MOSCOW – It is December 2019 and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is flying to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his bold moves in standing up to the US and establishing a new world order.
“Even in its sleep the world does not forget that Russia can turn the entire planet into radioactive ash, not only the United States,” reads a new satirical short story by Belarussian writer Sergei Ostrovtsov.
The piece, titled “A Nobel for Putin”, was published online as waves of concern spread across countries of the former USSR over Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine’s peninsula of Crimea.
Putin’s pledge to protect compatriots beyond his country’s borders and his readiness to revisit history has re-opened old wounds in the Baltic nations and even troubled the Kremlin’s traditional allies.
Many of the post-Soviet countries have sizeable Russian-speaking populations and are struggling with festering territorial disputes and separatist claims of their own.
“All the former Soviet countries have artificial borders,” said Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group.
“A precedent for redrawing borders has been created.”
Following an uprising that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last month, Putin sent troops to Russian-speaking Crimea, citing concern for compatriots.
On Tuesday, he signed a treaty making the peninsula part of Russian territory, saying Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to give it to Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union in 1954 was a mistake.
– Allies tense up –
The significance of Russia’s absorption of Crimea has not been lost on the fellow Slavic nation of Belarus whose cities of Gomel, Mogilyov and Vitebsk were once part of the republic of Soviet Russia under the USSR.
Since the start of the crisis, the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been manoeuvering to hedge his bets and remain on good terms with Moscow, agreeing to station additional Russian fighter jets in his country.
But just like Ukraine, Belarus in 1994 signed the so-called Budapest memorandum, renouncing its military nuclear capability in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States and Britain.
“Where can we, poor Belarussians, hide from such a ‘friend?’,” said former Belarussian lawmaker and political analyst Andrei Klimov, referring to Russia.
The attitude of even close allies within the former USSR has been of extreme caution.
The energy-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan acknowledged the results of the referendum in Crimea, where a majority of the population voted to split from Ukraine and join Russia, but President Nursultan Nazarbayev has not so far made any public comments on Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula.
President Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia, which last year said it would join Moscow-led customs union, agreed that people have a right to self-determination but stopped short of endorsing Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
Many analysts said the seizure of the peninsula dealt a huge blow to Moscow’s ties with ex-Soviet allies.
In 2011, Putin unveiled a grand plan to build on the experience of the European Union and integrate post-Soviet states into a economic zone on the basis of Moscow’s customs union together with Kazakhstan and Belarus.
“There won’t be any integration with Kazakhstan and Belarus when Russia is capable of seizing territory from other countries,” said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics.
– ‘Easy to become Putin’s colonies’-
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, which is desperate to reclaim Nagorny Karabakh from Armenian-backed separatists who seized it in a bloody war in the early 1990s, said that the crisis in Ukraine should be resolved “within the framework of the country’s constitution”.
The leaders of Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, which is home to a major Russian base, have all watched the unfolding crisis in Ukraine in silence.
But Kyrgyzstan, the most politically open of the Central Asian states which survived a bloody uprising in 2010, quickly said it no longer recognised the ousted Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president.
“It’s a signal to the countries of the Central Asia,” leader of the opposition El-Zhurt party, Kubanychbek Apas, told AFP. “It will now be easy for the former Soviet republics to become the colonies of Putin’s authoritarian Russia.”
Romanian-speaking Moldova immediately warned Moscow gainst trying to annex its breakaway region of Transdestr after the Russians-speaking separatist territory appealed to lawmakers in Moscow to pass legislation that could allow the region become part of Russia.
“Separatism is a very dangerous infection,” said Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Estonia, which were occupied by the Soviet Union during World War II, were predictably furious.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili of Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, said the Ukraine events posed a threat to “the entire world order”.
But many ethnic Russians across the former Soviet Union said they were happy to know that Putin was there to defend them.
“My mind has been put at ease,” said Antonina Mikheyeva, a Russian who lives in Turkmenistan. “I know that if something happens Russia will protect my children and me.”