New Russia (Ново россия ) is the term being used by Russians in Ukraine who want to return to the glory Soviet days. For the those bent on restoring an empire this is just the same old song, verse two.
To understand the likely outcome and how this will realign the map in Eastern Europe, one simply needs to look at the map after the war with Georgia.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia have forever been separated from Georgia and neutralized. Georgia was punished for its anti-Russian positions with a map adjustment and had either region been as important as Crimea, Russia would have annexed them. They didn’t because they didn’t need to. South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain mired in poverty and corruption for generations but as long as they remain obedient and dependent upon Russia, without a lot of the expense that goes with annexing a territory, they’ll manage to exist for a long time. You just wouldn’t want to live there in the meantime.
The next real prize, and Mr. Putin will indeed take it into the Russian fold, is Odessa. From the government’s perspective, Donetsk is largely a bunch of ill-educated coal miners, a duplicate of Shakhty and similar areas, and fortunately for the locals their natural resources will allow them a larger economic pie than Abkhazia. Unless Mr. Putin decides that a land bridge is necessary, he’s only too happy to remove them from Kyiv’s grip while assigning them to near the same fate as the two former Georgian provinces. If he wants a land bridge he’ll need to dislodge Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk from Kyiv. That will now prove to be easy, not necessarily because the population wills it to be, but because the pro-Russian thug movement protecting Russian passport holders has proved to be very effective and amazingly cost efficient.
Odessa and Nikolayev represent quite another matter. First there is a strong desire to deny Kyiv its last hope of a piece of the Black Sea. Then there is the history of Odessa and although it was taken by conquest, most Russians feel like it has belonged to Russia forever even though it hasn’t. Odessa was an important Soviet port and had special status as does Sevastopol and Nikolayev has been an important shipbuilding centre.
Mr. Putin will talk a good game but in truth while he may be able to resist Donetsk, he won’t be able to resist the urge to grab Odessa (and Nikolayev). From his perspective it is too vital a port to allow falling into Western hands. Mr. Putin will likely make Odessa into a federal city (a city-state) joining Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Sevastopol as the showcase opportunities for another federal city on the Black Sea will be just too tempting to pass.
The third wave will be to punish Moldova. The message resonating loudly from Moscow is that if you’re a former Soviet member then you’d better remember who is in charge of the region. Armenia got the message and has reluctantly joined the Customs Union and Uzbekistan is sitting up and taking notice. They’ll join probably sooner than later.
Moldova is working on the three year implementation plan for the EU but the EU neither wants or needs another badly impoverished Bulgaria and won’t lift a finger when Mr. Putin decides that Moldova needs to be taught a lesson. Still a member of the CIS, it shouldn’t be that difficult for Moscow to convince Moldova’s populace to turn Eastward but it not as large a priority as the southern regions of Ukraine at this moment.
Transnistria will be the new Donetsk at some point in the near future. Bordered by Ukraine and Romania, Moldova would represent another Kaliningrad, a land enclave separated from the rest of Russia. It is unlikely that the Russians are interested in annexing Transnistria into the RF proper but with a 5 to 6% ethnic Russian minority it is enough for Moscow to be “concerned about protecting citizens there,” especially as Moldova would be an addition to the Customs Union and a buffer to NATO in Romania.
Gagauzia, a small-medium sized town of 185,000 population in southern region of Moldova voted in a referendum in favour of the Russian-led Customs Union. Again, many of the town’s population boycotted the referendum but the Orthodox minority showed up in droves.
A top aide to Mr. Putin, Dmitry Rogozin, was in Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria over the Victory Day weekend. In his speech he criticized Moldova’s government for looking to the European Union and was detained at the border while attempting to carry petitions calling for Russian intervention back to Moscow. Mr. Rogozin had harsh words for Romanian authorities saying if they denied him passage to Transnistria again his next visit would be flying over Romanian airspace in a Russia bomber.
There is a second message resonating from Moscow and that is for independent minded republics within the Federation. Despite overwhelming referendums Moscow has gone to war twice decisively against Chechnya. The freedom of choice option exists only for those outside the RF, not for those within. You can bet that the message is heard loud and clear in places like Dagestan, Chechnya and previously growing independence movements in places like Tatarstan.
In conclusion, the administration in Washington has misplayed this at every step. Totally inept is the only generous way to describe it. The sanctions strategy has largely focused on certain Russian Oligarchs with the idea that harming them will cause them to turn on Mr. Putin. That has played right into Mr. Putin’s book however.
The shadowy Oligarchs who put Mr. Putin in power, and kept him there, have been increasingly sidestepped by Mr. Putin himself since the last election. In August 2011 every betting man who understood Russia was beginning to understand that the Oligarch interest was in continuing on the modernization path. Oligarchs are capitalist overachievers at heart and out for their own interests. At the same time their man in power was showing more concern for reviving the Empire than in just making money.
It was a surprise to most of those Oligarchs, as it was to Dmitry Medvedev who was summoned on mid-August afternoon to join Vladimir Putin who was on a Volga river fishing trip in southern Russia, that Mr. Putin had decided to return to the presidency. Mr. Putin had the option as part of the deal but there were increasing moves behind the scenes to extend the Medvedev presidency for another term.
Mr. Putin has slowly been moving to marginalize the Oligarchs who’ve had a hold on Kremlin politics and he’s been very successful at the widening of that chasm. It was very telling in a meeting of the Security Council a month or so back when Mr. Putin detailed a list of the Western sanctions and then quipped, “We’ll have to distance ourselves from those guys (Oligarchs).”
That brought a round of laughter, and for a reason–the sanctions help Mr. Putin rather than hurt him.