December 14, 2023 | New York Post

Putin is already proving he won’t stop at Ukraine

December 14, 2023 | New York Post

Putin is already proving he won’t stop at Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks out the Kremlin windows upon a nation whose economy, buckling under Western sanctions, is sputtering as badly as his tanks are across the battlefields of Ukraine.

In a quagmire with more than 100,000 troops lost, Putin has few options to get his country back on track.

Besides hoping Western backers end aid to Ukraine, Putin’s Plan B is to create a disruption to take the world’s eyes off his disastrous invasion.

Whether in the Middle East, Europe or Latin America, Putin has plenty of ways to seek to shake things up — not that he was ever going to stop at Ukraine.

Multiple analysts cited Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel as having most benefited Russia, which for once was no longer the world’s top enemy.

Russia ally Venezuela’s land grab from oil-rich neighboring Guyana is unlikely to be coincidence.

It all highlights that to drum up a new distraction, Putin doesn’t need to challenge NATO via an attack on Poland or the Baltic states.

Wiser and simpler is to start a conflict elsewhere — in the Balkans or Moldova. 

Moscow is already foreshadowing its plans.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Moldova it will be “the next victim in the hybrid war that the West unleashed against Russia” ­— Kremlin double-speak implying Moscow has already set its sights on Europe’s poorest country.

Putin’s efforts to create instability in the Balkans and Moldova are part of his mission to reestablish Russia as the region’s only reliable conflict negotiator — a role that gives Putin tremendous leverage over Western powers if they want to keep regional conflict from escalating. 

The Kremlin appears especially intent on punishing Moldova, a small nation wedged between Ukraine and Romania, for its political independence and refusal to toe the Russian line. 

Aside from the perennial threat that Russia could use its proxy-state, Transnistria, to destabilize Moldova, Russian fronts have recently been unusually active.

Putin this year repealed a decree recognizing Moldova’s independence.

His escalatory reactions to Moldova’s continued pro-West alignment have raised concerns he could be planning another invasion.

Moldova’s challenges are exacerbated by pro-Russian politicians and their supporters arguing closer ties to the Kremlin would boost the country’s economy.

Ilan Shor, pro-Russia Shor opposition party leader who’s been convicted of fraud and money-laundering and is living in exile, last fall mobilized thousands of protesters to demand President Maia Sandu’s resignation.

The Russian foreign ministry also declared Moldova’s recent decision to join European Union sanctions against Russia a hostile step aimed at destroying ties with Moscow — and threatened the Kremlin will retaliate.

Chisinau has not put its head in the sand in response to Moscow’s aggressive rhetoric.

In late October, Moldova released a new national-security plan that, for the first time, labeled Russia an existential threat and warned the Kremlin planned to “liquidate” its statehood.

The month before, it expelled Sputnik News director Vitaly Denisov and banned him from the country for 10 years.

Moldova is an example to others: Cut out the present threat before it becomes an uncontrollable crisis.

In the Balkans, it is no better. Russia, assisted by ally Serbia, is stirring up troubles there with the goal of exacerbating the existing, perilous ethnic tensions in the region, which it hopes to leverage into asserting its dominance in Eastern Europe. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned the world: “Pay attention to the Balkans. Believe me, we are receiving information: Russia has a long plan.” 

Masked gunmen opened fire on a police patrol in Kosovo in September, killing four people and prompting a Serbian military buildup in response.

Serbia placed its troops on combat alert in May, and President Aleksandar Vucic last year said the two countries were “on the brink of armed conflict.”

Throughout this standoff, Belgrade has repeatedly thanked Moscow for its “support for Serbia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” and stressed it’s why Serbia refuses to impose sanctions on Russia. 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has threatened Republika Srpska would secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

With Moscow’s backing, his words could become actions — and it would result in a serious conflict.

As Russia suffers loss after loss in Ukraine, the Kremlin will increasingly resort to asymmetric means to challenge and distract the West.

Though the West has grown tired of Ukraine, Putin’s desire for conquest and war have not subsided.

Western leaders must proactively counter the games Putin is playing in Moldova and the Balkans before it is too late.

Jason Smart is a special correspondent for Ukraine’s Kyiv Post. Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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