Russians Beyond Russian Borders Spell Distress For Eastern Europe

Stephen Sestanovich, who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union, speaks about potential flashpoints where, like Crimea, large concentrations of Russians live outside Russia.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Vladimir Putin's take on Crimea is that Russia has a right to protect ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in former republics of the Soviet Union. But for now we're going to leave aside the question of whether they actually need protecting and hear about where else outside Russia's borders, what locations pose the greatest potential for Russian intervention. And joining me to talk about that is Professor Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University, a former U.S. ambassador at large to the former Soviet Union. Good to see you again.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Thanks.

SIEGEL: Let's start - if we're looking out, as Vladimir Putin might from Moscow, where, apart from Crimea, do we see a similar group of Russians who he might be tempted to support?

SESTANOVICH: Well, you see, of course, many Russians in the eastern provinces of Ukraine, and that's the focus of diplomatic attention these days. Elsewhere, there's a little slither of Moldova called Transnistria. There are parts of Latvia. There are parts of Kazakhstan that have significant Russian populations - 25, 30 percent - that could be the basis for the same kinds of interference and claims.

SIEGEL: Let's leave aside eastern Ukraine, which we've heard a good deal about, and turn to Transnistria, that slither of Moldova.

SESTANOVICH: Well, Transnistria has resisted incorporation into Moldova from the very collapse of the Soviet Union. It's a small strip of land on the other side of the Dniester River, 500,000 people, couple of thousand Russian troops. It's one-third Russian. And it has been interested in joining Russia regularly. Ten years ago, they asked to join Russia. They were turned down.

SIEGEL: But they don't border Russia.

SESTANOVICH: They do not, and that's an obstacle.

SIEGEL: So, Transnistria is one spot. One of the Baltic republics at least has a very, very large Russian minority population.

SESTANOVICH: Latvia is about 26-plus percent Russian. There are cities in Latvia that have a higher percentage. And the largest opposition party is Russian. But they're not separatist. They have been integrated into Latvian politics. Latvia is a prosperous member of the EU and NATO. Its per-capita GDP is about the same as Russia. So, there's not the economic incentive that people in Crimea had, for example, who thought that their pensions were going to be increased.

SIEGEL: You also mentioned the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan as having a large Russian minority.

SESTANOVICH: The northern strip of Kazakhstan is largely Russian. And in fact, when the country became independent 20 years ago, their leader, President Nazarbayev, decided that it was a bad idea to have the capital in the Kazak south and he moved it to the Russian north, because he thought this would be a way of integrating the country. And they took over a Russian town and they made it into the Kazak capital.

SIEGEL: When you look at the Russian population, say, in Transnistria, in eastern Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, does any of them seem likely to be the object of the sort of move the Russians made on Crimea?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think there's some significant differences. I mean, take Transnistria. In contrast to Crimea, it fulfills no nationalist dream by being incorporated into Russia. It's a kind of rust belt dump. There's no real strategic significance to it. There are no great battles in Russian military history there. It's the kind of headache for the Russians.

SIEGEL: If, in fact, there really aren't other places in the former Soviet Union that Putin would be able to annex the way he did Crimea, by mentioning them is he just building up his own bargaining position to say, here, you know, I have an interest in all of these places, and then negotiate down to just waste got so far?

SESTANOVICH: It may be a matter of diplomatic bargaining but it may be more dangerous than that. Putin may have generated momentum among Russian nationalist groups inside Russia, and in other countries, and that momentum may be hard for him to just flip on and off. He may have taken the cork out of the nationalism bottle and may regret it.

SIEGEL: Stephen Sestanovich, thank you very much for talking with us.

SESTANOVICH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Ambassadors Sestanovich's new book is called "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama."

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