Take Me Home, Mother Russia

10 places that would welcome a Putin landgrab, and 10 parts of Russia that want the hell out.


Vladimir Putin's trademark smirk, equal parts smugness and mischief, was never more appropriate than March 18 in the Kremlin's St. George Hall, when justifying Russia's lightning-speed annexation of Crimea.

Vladimir Putin’s trademark smirk, equal parts smugness and mischief, was never more appropriate than March 18 in the Kremlin’s St. George Hall, when justifying Russia’s lightning-speed annexation of Crimea.

Not only did Putin finally reverse his country’s dramatic territorial shrinkage post Soviet Union, he did it while thumbing his nose at the West and its hypocrisy on what he called the "Kosovo precedent." How dare the United States and its allies, who supported that Serbian province’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 in the face of Moscow’s furious but futile opposition, now deny the persecuted Crimeans that same option?

Ironically, Putin’s denouncement of the West’s about-face also applies to Russia’s own change of heart. "You cannot call the same thing black today and white tomorrow," he fumed.

But if a precedent that is imitated is no longer an exception, then self-determination might be the new rule. And Putin might want to get ready for a lot more instances of superpower-sponsored separatism.

Indeed, Russia is likely to remain the epicenter for these geopolitical tremors. But — and this might prove more painful for Moscow soon — there are plenty of regions, territories, and autonomous republics who want to do to Russia what Crimea did to Ukraine: get the heck out of there.

Here are the 10 likeliest comers and goers in the Kremlin’s new parlor game.

Top 10 on the way in

1. Transnistria

Cutting an unlikely figure, this phantom state of roughly half a million people measures about 450 miles north to south, but is barely 15 miles across. It occupies the east bank of the Dniestr, the river that separates it from the rest of Moldova, from which this Russian-dominated region seceded in 1992 — with a little help from the Russian Army and Cossack irregulars. And yet not even Russia recognizes Transnistria as an independent nation — it entertains diplomatic relations only with the three other members of the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (CDRN), a losers’ club of post-Soviet puppet states (more on the other members Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh below). On March 17, the local parliament appealed to the Russian Duma for this breakaway region to also join Russia. That might be tricky, as it is completely wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, sharing no border with Russia proper. But it works for Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, and it could work for Transnistria, too.

2. Donbass

The Donets Basin, or Donbass, in Eastern Ukraine is twice the size of Massachusetts, with about 7 million inhabitants. It was a crucial industrial epicenter of the Soviet Union, a communist version of the Ruhrgebiet, the beating heart of West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder. Soviet posters proclaimed it Serdse Rossii — the Heart of Russia. The massive concentration of steel, coal, and other heavy industries attracted Russians and other Soviet nationalities, producing a pro-Russian majority in what is the most densely populated part of Ukraine. This is the home turf of Victor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president whose overthrow in February sparked the current crisis, and it’s the likeliest stage for any further Russian land grabs in Ukraine.

3. New Russia

The area just north of Crimea on the Ukrainian mainland was called Novorossiya, or "New Russia" after the Kremlin wrested it from Ottoman control in the 18th century and opened it up for Russian colonization. It is still heavily Russophone, especially in bigger cities like Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk, and consistently voted for the Party of Regions, whose mainstay was Yanukovych and other pro-Moscow candidates. It could conceivably be persuaded to lean toward Moscow rather than Kiev. And Russia’s first military pinpricks, from Crimea into New Russia, have already been reported, with Russia occupying a gas pumping station in the town of Strilkove just north of Crimea in mid-March.

4. Abkhazia

No more than 25 miles east of Sochi, the jewel in Russia’s Olympic crown, is Abkhazia — the prettiest of the four "sleeping beauties" in Russia’s near abroad (the other three frozen conflict zones being Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh.) Like the others, this too was effectively created by the Red Army, which in 1993 helped the Abkhaz chase the Georgians from what nominally still is the western extremity of that country. As with Transnistria and South Ossetia, Abkhazia’s independence is recognized by just a handful of states. If Crimea fares well as part of Russia, Abkhazia — which has signaled approval for Crimea’s secession — might also be tempted to join.

5. South Ossetia

Another chunk out of Georgia, carved from the northern part of the country in a short, sharp Russo-Georgian war in August 2008 that saw Georgia’s pro-Western president Mikheil Saakashvili nervously eat his tie on television — literally — as Russian tanks approached the capital Tblisi. Numbering just 55,000, the South Ossetians constitute the smallest of Russia’s unofficial protectorates. (Fun fact: They are the descendants of the Alans, an Indo-Iranian tribe that may be the etymological source for the English name Alan.) South Ossetia, too, is increasingly turning from Georgia to Russia. And if Crimea’s absorption goes well, Russia might swallow South Ossetia for dessert.

6. Belarus

What communist apparatchik still hogs the presidency of a post-Soviet republic, stubbornly choosing imperial nostalgia over ties to the outside world? Welcome to Belarus, formerly aka White Russia and Belorussia, ruled since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko, a mustachioed Statler to Putin’s Waldorf. This Slavic country is such a close political and cultural match with Russia that in 1999 the two countries signed a treaty to form a confederation (though it soon lost steam.) Any new merger would likely be sanctioned by a referendum, but in a country often dubbed "Europe’s last dictatorship," such a plebiscite would be as questionable as the recent Crimean one.

7. Northern Kazakhstan

Russia remains the world’s largest country, but it’s down considerably in size from the days of the Soviet Union. This is mainly due to the secession of the Central Asian ‘Stans, of which Kazakhstan — with an area of more than 1 million square miles, clocking in at four times the size of Texas — is the largest. In Soviet times, Russians outnumbered Kazakhs in their own republic. That’s no longer the case, but Russians remain in the majority in northern Kazakhstan, an enormous zone of dry, flat steppe adjacent to the Russian border. Like Crimea, this region was part of Russia proper before the Soviets transferred it. The return of that prodigal region could stir some emotions on the steppe. After all, this is the location of Russia’s vital Baikonur spaceport; and no less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn advocated Russia’s annexation of these lands.

8. Russians in the Baltic

If and when Putin wants to pick a fight with the European Union, there is little doubt where the trouble will start — in the three Baltic states, the only former republics of the USSR that are now EU members. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have reinvented themselves as tech-savvy mini-states, Scandinavian in ambition rather than encumbered by their Soviet past. But each is home to sizeable Russian minorities, which are in the majority in some regions and cities, and whose heartfelt nostalgia and genuine frustration are feared by the Balts and treasured by the Russians as pent-up reservoirs of political friction.

9. Nagorno Karabakh

Back in 1989, this is where the Soviet Union started to unravel, when fighting broke out between the ethnic Armenians of this enclave and the majority Azeri of the republic from which they wanted to secede. Months of vicious fighting and reciprocal massacres finally led to a stalemate that continues today, with the phantom state of Artsakh established by the victorious Armenians, in a region that officially is still part of Azerbaijan. This untenable situation has been maintained for a quarter of a century. Could Russia come to the aid of the encircled Armenians?

10. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

Putin is only partly right when he says that Russia has a historical claim on Crimea. Russia’s history in the region is only three centuries old — before that, the Turks and Tatars ruled the roost. Perhaps a better formula for the Putin Doctrine is this: Russia has rights wherever Russians live in significant numbers. Who says that this policy needs to stop at the borders of the former Soviet Union? Maybe a few Russian trikolori burning in Brighton Beach is all the reason Vladimir Vladimirovich needs to send a few gunboats from freshly conquered Sevastopol to round the tip of Breezy Point…

* * *

Top 10 on the way out

1. Chechnya

The Caucasus is a quilt of cultures, languages, religions, grudges, and vendettas — none so deadly as the one between Chechens and Russians. With the Soviet Union imploding, Chechnya made the mistake of trying to "do a Kosovo" by declaring its independence from Russia. The Russians would have none of it, but it took two wars to pummel the Chechens back into the fold: a ploddingly ineffective one under Yeltsin in the 1990s, and a viciously effective one under Putin over the last decade. But despite its pro-Russian leadership, separatism grows like weed in Chechnya; when Moscow directs its attention elsewhere for a while, it will blossom again. And perhaps in a more virulent form: a small, hard core of Wahhabi Chechens has been willing to use violence to establish an Emirate of the Caucasus, that would include other restless areas such as Dagestan and Ingushetia.

2. Tatarstan

The Volga is one of the great Russian landscapes, but that river laps the shores of a decidedly non-Russian entity: Tatarstan, the northernmost outpost of Islam in the world. Like many nationalities in the Soviet Union, the Tatars had their own republic, in which they were purposely made a minority. However, they now constitute just over half of the republic’s 2 million people — and it continues to grow more Muslim and Turkic, and less Russian. This has energized Tatar nationalism beyond the safe zones of social, cultural, and religious issues, even though separatism would be more than a bit tricky for a province entirely encircled by Russia.

3. Idel-Ural

The Tatars are numerous enough to contemplate going it alone, but the other non-Russian ethnicities in the wider area tend to dream of an independent Idel-Ural (Volga-Ural), the collective name for Tatarstan and five other tiny republics: Udmurtia, Mordovia, Chuvashia, Bashkortostan, and Mari-El. Their religions include Islam, Orthodoxy, and paganism and only some of their languages are mutually intelligible. But they share one important common trait: They’re not Russian!

4. Kalmykia

Europe’s only Buddhist state, this Russian republic of roughly 300,000 people on the western shores of the Caspian Sea is populated by the descendants of Siberian herders. The Kalmyk’s unique ethnic and religious status within Russia — and their forced russification, collectivization, and deportation — has kept their sense of "otherness" alive. The capital, Elista, is a well-known venue of high-profile chess matches, and the Kalmyk president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the head of FIDE, the International Chess Federation, is also famous for the tour of the galaxy he claimed he took in 1997 on a UFO. Could a resurgent Asian power reach out and loosen Moscow’s grip on Chessland?

5. Kaliningrad

The northern part of what used to be East Prussia, Germany’s easternmost province, is now Russia’s westernmost district. Few Germans remain, and the region’s nearly half-million people are mostly Russian. But being surrounded by prosperous EU member states may be going to their heads. Some Kaliningraders have even taken to calling their capital by its old name of Königsberg again, more to stress distance from Moscow than proximity to Berlin. Hence also the Baltic Republican Party, whose aim was greater autonomy and possibly independence, which Moscow abolished in 2003, though it has since re-formed as a "public movement."

6. Karelia

Karelia is the name of a Russian territory bordering a Finnish territory with the same name, and a shared history. Much of Russian Karelia (aka East Karelia) was Finnish before the Soviets took it from them in the Winter War of 1939-40; its inhabitants are now mainly non-Finnish newcomers. Still, some Finnish groups like ProKarelia are eager to reclaim the area, which they see as the Finnish heartland. And the fall of communism has enabled a renaissance of Finnish culture in the region, in large part fuelled by émigré Karelians, who could be crucial in steering the region toward a vote to loosen its ties with Moscow.

7. Komi Republic

The nomadic Komi make up barely a quarter of the million inhabitants of this Iraq-sized, mineral-rich republic in the northern reaches of European Russia. But the Russians are newbies: mainly former convicts and their descendants. If the Komi could persuade them to depart for sunnier climes, or go native and work toward an independent homeland, this mass of frozen tundra (which claims to have reserves of 242 billion tons of coal, over 600 million tons of oil and over 140 billion cubic meters of gas) could be the Saudi Arabia of the North.

8. Circassia

Before Sochi was Russian, it was the capital of the Circassians. Afterward, it became the graveyard of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t flee overseas. The expulsion of the Circassians from their homeland in the northwestern Caucasus is one of the lesser-known tragedies of the 19th century — at least outside the Muslim world. Their descendants now live in Turkey, and throughout the Middle East. A nascent nationalism among these millions demands the restoration of their ancient homeland.

9. Karachay-Balkaria

A classic example or Soviet Russia’s divide-and-rule policy: place the ethnically-related Balkar and Karachay peoples in "national" republics with other, less-related ethnicities. The nationalist agenda in the region reads like a DIY manual: first, divide Kabardino-Balkaria into a Kabardin and a Balkar republic and Karachay-Cherkessia into a Karachay and a Cherkess republic. Then, assemble the Balkar and Karachay parts into a single republic. Still with me? After this, unite both ethnicities into a single one. And finally, if anyone is still up for it, get the newly united Turkic republic to unite with Turkey itself — just a short ride away across the Caspian Sea. 

10. Birobidzhan

Before the Jews had Israel, they had this area of Siberia to call home, and Joseph Stalin to thank for it. Birobidzhan, east of Mongolia and bordering China, was to become the Jewish homeland. While that may not exactly have gone to plan, the republic is still officially designated the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and Yiddish is still co-official language with Russian. There’s even still about 6,000 Jews living there. Perhaps it would be wise for World Zionism to develop this option, in case something serious happens to Plan A. Another big plus: it’s well outside the range of Iranian missiles.

Bonus round! Siberia

The Big One. Continent-sized. Resource-rich. And it’s only lightly sprinkled with Russians — yes, it’s 40 million, but that’s only about two per square mile. Already busily exploited by the resource-poor and space-starved Chinese. For now, the Chinese are siphoning off oil and hauling south lumber strictly under Russian licenses. But geopolitics abhors a vacuum. And Beijing is much richer and closer by than Moscow. What’s to stop China from playing the Crimea scenario on two thirds of Russia?

Frank Jacobs is an author, journalist, and blogger. He writes about strange maps, intriguing borders, and other cartographic curiosities.

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