After the utter destruction of Mariupol, the second stage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is underway. The scope of the war now appears to be establishing complete control over Donbas and southern Ukraine. If successful, this would mean the Russian occupation of approximately one-third of Ukraine, cutting the country off from its Black Sea ports, including Odesa.
If fully realised, these objectives also raise the deeply worrying prospect of a Russian move on Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria. Stage two of Putin’s war could thus very well imply a more serious escalation.
For a long time, one of Russia’s main levers of such influence was so-called “de-facto states” in former republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union. These include Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova and – since 2014 – the self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) in the Donbas region. Moscow’s price for restoring control of these breakaway regions to their countries would be to legitimise proxy regimes there. This would give the Kremlin long-term influence over these countries’ foreign policy choices.
Moscow’s aim to occupy all of southern Ukraine is the logical conclusion of this strategy. Nonetheless, it reflects how things have changed with Russia’s original aspirations. From the ultimatum for Kyiv’s unconditional surrender in February 2022 to demands that Ukraine recognises the independence of the DPR, LPR and the annexation of Crimea the following month, it now appears that a negotiated agreement on Russian terms is less and less likely.
If successful, the land-grab by force that the Kremlin is now pursuing would also create a land bridge to Transnistria – one of the early Russian-controlled de-facto states – something that was already a possibility after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Toughening the sanctions regime will hurt the west as well. But the alternatives are worse not only for Ukraine but also for Moldova. A Russian success along the lines of its declared goals of the so-called second stage of its aggression against Ukraine will also make direct confrontation between Nato and Russia more likely. And it would almost certainly encourage Putin to try to achieve by force what he failed to gain in his proposed new Nato-Russia agreement of December 2021: the withdrawal of Nato forces from territories of all 14 states that joined the alliance since the end of the cold war.
Stopping Putin in Ukraine is the only realistic way to avoid a tragedy of even greater proportions and spread the conflict to a second country. The sooner the west realises this and acts accordingly, the greater the likelihood of effectively containing Russia and preserving the possibility of future peace and stability in Ukraine and beyond.
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