Next Up Moldova?

Next Up Moldova?

Putin considers several options for another land grab.


Russian troops are gathering in growing numbers to the east of the Ukrainian border, with the Journal reporting Friday that some 50,000 Russian forces are concealing equipment and bringing in additional food and spare parts. In other words, they're behaving like a military preparing to invade.


The 25,000 Russian troops in Crimea, who include elite special forces brought in the past month, are also setting up a southern military beachhead after disarming the Ukrainian military. And to the southwest, in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria, the 1,500 members of Russia's 179th Motor Rifle Regiment have been supplemented in recent weeks with arms and some 800 additional commandos, according to Ukrainian officials.


A Ukrainian border guard, right, and Russian border guards, background, stand at the border crossing between Ukraine and Russia in the village of Vyselki earlier this week. Associated Press


Altogether Russia has massed 100,000 troops around Ukraine's borders, Andriy Parubiy, chairman of the National Security and Defense Council in Kiev, said in a conference call Thursday organized by the Atlantic Council.


Ukraine's densely populated eastern industrial heartland is the biggest prize for Vladimir Putin. The buildup of Russian forces isn't necessarily a prelude to an invasion. The saber rattling by itself is a way to undermine Ukraine's new transitional government formed after last month's pro-Europe revolution and seek leverage over political decisions in Kiev.


Mr. Putin must also take into account that any incursion won't be painless. Ukraine's government, which gave up Crimea with little resistance, promises to fight for the east. Unlike in Crimea, the local population will resist an occupation. But for now Mr. Putin has an overwhelming military advantage if he does choose to move.


Editorial board member Matt Kaminski on Obama's assessment of the Russian strongman, and criticism of the President's strategy. Photo: Associated Press


Mr. Putin may also be contemplating another front in the south and southwest. Transnistria is an appendix-shaped enclave of half a million mostly ethnic Russians. The region declared its independence from Moldova in 1990, before the Soviet breakup. Russian "peacekeepers" came in after a brief war with Moldova in 1992 and stayed on. Like Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, Transnistria has become a so-called frozen conflict that has given Moscow an ideal pressure point to use against the small, poor formerly Soviet state.


Like Ukraine, Moldova wants to get politically and economically closer to the European Union and shuns Russia's alternative Eurasian Union. Last year Mr. Putin blocked imports of Moldovan wine to pressure it not to sign an association deal with the EU, but the government in Chisinau went ahead with it in November. The Moldovans fear the price now may be a territorial carve-up à la Ukraine.


Transnistria voted in 2006 to ask to join Russia and this month its leaders repeated the request. Russia hasn't taken up that appeal, but it did hold military exercises in the region last weekend. Another minority enclave in Moldova populated by the Turkic Gagauz people, who are pro-Russian, held its own Crimea-style referendum on Feb. 2 that called for independence if the Moldovans seek EU membership. In both cases, Russia could use force to cleave off these regions from Moldova.


Ukrainians are worried about another scenario. Transnistria's capital Tiraspol is near Odessa, the Ukrainian port city founded by Catherine the Great, and only about 300 miles from Crimea. The southern Ukrainian regions along the Black Sea are full of Russian speakers. After his Crimean conquest, Mr. Putin now could move on to claim his "corridor"—another historically pregnant phrase—to link Crimea and Transnistria. He has the forces in the peninsula to do it.


These latest Russian escalations follow President Obama's pleas in Europe for the Kremlin to "de-escalate" and try diplomacy or run the risk of further sanctions and "isolation" if he takes more territory. Mr. Obama offered no new sanctions on Russia, no plans to reinforce NATO, and no arms for the Ukrainians or Moldovans.


The White House said Friday that Mr. Putin called Mr. Obama on Friday to discuss a possible diplomatic resolu tion, but it isn't clear if the Russian is offering concessions or ultimatums. If Mr. Putin does invade further, there won't be much else to stop him or his troops.









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