, Turkish, and Israeli military equipment. During that time, Saakashvili became increasingly more autocratic and kleptocratic. 

On August 1, 2008, fighting ensued between the Georgians and the Ossetians after an IED (improvised explosive devise) destroyed a Georgian police vehicle in South Ossetia. In return, Georgian snipers fired the first shots, and by August 6, there was heavy fighting between the Ossetians and the Georgians. Conveniently, Russia was conducting military exercises in the Caucasus region at that time. On the night of August 7-8, the Russians got actively involved by invading Georgia and using Abkhazia to open a second front. The invasion occurred during the night of the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Before that night, the Russians instituted a cyber attack and a disinformation campaign. By the time of the cease-fire on August 12, Russian troops came within 30 miles of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. At least 850 people were dead, and 35,000 Georgians were left homeless after being expelled from South Ossetia and the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. There were also allegations of ethnic cleansing of Georgians occurring in South Ossetia.

The Aftermath 

Presently, the Republic of South Ossetia aka the State of Alania and the Republic of Abkhazia are quasi-independent states and home to Russian military bases. However, most nations still consider them to be the territory of Georgia. The war destroyed Russian and Georgian relations, and Russia’s interference in the conflict drew international disapproval. According to Ukraine specialist Peter Dickinson, “The August 2008 invasion of Georgia was a Beta test for future aggression against Russia’s neighbors and a dry run for the tactics and strategies that would later be deployed in the 2014 invasion of Ukraine” (Dickinson).

Crimea

The annexation of Crimea was the biggest land grab in Europe since WWII. In February 2014, following the Maidan Protests aka the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, when Ukraine began moving closer to the European Union, “little green men” – as they were called by Ukrainians – dressed in Russian combat fatigues minus any insignia to identify them, began occupying major checkpoints and facilities in Crimea. This soft invasion occurred three days before the end the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. By early March the “little green men” took over the entire peninsula. On the advice of the West, Kiev ordered the military stationed in Crimea to stand down, so any shots would be fired by the Russian intruders. On March 11, the Republic of Crimea announced their independence. A referendum on March 16 offered two choices: “join Russia or return to Crimea’s 1992 constitution, which gave the peninsula significant autonomy. Those who favored Crimea remaining part of Ukraine under the current constitution had no box to check” (Pifer). According to Moscow, of the 83% who turned out to vote, over 96% wanted to join Russia. Realistic estimates state that only 30% of the population voted, with half wanting to rejoin Russia. The Treaty of Accession was signed by Russian and Crimean officials on March 18. In 2014, a Russian census estimated that 68% of the Crimean population was Russian, 16% was Ukrainian, and 11% was Crimean Tatars (en.Wikipedia.org).

The Separatist Movement in Donbas 

Donbas is a region in southeastern Ukraine composed of the oblasts (political subdivisions) of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the primary industry is coal mining. Unrest began immediately after the annexation of Crimea. Aside from Crimea, Donbas has the highest concentration of ethnic Russians, most of whom live in urban areas. The 1989 Soviet census recognized 45% of the population in Donbas as ethnically Russian; whereas, the 2001 Ukrainian census identified ethnic Russians as 38.2% in Donetsk and 39% ethnic Ukrainians in Luhansk.

In a 1991 referendum, 83.9% of the votes in Donetsk (with a 76.7% voter turnout) and 83.6% of the votes in Luhansk (with a 80.7% voter turnout) favored independence from the Soviet Union. However, the people of Donbas desired greater autonomy, not a power shift from Moscow to Kiev. In the 30 years following independence, both Donbas and Ukraine in general experienced economic decline and numerous strikes. Still, a 2017 poll by the International Republican Institute concluded that 80% of all Ukrainians and 73% of people in Donbas supported a united Ukraine.

Donetsk and Luhansk 

On May 11, 2014, the so-called Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine after a referendum, where 89% favored self-rule and 10% were against it with a 75% voter turnout. The results were not accepted by Ukraine, Russia, the EU, or the United States. On September 16, 2014, Ukraine granted special status to residents of Donbas that was later extended until the end of 2021. The “republics” briefly formed the Confederation of Novorossiya (New Russia) in 2014, but abandoned the cause in May 2015 after they failed to be recognized by a single member of the U.N. Still considered to be part of Ukraine, even by Russia, only the region of South Ossetia recognizes the Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. 

Since November 2014, Donbas has experienced a breakdown of law and order and has deteriorated into a mafia state known for gunrunning and contraband. The United Nations cites a litany of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, including illegal seizure of property, torture, forced labor, illegal detentions, summary executions, and sexual abuse. In 2016, Amnesty International accused the separatists and the Ukrainian authorities of illegal detention, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment. An estimated 14,000 lives have been lost in the conflict.

The Minsk Protocol

The first Minsk Protocol, a 12-point ceasefire, was issued on September 5, 2014, and a follow-up memorandum was issued on September 19. Russia immediately violated the terms of the protocol. This led to Minsk II, a 13-point agreement similar to the original protocol that was signed on February 12, 2015. Both Minsk Agreements were signed by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). “The deals require a ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign military forces, disbanding of illegal armed groups, and returning control of the Ukrainian side of the international border with Russia to Ukraine, all of this under OSCE supervision” (Volker). Since Russia was not specifically mentioned in either agreement, Russia claimed that they were not a signatory, but merely a facilitator, and that the agreement was with the separatists from the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, who the Russians supplied and directed.

Getting Officially Established In Donbas

In February 2017, Putin allowed residents of Donbas to study, work, or travel in Russia. According to the Kremlin and the Ukrainian press, by July 2021, 470,000 Russian passports had been issued to residents of Donbas. This is over 10% of the population. According to the Carnegie Moscow Center, “the new Russian passport holders would often prefer to live in Russia itself. Moreover, the Russian authorities encourage the arrival of ethnically and culturally similar migrants to replenish the country’s shrinking population. Ukraine remains one of the largest sources of migration to Russia” (Skorkin). Others are concerned, noting that Putin could use the mistreatment of these Russian citizens as an excuse to invade Ukraine.

A Brief Comparison to German History: 1938-1939

Scholars and observers compare Putin’s land grab of former Soviet territory to Hitler’s acquisition of land preceding WWII. While Hitler initially justified his actions by stating that he was uniting all German-speaking people, Putin’s claims to be supporting Russian speakers as he assists separatist movements in former Soviet republics. In both cases, Hitler and Putin use the excuse of ethnic or cultural homogeneity to justify their land grab. 

The Anschluss 

Hitler was determined to unite all German-speaking people in Europe. In March 1938, Hitler annexed his homeland of Austria to Germany, creating a single nation. Hitler referred to this action as the Anschluss – or union in German. The Allies did not care to get involved; to them, the annexation of Austria and Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland (Germany’s border with France) was not worth another war, despite the fact that it violated the Treaty of Versailles that ended the Great War (WWI). France was concerned about this ambitious move, but they could not act without British support. In addition, Germany was seen as a barrier against the Soviets.

The Sudetenland 

In September 1938, Germany encouraged the 3 million German speakers who lived in the western rim of Czechoslovakia to demand self-government. The concept of “self determination” was a key idea following WWI. At the Munich Conference, Britain and France chose appeasement and persuaded Czechoslovakia to surrender the Sudetenland, and the area was annexed to Germany without a fight. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared to cheering crowds that “peace for our time” had been achieved. Winston Churchill declared, “They had to choose between war and dishonor, they chose dishonor; they will have war.” Czechoslovakia and their ally the Soviet Union were not invited to this conference.  In March 1939, the Nazis captured the rest of Czechoslovakia, which did not speak German.

More Land for the Nazis

In April 1939, Hitler demanded the international, independent city of Danzig and the Polish Corridor, which he also received without a fight. A few months later, in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet (non-aggression) Pact, wherein they privately agreed not to fight if either party went to war and to divide up Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. This pact was a precursor to the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which is considered the beginning of WWII in Europe. Hitler broke the pact when he invaded Russia on June 22, 1941.

WWIII?

The world is on edge, waiting to see what develops on the Russian/Ukrainian front. Again, for the third time during the Olympic games, Putin has initiated an aggressive action to takeover a chunk of former Soviet territory. American citizens have been advised to leave Ukraine immediately. Some Americans understand Putin’s rationale for securing a Russia-friendly or at least a neutral Ukraine. Others see any acquiescence of Putin’s demands as weakness on the part of the West. Either way, no one wants this standoff between Putin and Biden to escalate to a nuclear level.

Sources:

Dickinson, Peter. atlanticcouncil.org. “The 2008 Russo-Georgian War: Putin’s Green Light,” August 7, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/the-2008-russo-georgian-war-putins-green-light/

Duben, Bjorn Alexander. LSE (London School of Economics). “There is no Ukraine: Fact-Checking the Kremlin’s Version of Ukrainian History,” July 1, 2020. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lseih/2020/07/01/there-is-no-ukraine-fact-checking-the-kremlins-version-of-ukrainian-history/

Kofman, Michael. warontheocks.com. “The August War, Ten Years On: A Retrospective on the Russo-Georgian War,” August 17, 2018. https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/the-august-war-ten-years-on-a-retrospective-on-the-russo-georgian-war/

Pifer, Steven. brookings.edu. “Crimea: Six years free illegal annexation,” March 17, 2020. https://brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos-/2020/03/17/crimea-six-years-after-illegal-annexation/

Reid, Sarah. bbc.com. “Celebrating a nation that doesn’t exist.” February 6, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200205-celebrating-a-nation-that-doesnt-exist/

Skorkin, Konstantine. Carnegie Moscow Center. “Merge and Rule: What’s in Store for the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics,” March 16, 2021. https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/84089

Volker, Kurt. Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). “Don’t Let Russia Fool You About the Minsk Agreements,” December 16, 2021. https://cepa.org/dont-let-russia-fool-you-about-the-minsk-agreemants/

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org


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