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What’s Russia’s ambition in Eastern Europe?

March 11, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
What are the boundaries of Vladimir Putin’s ambitions? Gwen Ifill talks to Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy about the historical precedent for Russia trying to destabilize or partition countries that have ethnic Russian populations.

GWEN IFILL: So is Russia’s reach into Crimea a sign of things to come? For that, we turn to Nadia Diuk, vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy. She’s written extensively about Russia and the Soviet Union. And Janusz Bugajski, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he focuses on Europe.

Mr. Bugajski, is General Dempsey correct in his fear that Vladimir Putin may have greater ambitions beyond Crimea?

JANUSZ BUGAJSKI, Center for Strategic and International Studies: I think he’s absolutely correct.

And I think there’s a palpable fear throughout Eastern Europe that the Russian government no longer respects the borders of Europe, the map of Europe, that it will unilaterally change the borders of its neighbors on the pretext whether of defending minority rights, restoring law and order, or whatever it is, in order to try to expand its influence and expand its control over parts of territories of neighboring countries.

GWEN IFILL: Nadia Diuk, same question to you.

NADIA DIUK, National Endowment for Democracy: Yes, I think this — this push into Crimea is partly for internal purposes for Putin. He’s creating this sort of area of a Russian world, which he doesn’t believe that Ukraine actually is separate from Russia, and that that Russian world also includes Belarus.

And, as well, I think it’s his purpose — or, rather, the purpose of the Kremlin ideology that accompanies this Russian world, is to have a sort of belt of destabilized territories around Russia. But who knows. I mean, this may go even further. The Latvians must be having some sense of deja vu with this referendum, so-called referendum coming up Sunday, where basically there’s actually no choice given to the Crimeans. It’s either stay with Russia or create a sort of autonomous state, as was — as existed there under a constitution that was — that existed between 1992 and ’95.

So, in fact, they have been given not much choice, the same way that Latvia was taken over in 1940, when the Russian troops were invited in by a puppet government that had voted to — voted to do so.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Janusz Bugajski about another worried nation, and that’s Moldova. She mentioned Latvia. What is the situation with Moldova?

JANUSZ BUGAJSKI: Well, Russia, in a way, has set its own precedent already, the Russian government, in that it divided Moldova after the Soviet Union collapsed.

It helped small separatist movements within Moldova. It’s continued to keep Moldova divided and, as Nadia said, to try and stabilize or prevent these countries moving into the European Union and closer to the Western community. Russia, if it cannot control a country, wants to keep that country unstable and threatened with further partition, separation.

So, Moldova, I think they’re concerned that the Crimean precedent of declaring an independent state, unifying state with Russia could set up a precedent for the Transnistrian region with Moldova.

GWEN IFILL: You know, Nadia Diuk, we have been talking about Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. Why is Poland worried?

NADIA DIUK: Well, Poland is right on the border of — actually it, borders on a part of Russia, a part of Russia that is not contiguous with the main part of the Russia.

But there’s a place called Kaliningrad, which is kind of in between Lithuania and — and Poland right now, and that is actually part of Russia that could be a staging ground for all sorts of incursions. So — and as well, Poland, I think, traditionally has suffered a lot from Russian overreach, so not surprising that they would be worried right now.

And I would say as well that Germany maybe should be worried, too. There are half-a-million ethnic German — ethnic Russians in Germany, 3.5 million native Russian speakers — sorry — ethnic Russians in Germany and native Russian speakers.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you Janusz Bugajski about that.

Is just the mere presence of ethnic Russians in — or the mere numbers of ethnic Russians in any region make them vulnerable?

JANUSZ BUGAJSKI: Well, this is what Putin does. This is what the Kremlin does. It’s not just a question of ethnic Russians.

They have expanded their definition of the people they feel they’re entitled to protect to include anybody that speaks Russian as their first and maybe even their second language.

GWEN IFILL: So, the distinction she just made between Russian speakers and ethnic Russians?

JANUSZ BUGAJSKI: Precisely, in other words, compatriots, which means, what, New York could be annexed, parts of California.

It opens the Pandora’s box to potential annexation of numerous neighboring states of Russia.

GWEN IFILL: How does this compare to what happened in Georgia?

JANUSZ BUGAJSKI: It’s similar.

Russia partitioned Georgia. The difference, I think, is they provoked the Georgians into overreacting, particularly in South Ossetia, and then they came in on the pretext of defending the Ossets, Ossetian people, from Georgian conquest, whereas, really, this was already a part of Georgia.

GWEN IFILL: Nadia Diuk, assuming that Vladimir Putin isn’t really trying to annex Germany or New York, is this really about trying to undermine the Ukrainian government as it was put in place a few weeks ago, or is it about actually trying to take Crimea back?

NADIA DIUK: Well, I think you have hit the nail on the head there.

I think a lot of this is about trying to continue to destabilize. If the ex-President Yanukovych, who was, in a sense, you could even call a puppet of Moscow, did not — wasn’t to remain — wasn’t to remain president of Ukraine — you recall that he was sort of thrown out really for — because he was leading a very corrupt government — then I think plan B is to continue to destabilize — destabilize the country, so that the new election cannot take place.

They have elections — Ukraine has elections scheduled for May 25. And I think there’s a narrative going out now that, oh, well, maybe we shouldn’t be looking to these elections as being genuine, because, after all, some of the people who will be running have some shady backgrounds in terms of extremism, radicalism and anti-Semitism.

This is a narrative — this is also another sort of instrument in the toolbox of the Kremlin to try and promote that destabilization.

GWEN IFILL: Janusz Bugajski, there’s an argument that’s been made that, knowing how Putin felt about Crimea, that none of these nations should have been gravitating toward the European Union at all, and this wouldn’t have happened.

JANUSZ BUGAJSKI: I think it would have happened anyway. It’s a free choice, though, of every nation that emerged from the communist bloc to belong to the international organizations that best protect their security and that best ensure their prosperity and their development.

And all the Central European countries, almost, have chosen to ally with the West, because the European Union and NATO provides the security, stability, sovereignty, and development. The Russian world, the Customs Union, the Eurasian Union, will be a source of instability, because Russia cannot provide that sort of security, integrity and international — and national independence.

GWEN IFILL: Nadia Diuk, final word on that point, which is whether the E.U., moving toward the E.U. is worth it, or is worth it for these other nations who now fear that they may be targets.

NADIA DIUK: Well, I mean, you have to remember what happened prior to this annexation of — apparent annexation of Crimea.

There were Ukrainians who were leaving, and in some — in the case of about 100 people, dying on the Euromaidan, whose primary aim was to support Ukraine’s integration into Europe. So the Ukrainians obviously think that it’s worth having a big sacrifice in order to preserve the future for their children and for their grandchildren. And many of them have expressed — expressed this desire.

GWEN IFILL: Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy, and Janusz Bugajski at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thank you both very much.


NADIA DIUK: Thank you.