Next Door to Ukraine, Moscow’s Grip is Tightening

While Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine dominates headlines and diplomatic conversations around the world, a quieter Kremlin effort to consolidate effective hegemony over neighboring Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova continues apace.

While Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine dominates headlines and diplomatic conversations around the world, a quieter Kremlin effort to consolidate effective hegemony over neighboring Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova continues apace.

Like Ukraine, these three states are former Russian possessions whose post-Soviet independence exacerbated Moscow’s isolation from Europe. President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials fear that democratic governments in Minsk, Tbilisi, and Chişinău (not to mention Kyiv) will be more pro-Western and seek deeper integration with both the European Union and NATO. They also fear that pro-democracy movements in these and other former Soviet states will create a contagion effect that could imperil Russia’s own autocracy.

Along with the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s efforts to establish domination over Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova are part of a wider Kremlin campaign to upend the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Moscow exercised a degree of caution toward these smaller neighbors because of the potential impact on relations with the United States and the European Union. Today, with Washington and Brussels both imposing heavy sanctions and sending increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine’s military, the marginal costs Russia would face for more aggressive actions toward Belarus, Georgia, or Moldova are limited. And none of these three is capable of resisting Russian aggression on the scale that Ukraine has done.

The United States and European Union have taken commendable action to help Ukraine resist Russia’s onslaught but have done too little to help Russia’s other imperiled neighbors. They should provide additional assistance and a realistic path to deeper Euro-Atlantic integration to ensure these states do not fall back under the sway of an aggressively imperial Kremlin.

Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions have proceeded furthest in Belarus, which leaked Kremlin documents indicate Russia plans to fully absorb by 2030. Putin regards Belarus, like Ukraine, as part of a tripartite “All Russian” nation and rejects the very idea of a distinct Belarusian national identity. Along with conquering Ukraine, absorbing Belarus into what the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn termed a “Russian Union” is instrumental to Putin’s ambition for a place alongside Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in the pantheon of Russian rulers.

While jealous of his own prerogatives, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko shares much of Putin’s outlook about Belarusian identity: Throughout his time in office, the Belarusian president has restricted the use of the Belarusian language and banned the display of the red-and-white Belarusian national flag. Rather than yield to pro-democracy protestors, Lukashenko allowed Russian personnel to effectively take over his country. In late 2020, the Belarusian Interior Ministry signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s National Guard, a praetorian force directly controlled by the Kremlin. Russian journalists replaced their Belarusian counterparts who had resigned in protest over Lukashenko’s 2019 crackdowns.

The Belarusian military has likewise become increasingly subordinated to Moscow, though Lukashenko has so far been able to avoid sending Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine. Russia’s attempt to seize Kyiv in the first days of the war in Ukraine relied on Russian forces stationed in Belarus. More recently, Russia deployed non-strategic nuclear weapons to Belarusian territory. Following the abortive mutiny of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group in June, Wagner personnel relocated to Belarus, where they are now training the Belarusian military and could be used to open a new front against Ukraine.

Russian influence in Georgia has also grown substantially in recent years. While the Georgian public remains strongly pro-Western, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party has taken steps to align Tbilisi with Moscow’s foreign-policy goals, including on the war in Ukraine.

The business and financial ties of GD’s main backer and power-broker, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, point back to Moscow, where Ivanishvili was one of the largest individual shareholders in the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom. Russia also maintains significant influence in the Georgian information space, while using a range of “sharp power” tools to weaken support for integration with the West. And it still maintains a significant troop presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow seized in 2008.

Tacking toward Moscow helps insulate the GD from Western pressure over its record of democratic backsliding, including a draconian surveillance law adopted in June 2022 and the politically motivated detention of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Though Georgia backed initial U.N. General Assembly votes condemning the Russian invasion, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has since called for a negotiated end to the war, blamed NATO expansion for causing the conflict, and refused U.S. and European requests to impose sanctions. Tbilisi has declined to send even non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine (though Georgia is providing humanitarian aid) and is reportedly now repairing damaged Russian combat aircraft.

Moldova presents a more hopeful case but remains extremely vulnerable to Russian disruption. Pro-Western Prime Minister Maia Sandu has made impressive progress tackling corruption and bringing Moldova closer to EU governance standards, while cracking down on Russian media outlets and other channels of influence. Parliamentary elections in 2021 gave Sandu’s Action and Solidarity Party a majority, overtaking the Russian-backed alliance between the Socialists and Communists. The EU recognized Moldova’s progress by granting the country official candidate status in June 2022.

Russian efforts at disruption have nevertheless accelerated since the start of the war in Ukraine. Citing evidence provided by Kyiv, Sandu in February charged Russia with attempting to organize a coup and in late July, Chişinău expelled dozens of Russian diplomats accused of “unfriendly actions.” The Socialist-Communist bloc, headed by former Socialist Prime Minister Igor Dodon (now jailed on treason charges), supports Russian foreign-policy goals and has been critical of Western backing for Ukraine. Russia also assists the radical Shor Party. Headed by exiled oligarch Ilan Shor, who faces a lengthy jail sentence for money laundering, the now-banned Shor Party was instrumental in organizing protests seeking to topple Sandu’s government.

Russia also maintains around 1,500 troops in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region. Despite their small numbers, Chişinău has long called for the troops to leave, arguing their presence compromises Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As in Ukraine’s Donbas, Moscow seeks to use Transnistria to block the central government’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine aimed, among other goals, to capture the port of Odesa, thereby creating a land bridge between occupied Crimea and Transnistria—whose Slavic-majority population is more sympathetic to Moscow than Moldova’s Romanian-speaking majority. Odesa remains a priority Russian target.

Russia also encourages unrest in Moldova’s autonomous Gagauzia region. Several candidates in Gagauzia’s recent gubernatorial elections enjoyed Russian backing and loudly criticized Chişinău’s support for Ukraine. The winner, Shor Party representative Yevgeniya Gutsul, called for opening a Gagauz representative office in Moscow.

Helping Ukraine win its war of national liberation is the most important step the United States and its allies can take to defeat Moscow’s attempt at restoring its domination of the wider region. Though Russia’s revisionist ambitions are nothing new, the war in Ukraine has given Moscow cover to act more aggressively against these three states.

Officials in both Chişinău and Tbilisi believe Moscow will attempt to reintegrate them into a “Russian World” irrespective of what happens in Ukraine, either because a victorious Kremlin will be emboldened to pursue new conquests or because a defeated Kremlin will divert its expansionary ambitions to easier targets. Belarus, sovereign only in name, provides a preview of what Russian hegemony could bring.

The West’s ability to aid these countries, especially in wartime, is limited. The United States and its allies should focus on building these states’ resilience and deepening their economic, cultural, and humanitarian links to Europe. Given its location, vulnerability, and democratic advances, Moldova should be the immediate priority. U.S. and European assistance for decoupling Moldova’s energy sector from Russia is a good start. But more still needs to be done to help Chişinău counter Russian-backed destabilization and to ensure that the benefits of Moldova’s growing links to Europe also benefit Transnistria and Gagauzia.

In Georgia, the United States and European Union should prioritize infrastructure investment linking the country to Europe while aiding Georgia’s beleaguered civil society and taking a harder line on sanctions evasion. Belarus is a longer-term challenge, but Washington and Brussels should focus on ensuring Belarusian sovereignty, while backing democratic actors outside the country (including de jure president Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya).

Above all, the EU (and NATO) should give all three states a real prospect of integration when they meet the necessary conditions. The prospect of EU integration has been instrumental in Moldova’s democratic advancement, while limited progress on promised NATO integration is an important driver of Georgia’s drift back towards Moscow. The idea of Belarus joining either the EU or NATO seems distant, but both organizations should plan now for a future democratic Belarus to return to Europe. The EU in particular needs to overhaul its funding and decision making structures to facilitate the rapid integration of new member states.

Ukraine is not the only frontline state in the current conflict. Far from the media spotlight, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova are waging their own struggle against Russian domination. Attention and assistance now can help ensure these states do not become the next victims of Russia’s ongoing war for empire.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

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Jeffrey Mankoff