Could Vladimir Putin repeat his conquest of Crimea in southwestern Ukraine?

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One of Russia’s “little green men” (soldiers without identification badges) pictured during the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea in spring 2014. (REUTERS / Vasily Fedosenko)

On August 23, Ukraine hosted high representatives from more than 40 countries at the first Crimean Platform summit. This diplomatic initiative aims to put the Russian occupation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula firmly back on the global agenda. However, as Kiev strives to draw international attention to occupied Crimea, another region of Ukraine remains particularly vulnerable to Moscow’s machinations.

Bessarabia is a highly multicultural region in Odessa Oblast, southwestern Ukraine, which shares many of the characteristics that helped facilitate the Kremlin’s takeover of Crimea in 2014. Ethnically diverse and physically isolated from the rest of Ukraine, Bessarabia is a largely Russian-speaking region of about 600,000 inhabitants where the Kremlin media enjoy exceptionally high audience penetration and identity issues at the level of the Ukraine. streets are colored by an undercurrent of Russophile sentiment dating back to the Tsarist era. .

Meanwhile, the Kremlin-controlled breakaway republic of Transnistria, located in neighboring Moldova, enjoys a significant Russian military presence. These Russian troops could potentially repeat the role of the “little green men” who seized Crimea for Vladimir Putin seven years ago.

Today’s Bessarabia is geographically bounded by the ends of two major rivers, the Dniester to the north and the Danube to the south, which also forms the border separating Ukraine from the EU member state, Romania. It is a physically beautiful region with an abundance of beautiful farmland and the Black Sea coastline. Unique tourist attractions include Vylkove in the Danube Estuary, a low-key Ukrainian version of Venice where people travel mostly by boat through the canals that make up the city’s quaint streets.

This scenic region has the potential to become a major headache for national security. To prevent this from happening, Ukraine should learn the lessons of 2014 by devoting attention and resources to Bessarabia to address vulnerabilities that could otherwise be exploited by the Kremlin to further undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and integrity. territory of the country.

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A key characteristic shared by Crimea and Bessarabia is isolation. In the years leading up to the 2014 military takeover, getting to Crimea from mainland Ukraine was far from straightforward. The roads south to Crimea were generally in a poor condition, while the night train from Kiev was uncomfortable and the journey too long. This meant that flights were the only realistic option, but tickets were often expensive with few scheduled flights. In practice, it was often cheaper and more convenient for Ukrainians to spend their vacations in Turkey.

This disconnection from mainland Ukraine directly contributed to the reduction in social contact and the limited participation of Crimea in the national identity-building processes that took place elsewhere in Ukraine after independence. From 1991, the Kremlin strove to expand and exploit this informal divide, patiently laying the groundwork for a possible military seizure of the peninsula in the spring of 2014.

Like Crimea, Bessarabia is physically remote with surprisingly poor logistical connections to the rest of Ukraine. A single one-lane bridge in each direction connects the region with the other half of Odessa Oblast on the Dniester River, while a second road connection route is to cross Moldovan territory in the Dniester Estuary. , coming only a few tens of kilometers from the occupied region of Transnistria.

While a number of Bessarabian towns like Izmail lie along the Danube, no bridge or ferry connects them directly to Romania or to the nearest Romanian town of Tulcea, although it is close enough to be clearly visible at night. Instead, it currently takes over three hours by road via Moldova to cross the Danube and reach Tulcea.

A new ferry connecting Orlivka (located about a 45-minute drive west of Izmail) to Isaccea in Romania was launched in August 2020 and is a promising start for closer integration. However, the journey still takes about two hours. In the other direction, residents of Izmail have to spend almost 17 hours on a train to reach Kiev via a single rail connection.

Whereas before 2014 Crimea had a predominantly ethnic Russian population with Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities, today’s Bessarabia is much more of a patchwork of different ethnic groups. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the region does not have a Ukrainian ethnic majority. Officially, ethnic Ukrainians make up around 40 percent of Bessarabia’s population, with ethnic Russians (20 percent), Bulgarians (20 percent), Moldovans (13 percent) and a number of smaller ethnic groups . Many of these communities form majorities in culturally distinct villages that dot the region.

One of the factors uniting the different communities of Bessarabia is a historical link with the Russian imperial conquests of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Russian remains the lingua franca of daily life throughout the region. It is common to come across banned Russian TV channels broadcast in homes and cafes, often from signals not only from Transnistria but also from Romania and Moldova. At the same time, Ukrainian-language media lack both infrastructure and audience.

While special attention has been paid to managing the impact of Russia’s intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many of the same latent vulnerabilities remain unanswered in Bessarabia. The international community has been firmly engaged in efforts to support communities in eastern Ukraine living close to the contact line, while many stakeholder groups are also working to resolve the related issues. to the ongoing Russian occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Similar initiatives are needed with regard to Bessarabia.

An effort should be made to conduct comprehensive social and political research throughout Bessarabia to identify potential weaknesses that could be exploited by the Kremlin. Much more needs to be done to increase connectivity between the region and the rest of Ukraine. This should include targeted investments in a major infrastructure upgrade, as well as efforts to promote tourism and attract more Ukrainian visitors to Bessarabia. The current investment projects announced by the government within the framework of the “Big Construction” program concern only a few schools, stadiums and a swimming pool.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent visit to the tiny but strategically located Snake Island (Zmiyiniy Ostriv) in the Black Sea off the coast of Bessarabia was a positive signal that the Kiev authorities recognize the need to pay more attention to the security of the region as a whole. While on Snake Island, Zelenskyy observed military exercises designed to repel an attempt by the Kremlin to capture the island. With the undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine now in its eighth year, few would be ready to rule out entirely the possibility of such an attack. Indeed, with Putin apparently determined to continue his efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, Bessarabia represents a potentially attractive target.

Previous attempts to stir pro-Kremlin separatism in the region fell flat in 2015, but there is no room for complacency. Instead, the international community should consider identifying Bessarabia as a priority security issue and start offering more assistance to Ukraine as the country seeks to prevent the region from becoming a new front in the conflict. hybrid war underway in Russia.

Michael Druckman is Resident Program Director for Ukraine at the International Republican Institute.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

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