Many ex-Soviet republics do not want Russian troops operating in their country
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Soviet Union is long gone, but Russian troops are active throughout the former Soviet republics. In fact, Russian soldiers have been operating in five former republics this year. Russian leader Vladimir Putin sees this as a way to maintain influence beyond his country's borders. Many former republics do not share this view. For more, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So obviously the war in Ukraine is happening, but where else are Russian troops active right now?
MYRE: Yeah, if we start in Ukraine, we don't have to go very far to find more Russian troops. Just a few days ago, some communications towers were blown up in Moldova. Now, this is this tiny country that borders Ukraine to the southwest. Russia's had about 1,500 troops in a separatist region in eastern Moldova for the past 30 years, very much against the will of Moldova's government. We still don't know who's behind these explosions, but they do raise concerns that the war in Ukraine could spill over into Moldova.
MARTIN: I mean, the most significant support for Russia's war in Ukraine when it comes to former Soviet republics is Belarus, right?
MYRE: Yeah, absolutely true. The leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is very closely tied to Putin. He allowed Russian troops into Belarus, and then they used his country as the launching pad when they invaded Ukraine. So the reasons that we see these troops in these three countries - Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova - vary widely, but there's a common theme. Vladimir Putin claims the West is trying to undermine Russia, and he wants these former Soviet republics, as well as others, to be this protective buffer for Russia. However, Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says a lot of these countries aren't so keen on the idea.
ANDREW WEISS: Nearly all of the post-Soviet countries have a lot of heartburn about looking to Putin as a benevolent security guarantor. Left to their own devices, none of these countries really wants to be back under the Kremlin's wing.
MARTIN: So we know Belarus obviously supports the war in Ukraine, but what about the other former Soviet republics?
MYRE: You know, we've seen quite a bit of ambivalence. To just give one example, many abstained in a U.N. resolution on the war. Now, Putin says that in Ukraine and elsewhere, he's protecting ethnic Russians who live outside Russia's borders. And that takes us to a fourth country with Russian troops - Georgia, on Russia's southwestern frontier. Now, Putin cited this rationale of safeguarding Russians when he sent troops there in 2008 for a brief, bloody conflict, and the Russian forces are still there in a conflict that's effectively frozen. Now, we should note that some of these Russian troops in Georgia were sent to help in Ukraine. This is an example of how these conflicts overlap.
MARTIN: We've also seen how Putin will use the Russian military to prop up regimes that are friendly to him, right? I mean, remind us what he did in Kazakhstan.
MYRE: Yeah. Just back in January, Putin sent Russian troops into the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. They helped the country's autocratic ruler put down widespread protests. The unrest was stamped out. The Russians left after just a few weeks. You might think a grateful Kazakh leadership would stand with Putin when he then turned around and invaded Ukraine a month later. Here's Andrew Weiss again.
WEISS: The Kazakh authorities are now showing that they don't support what's happening in Ukraine. They're sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and they're indicating that they fully support Ukraine's sovereignty and independence. So if that's what a loyal vassal looks like, it's not exactly what Vladimir Putin was hoping for.
MYRE: So we often hear this talk about Putin wanting to reconstruct the Soviet Union, but this is just another example of how big a challenge that's going to be.
MARTIN: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg. We appreciate it.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.