The Foreign Service Journal, June 2022

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JUNE 2022 21 COVER STORY MOLDOVA PUTIN’S NEXT TARGET? A s I write this article, we are seeing increased focus on a possible expansion of Russian aggression in Ukraine into the neighboring country of Moldova. Just recently, Russian General RustamMinnekayev suggested that successful seizure of the entirety of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastal regions would allow access to the Russian-occupied breakaway section of eastern Moldova known as Transnistria (or Transdniestria). Moldova is neither in NATO nor the European Union and would appear to be extremely vulnerable to a Russian inva- sion. It is a small country, relatively poor in human and material resources, and its military and tiny population (thousands already have immigrated to the West) would offer little effective resistance to a determined Russian advance. The result of an advance would put Russian forces face to face with Romania, a NATO country with strong historical and cultural ties to Moldova. I am among those who believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overarching goal is restoration of the Russian Empire and consolidation of a cultural myth known as the Russkiy Mir—a unique Russian space consisting of land and peoples who alleg- edly are an inseparable constituent component of a superior Russian culture and way of life. In this regard, the importance of Kievan Rus’ (i.e., Ukraine) to the origin story of Russia is para- mount. Putin is understandably embarrassed by the encroach- ment of NATO up to Russia’s borders and has punished Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia for even contemplating NATOmembership, but a military threat fromNATO is not really his motivation. Rather, his sole desire for a legacy is to restore to the greatest extent possible the imperial grandeur of a Russian-dominated region that would resemble the Soviet state he once served as a KGB agent and, more important, establish the dominance of a specifically Russian nation united by one church, one language and one culture. In other words, this is a cultural confrontation. Putin’s anger with NATO encroachment is not based so much on a perceived security threat as on an embrace of Western values over Russian ones. While Russia is performing poorly on the military, strategic and logistical front in Ukraine, the real challenge and focus for Putin is linguistic and cultural hegemony. Russification was a tactic used in czarist times to conquer through forced assimilation. It is still Putin’s preferred strategy. He denies that Ukraine was ever a sepa- rate nation and claims that the Ukrainian language is a “peasant dialect” of Russian. His current tactic of exiling Ukrainians from occupied territories to the interior of Russia is also a practice from czarist times and creates facts on the ground by simply relocating non-Russians to Russia proper. After the USSR’s Collapse My involvement with Russia spans more than four decades. Following my first trip as an undergraduate in 1977 to study Rus- sian in Moscow, I served at our embassy there three times in three different decades (1980s, 1990s and 2000s). I watched the final days of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union, as well as the immediate aftermath of its collapse in the early 1990s. I then saw Putin’s rise in this century and the general relief and approval throughout Russia as he curbed the power of organized James Pettit served in Moscow three times in ad- dition to a number of other overseas posts. He was deputy chief of mission in Kyiv (2007-2010) and ambassador in Chisinau (2015-2018). He retired in 2018 after 38 years in the Foreign Service. A former ambassador to Moldova offers his perspective on the underlying issues of culture, language, ethnicity and history driving the current conflict. BY JAMES PETT I T