Beware Russia's pocket empire

Last weekend, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Moldova, a country where the cold war never ended. His trip highlighted the threat to Western values and interests posed by Russia's ambition to retain control over strategic European enclaves it once ruled as part of the Soviet empire.

It is a reminder that despite the success of NATO's Istanbul summit, the West has not completed its grand geopolitical project of building a Europe of secure democracies extending to the borders of Russia.

Russia's nostalgia for its imperial past is evident in the pocket empire it maintains among neighboring nations. These imperial aspirations stifle democratic development on Europe's borders and repudiate the values necessary for lasting partnership between Moscow and the West.

Moldova, where a slice of the Soviet Union survives in the secessionist Transdniestria region, is just such a case. When the USSR collapsed 13 years ago, Moldova became an independent nation. But the 14th Soviet Army stayed on in the region, along the border with Ukraine, to support Transdniestria's secession from Moldova. Former apparatchik Igor Smirnov turned his autocratic fiefdom into a client state of Moscow. Today, Russian forces guard Transdniestria's borders, Russian officers command its Army, Russian troops guard an enormous Soviet arms depot, and Russia provides free energy supplies. President Smirnov answers to leaders in Moscow, many of whom allegedly profit from the international criminal network that operates in the area.

According to Western officials in the region, Transdniestria is a leading exporter of kidnapped women to Europe, a lucrative transit territory for illicit drugs, and a key link in the arms-smuggling network that peddles the Soviet Union's former military hardware on the international market. If Al Qaeda has not gone shopping there yet, it is only a matter of time.

Why does Russia support this illegitimate regime? In negotiations last fall that nearly resulted in a settlement recognizing the criminal regime's claim to federal status within Moldova, Moscow showed its hand by demanding that Moldova commit to a treaty legalizing the presence of Russian military forces on its soil until 2020. Thanks to Western pressure and the resistance of Moldovans who took to the streets in protest, the deal collapsed. Nonetheless, political reform in Moldova has been frozen by the Transdniestria crisis, which focuses the West's attention on conflict resolution rather than on democratic change.

Russia's Transdniestria strategy mirrors its approach to the other "frozen conflicts" sustained by Russian military forces and political support - two secessionist provinces in Georgia and the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Moscow's ambition is to make it seem normal for Russian troops to guard European borders and serve as outposts of imperial control in independent nations, without their consent.

In the absence of treaties legitimizing Russia's illegal military presence on its neighbors' territory, Russia will keep these conflicts "frozen" - ensuring that secessionist leaders who answer to Moscow remain in control.

As Mr. Rumsfeld said clearly last weekend, Russia's troop presence violates the revised Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and post-Soviet guarantees Russia made to withdraw military forces from the territories of its neighbors.

A Western campaign to resolve the frozen conflicts and democratize Europe's borderlands could be a new pillar of transatlantic cooperation. NATO should deepen its Partnership for Peace programs in this region and put the frozen conflicts on the agenda of the NATO-Russia Council. The European Union should put meat on the bones of its "New Neighborhood Policy" by tackling the conflicts and committing substantial assistance for democratic change in its backyard.

Together, the United States and Europe should condition deeper Russian access to Western markets on Moscow's willingness to negotiate democratic political solutions to Europe's frozen conflicts. The transatlantic democracies should also condition Russia's privileged political relationship with Western institutions like NATO, the EU, and the Group of Seven (the world's richest nations) on Moscow's demonstrated willingness to act responsibly in its near abroad - including the expeditious and verifiable withdrawal of Russian military forces from the conflict zones.

As part of any political solution in these countries, the West should insist on nationwide democratic elections, both because it is right and to reassure Russia that populations in the secessionist regions it claims to "protect" have a full voice in their reunified nation's future.

Russia must understand that its cold war rules of statecraft do not apply in an age when it seeks partnership with the West - and when states on the old Soviet borders aspire to membership in an imperium centered on Brussels, not Moscow.

Despite Russian opposition to enlargement of NATO and the EU, the progress of democracy, reform, and security across Central and Eastern Europe during the past decade has made Russia more secure, not less. Resolving Europe's frozen conflicts and building stable democracies throughout the geostrategic gray zone on Russia's borders would have a similar effect. Conversely, acceding to Russia's desire for a new sphere of influence in its old imperial stomping grounds would not make Russia more secure. It would not make an increasingly authoritarian Russia more susceptible to Western values. It would, in fact, make the West complicit in their subversion.

Daniel C. Twining, a former foreign policy adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain, is a director at the German Marshall Fund of the US. The views expressed here are his own and are informed by a fact-finding trip he took to Moldova in May.

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