Beware Russia’s pocket empire

Christian Science Monitor
July 1 2004

Beware Russia’s pocket empire

By Daniel C. Twining

WASHINGTON – Last weekend, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
visited Moldova, a country where the cold war never ended. His trip
highlighted the threat to Western values and interests posed by
Russia’s ambition to retain control over strategic European enclaves
it once ruled as part of the Soviet empire.
It is a reminder that despite the success of NATO’s Istanbul summit,
the West has not completed its grand geopolitical project of building
a Europe of secure democracies extending to the borders of Russia.

Russia’s nostalgia for its imperial past is evident in the pocket
empire it maintains among neighboring nations. These imperial
aspirations stifle democratic development on Europe’s borders and
repudiate the values necessary for lasting partnership between Moscow
and the West.

Moldova, where a slice of the Soviet Union survives in the
secessionist Transdniestria region, is just such a case. When the
USSR collapsed 13 years ago, Moldova became an independent nation.
But the 14th Soviet Army stayed on in the region, along the border
with Ukraine, to support Transdniestria’s secession from Moldova.
Former apparatchik Igor Smirnov turned his autocratic fiefdom into a
client state of Moscow. Today, Russian forces guard Transdniestria’s
borders, Russian officers command its Army, Russian troops guard an
enormous Soviet arms depot, and Russia provides free energy supplies.
President Smirnov answers to leaders in Moscow, many of whom
allegedly profit from the international criminal network that
operates in the area.

According to Western officials in the region, Transdniestria is a
leading exporter of kidnapped women to Europe, a lucrative transit
territory for illicit drugs, and a key link in the arms-smuggling
network that peddles the Soviet Union’s former military hardware on
the international market. If Al Qaeda has not gone shopping there
yet, it is only a matter of time.

Why does Russia support this illegitimate regime? In negotiations
last fall that nearly resulted in a settlement recognizing the
criminal regime’s claim to federal status within Moldova, Moscow
showed its hand by demanding that Moldova commit to a treaty
legalizing the presence of Russian military forces on its soil until
2020. Thanks to Western pressure and the resistance of Moldovans who
took to the streets in protest, the deal collapsed. Nonetheless,
political reform in Moldova has been frozen by the Transdniestria
crisis, which focuses the West’s attention on conflict resolution
rather than on democratic change.

Russia’s Transdniestria strategy mirrors its approach to the other
“frozen conflicts” sustained by Russian military forces and political
support – two secessionist provinces in Georgia and the disputed
enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Moscow’s ambition is to make it seem normal for Russian troops to
guard European borders and serve as outposts of imperial control in
independent nations, without their consent.

In the absence of treaties legitimizing Russia’s illegal military
presence on its neighbors’ territory, Russia will keep these
conflicts “frozen” – ensuring that secessionist leaders who answer to
Moscow remain in control.

As Mr. Rumsfeld said clearly last weekend, Russia’s troop presence
violates the revised Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and
post-Soviet guarantees Russia made to withdraw military forces from
the territories of its neighbors.

A Western campaign to resolve the frozen conflicts and democratize
Europe’s borderlands could be a new pillar of transatlantic
cooperation. NATO should deepen its Partnership for Peace programs in
this region and put the frozen conflicts on the agenda of the
NATO-Russia Council. The European Union should put meat on the bones
of its “New Neighborhood Policy” by tackling the conflicts and
committing substantial assistance for democratic change in its

Together, the United States and Europe should condition deeper
Russian access to Western markets on Moscow’s willingness to
negotiate democratic political solutions to Europe’s frozen
conflicts. The transatlantic democracies should also condition
Russia’s privileged political relationship with Western institutions
like NATO, the EU, and the Group of Seven (the world’s richest
nations) on Moscow’s demonstrated willingness to act responsibly in
its near abroad – including the expeditious and verifiable withdrawal
of Russian military forces from the conflict zones.

As part of any political solution in these countries, the West should
insist on nationwide democratic elections, both because it is right
and to reassure Russia that populations in the secessionist regions
it claims to “protect” have a full voice in their reunified nation’s

Russia must understand that its cold war rules of statecraft do not
apply in an age when it seeks partnership with the West – and when
states on the old Soviet borders aspire to membership in an imperium
centered on Brussels, not Moscow.

Despite Russian opposition to enlargement of NATO and the EU, the
progress of democracy, reform, and security across Central and
Eastern Europe during the past decade has made Russia more secure,
not less. Resolving Europe’s frozen conflicts and building stable
democracies throughout the geostrategic gray zone on Russia’s borders
would have a similar effect. Conversely, acceding to Russia’s desire
for a new sphere of influence in its old imperial stomping grounds
would not make Russia more secure. It would not make an increasingly
authoritarian Russia more susceptible to Western values. It would, in
fact, make the West complicit in their subversion.

– Daniel C. Twining, a former foreign policy adviser to Republican
Sen. John McCain, is a director at the German Marshall Fund of the
US. The views expressed here are his own and are informed by a
fact-finding trip he took to Moldova in May.