In the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, many are wondering who is next on President Vladimir Putin’s list?
Nato’s top military commander on Sunday that Russia has a large force on Ukraine’s eastern border and is worried it could pose a threat to Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region.
The warning comes a day after Russian troops, using armoured vehicles, automatic weapons and stun grenades, seized Belbek, the last military facilities under Ukrainian control in Crimea.
“The (Russian) force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready,” Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove said on Sunday.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea, which has a majority Russian population, after the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych by mass protests has triggered the worst east-west crisis since the cold war.
Mr Breedlove said Nato was very concerned about the threat to Transnistria, which declared independence from Moldova in 1990 but has not been recognised by any United Nations member state.
About 30 per cent of its half million population is ethnic Russian, which is the mother tongue of an overall majority.
Russia launched a new military exercise, involving 8,500 artillery men, near Ukraine’s border 10 days ago.
“There is absolutely sufficient (Russian) force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Mr Breedlove said.
The president of ex-Soviet Moldova warned Russia last Tuesday against considering any move to annex Transdniestria, which lies on Ukraine’s western border, in the same way that it has taken control of Crimea.
The speaker of Transnistria’s parliament had urged Russia earlier to incorporate the region.
According to the Washington Post, they both remain de facto states, namely political entities that have achieved enduring “internal sovereignty” on a portion of the territory of the Republics of Georgia and Moldova – but lack “external sovereignty” in the international system.
The 2011 census in Abkhazia recorded its population as around 240,000. Its latest census records places its population at over 555,000, a multiethnic population made up of self-identifying ethnic Moldovans, Russians, Ukrainians and others.
For most residents, it’s a straight choice between independence and annexation to Russia.
While majorities of Russians and Ukrainians in the Ossetians and Armenians in Abkhazia prefer to be part of Russia, support for the status quo is seen in Abkhazia by the politically-dominant Abkhaz and those Georgians/Mingrelians who ventured an opinion when surveyed by the Washington Post.
The conclusion is that the prospect of annexation by the Russian Federation would likely be welcomed by a plurality of residents of Transnistria, and the overwhelming majority of those remaining in South Ossetia.
Abkhazia is a more complex case. It seems likely its ethnic Abkhaz-dominated power structure would have difficulties resisting its paymasters in Moscow if the latter decided they were open to”‘welcoming” the republic into the Russian Federation.
However, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov was quoted by the state’s Itar-Tass news agency on Sunday as saying that Russia was complying with international agreements limiting the number of troops near its border with Ukraine.
Moscow’s ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov also told the BBC that Russia did not have any “expansionist views”.
Asked to give a commitment that Russian troops would not move into other Ukrainian territory outside the Crimea, Mr Chizhov said: “There is no intention of the Russian Federation to do anything like that.”
US President Barack Obama’s national security adviser said on Friday that the world was reassessing its relationship with Russia and Washington was sceptical of Russian assurances that troop movements on the Ukraine border were no more than military exercises.