With the world’s attention focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is looking for new opportunities to further destabilize Europe and distract it from the atrocities his army is committing. Recently, Moscow has been exploiting existing domestic vulnerabilities in Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina by weaponizing secessionist movements. The former two countries must contend with rogue, internationally unrecognized “breakaway” territories with Russian military presence on the ground—Transnistria in Moldova and the so-called South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia—while Bosnia is beset by ethnic strife caused by conflicts between its Bosniak, Serb, and Croat populations.
Moscow fuels separatist rhetoric and operates pro-Russian disinformation campaigns to encourage division and instability in these countries. While Western military analysts emphasize the Russian army’s poor performance in Ukraine, the Kremlin does not need to roll into any of these three countries with tanks to achieve its objectives. Using the same secessionist playbook in all three countries, Putin can accomplish two goals at once: strengthening Moscow’s standing in these countries, and creating leverage over Western powers who don’t want the violence to spiral further.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed Moldova in a very vulnerable position. Moldova is Europe’s poorest country, is highly dependent on Russian natural gas, and is currently facing various economic and security problems. In April 2022, as the war in Ukraine raged on, a number of unexplained explosions occurred in parts of Transnistria, a Russian-aligned territory along Moldova’s border with Ukraine that claims independence from Moldova. Some analysts believe that these explosions were a staged provocation to give Transnistria a casus belli to go to war with Moldova or for Russia to use this territory to attack Ukraine from a new front.
Russian Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev has sparked further concerns by publicly stating that Russia’s war aim is to seize full control of Ukraine’s southern coast. If successful, such a campaign would give Moscow access to Transnistria, where Minnekayev claims the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed. Following the EU’s recent decision to grant Moldova (and Ukraine) candidate status, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov asserted that Moldova associates candidate status with anti-Russianness. Peskov’s comment is important because Russia has consistently justified its invasion of Ukraine by purporting to be protecting those persecuted by “Russophobia.” Recently, the foreign minister of Transnistria, Vitaly Ignatiev, framed Moldova’s EU candidate status as a dead end—killing any possibility for cooperation—and expressed a commitment to the territory’s independence and possible subsequent integration with Russia.
As in Moldova, growing separatist tensions in Georgia have intensified fears of a Russian invasion. In May 2022, the former de-facto leader of so-called South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov, announced a referendum on unification with Russia. Although his successor canceled the plans to hold a referendum for now, Georgia still faces constant provocations from Russian-backed separatists, including the kidnapping and illegal detention of civilians living alongside the so-called administrative boundary line. With Georgia’s population remaining overwhelmingly pro-Western and seeking integration into the EU and NATO, Georgia is particularly vulnerable without the protection of any security umbrella. Through its local enablers, Russia is attempting to change public opinion by spreading disinformation that the precondition for Georgia’s NATO membership would include recognition of the independence of Russian-occupied Georgian territories. In the meantime, Russia continues to stoke separatism in a bid to maintain its sphere of influence and to weaken Georgia’s statehood. For example, earlier this year the Russian-controlled KGB of South Ossetia issued a statement claiming that there are rising neo-Nazi and nationalistic sentiments in Georgia.
Furthermore, in the month following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 30,000 Russians fled to Georgia to avoid living under sanctions. The influx of Russian citizens has caused concern among Georgians that at some point, Putin may use the growing Russian population to justify another invasion by claiming Georgia is “oppressing” Russian citizens. Russia used such a pretext in 2008 when it launched a full-scale invasion of Georgia and occupied 20 percent of its territory—Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. Russia is still waging a “quiet” war 14 years later by pushing a “borderization” policy that entails slowly grabbing more territories from Georgia.
As Russia is sparking fears of intensified conflict in Moldova and Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina is now facing its greatest existential threat since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995. Russia is undermining Bosnia’s stability by exacerbating ethnic divisions between Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs. Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, acts as a key player in the Kremlin’s bid for the Balkans. He has threatened Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia (the country is made up of two entities, the other being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) but his actions speak louder than words. In December, the Republika Srpska parliament voted in favor of starting a procedure for Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from national institutions such as the Bosnian army, security services, tax system and judiciary. Such a withdrawal would cause the collapse of Bosnia’s government and further destabilize the country right before the 2022 general elections in October. The subsequent instability could give Serbia justification to invade Bosnia and “annex” its Serbian speaking populations under the guise of protecting its compatriots abroad. As Dodik has emphasized, Putin has promised him that “we are not leaving our friends.”
Dragan Čović, the leader of the biggest Bosnian Croat party, has been pushing for electoral reform and he openly said this is a “direct threat to peace and stability in Bosnia”, which is a dream come true for Putin. They have threatened to block government functions after the country’s elections in October, which would only intensify the crisis.”
Through increased meddling in Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Putin has made it clear that he can pull the trigger and defrost frozen conflicts whenever he pleases. The U.S. and Europe must send information warfare teams to counter Moscow’s weaponization of secessionist movements. Failure to do so will ensure that the Kremlin will win in these vulnerable countries and will be able to further destabilize Europe. As the war in Ukraine has shown, where Russian influence goes, chaos and destruction follow in its wake.
Ivana Stradner is an adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Natia Seskuria is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.