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Living in Putin’s Crosshairs? Here are 5 Countries Fearing a Potential Russian Invasion

Few analysts thought Putin would launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine a few years ago, so it is not irrational for any of these countries to think that they might be the next one in the list

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Over the last two weeks, the world has been shocked by the images of Russian tanks crossing the Ukrainian border and the sight of residential buildings being completely destroyed as part of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the attention of the majority of the West remains fixed on the fate of the Russo-Ukrainian war, many have started questioning if Europe will return to a more insecure, war-ridden future, as many countries are asking themselves if they will be next on the list of Putin’s expansionist goals.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine appears to have caused a seismic shift in European behavior towards defense policy. Germany has pledged to change their historical hesitance to increase their military spending, Sweden and Finland have started to openly consider NATO membership as a response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and countries like Moldova and Georgia have made another push to accelerate their path towards integration with Europe.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has also raised alarms in capital cities around the continent as elected officials and citizens alike ask themselves if their country is the next in Moscow’s expansionist ambitions. The threat of a direct invasion, something that appeared to be destined to only exist in history books, has become a very real menace and governments around the continent will have to adapt and respond to it.

Ukrainian volunteers train in Odesa, in preparation for a possible Russian attack (EFE)

Which countries are in Putin’s crosshairs?

Moldova

The Republic of Moldova is perhaps one of the countries that are watching the invasion of Ukraine with the most concern. Just a few weeks ago, the Belarusian dictator Aleksander Lukashenko showed a map of what appeared to be future Russian military operations, including a military move towards Moldova, which possibly made it easier for Moldova’s leaders to apply for EU membership at the beginning of March.

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Moldova has had a long history of Russian interference and influence in its internal politics. Like a lot of countries in Eastern Europe, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991 and has not been part of either the EU or NATO, partly in order to avoid any unnecessary tensions with Moscow. The geography of the small European country is not particularly helpful, as it shares a large border with Western Ukraine, making it one of the top recipients of Ukrainian refugees during the war.  

putin's-crosshairs-moldova
Moldova has received thousands of Ukrainian refugees (EFE)

Russian influence in Moldova has been a key issue in national politics since its independence in the 1990s. Just a few years after the USSR dissolved, the eastern region of Transnistria (which has a larger share of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians than the rest of the country) broke away from Moldovan control and waged a two-year war with Russian military support, which gave them de facto independence, although the region remains internationally recognized as part of Moldova.

Transnistria has a sizable Russian military presence within its borders, as part of the Joint Trilateral Commission that was set up in the 1990s to broker peace between Moldova and the separatists. There are fears that the Russians could use this separatist region as either a launching pad for a new front in the Ukrainian invasion or to depose the Moldovan government.



Georgia

The small, Caucasian country of Georgia was the first sovereign nation that the Kremlin openly invaded in the 21st century. Georgia was also a member of the Soviet Union that gained its independence after the fall of the USSR in 1991, however, two regions of the new country (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) had majority non-Georgian populations and had a story of constant conflict with the Georgian government in Tbilisi.  

Back in 2008, a few months after NATO made public the possibility that Georgia would eventually be part of the defensive alliance, the Kremlin ordered Russian tanks to enter Georgia and defeated the Georgian army in five days of ferocious fighting. The Russians supported the two breakaways regions and even attacked suburbs of the Georgian capital, forcing the government to sue for peace.

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, stationing troops in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (EFE)

Since then, both regions have been recognized as independent countries only by Russia and a handful of Moscow allies (like Venezuela) and the Kremlin has kept a number of troops in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.


Just like Moldova, there are fears that the Russians could, in the future, use their military might and the troops it has stationed in these separatist regions to invade Georgia. In fact, Tbilisi has also asked for EU membership as a result of the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Baltic states

If an open, conventional, hot war opened between NATO and Moscow it is very likely that the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) would be at the center of the conflict. The three countries were the latest states that were part of the NATO expansion that has been so much criticized by Putin, and the tensions between Moscow and these countries have been running high for a while.

The animosity between Russia and the Baltics has deep historic roots. The three nations, which have distinct national identities obtained independence during the chaos of the Russian civil war. However, they were conquered by Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1940 and imposed forced Sovietization of the territories, the Soviet occupation of the Baltics was temporarily interrupted by a brutal Nazi occupation as Germany invaded the USSR, but Moscow recaptured the Baltics after they defeated the Germans. Many ethnic Russians moved to these countries (especially Estonia), something that many fear Putin might use to justify an invasion of the Baltics.

NATO has bolstered its military presence in the Baltic countries as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (EFE)

The Baltics were part of the USSR since then, however, nationalist movements started to put pressure on the Kremlin in the 1980s, and eventually, all three countries managed to get their independence as the USSR collapsed in 1991. Understandably, all three countries have maintained a wary eye on Russia, which explains their decision to apply for NATO membership in the early 2000s.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced NATO to shore up its military presence in the Baltic States, with the British army sending almost 900 soldiers just a few days after the invasion to form part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence which aims to bolster NATO defenses in the Baltics. American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has also visited the region and has confirmed NATO will defend them in case of a Russian attack.

An attack on the Baltic states would be the riskiest move for Putin in the medium term, as it would force NATO to enter into a conventional, full-fledged war against Russia in order to defend one of its members.  

Whether the Russian army, which is facing stiff resistance by the Ukrainians, will be logistically capable of pulling out an invasion of any of these countries remains an unanswered question. However, few analysts thought Putin would launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine a few years ago, so it is not irrational for any of these countries to think that they might be the next one in the list.

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