Moscow Mulling Wholesale Border Changes in Central Eastern Europe

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 43

(Source: AFP)

The most compelling reason why the international community is opposed to any border change is the capacity of changes in one border to spark consideration of changes in others, creating or at least exacerbating problems in the relations between existing countries. Until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and his moves to absorb parts of Donbas now, there had been little serious talk about changing borders in Europe since the end of World War II (the breakup of several former Communist federations in the 1990s notwithstanding). But the Kremlin leader has opened the sluice gates with his latest actions; and now some in the Russian capital are mulling the possibility of wholesale border revisions across Central Eastern Europe. Even if none of these changes are in fact realized, the mere discussion of them will have the effect of heightening tensions in the region by spreading suspicions that their borders are at risk and the conviction that what had once seemed permanent may be anything but.

In an article entitled “Russia Will Blow up European Borders,” Moscow-based commentator Albert Akopyan (Urumov) argues that the conflict in Ukraine has given Russia “a unique opportunity” to promote border adjustments in Europe—both near its western frontiers and further afield—and to do so “in the name of justice and those same European values” that Russia is often criticized for violating. Moscow can promote the principles of national self-determination to support ethnic minorities in France and the United Kingdom, although doing so too openly could be a problem because the governments there would seek to discredit these movements by suggesting that they were being orchestrated by the Kremlin. At the same time, and more importantly, it could seek to resolve issues of historical justice with Hungary, Poland and Moldova in ways that would please those countries, making them more amenable to cooperation with Russia as well as, other times, promoting Russian national interests directly (,, March 25).

Ukraine is on course toward disintegration, the analyst writes, and Moscow can distribute its territories to neighbors in ways that serve them and Russia. It can hand over ethnic-Hungarian-populated territories in what is now western Ukraine to Budapest, and it can exchange territories with Poland and Moldova. In the first case, Moscow can give Poland Lviv in exchange for Warsaw granting Moscow control of the Suwałki corridor, which would open a land bridge to Kaliningrad and prevent any Western blockade of that non-contiguous Russian territory from being effective. In the second case, Moscow can hand over what are now Ukrainian lands to Moldova in compensation for Chisinau’s giving up Transnistria, Gagauzia, and the Bulgarian-populated regions in the southeast.

These various moves will allow Moscow to achieve three goals, Akopyan (Urumov) says. First, they will “show the peoples of Europe an alternative to the existing ‘principles’ of nation-state construction” by showing that after the war in Ukraine, “everything has changed” and that they must live in a world where force alone determines outcomes rather than any principles of law. Second, the amenable countries will share an interest in helping Russia eliminate the seedbeds of Ukrainian nationalism in the West. Third, such moves will allow Russia to secure several much-needed transportation corridors.

Akopyan (Urumov) is not the only Russian analyst making such arguments. And some others have even more extreme visions of the border changes that Moscow should orchestrate. Among those is military commentator Sergei Marzhetsky, who repeats many of his colleague’s arguments but also provides additional argumentation for why Moscow should move in this direction and suggests that even more borders ought to be redrawn (, March 25, 26).

The Ukrainian operation, Marzhetsky says, will give Russia “the opportunity not only to demilitarize and de-Nazify a dangerous little neighbor but, at the same time, to solve the problems of access” to two Russian-controlled exclaves—Transnistria and Kaliningrad. The first, of course, can be solved largely by military means if Russian troops advance through southern Ukraine to the current Moldovan border and put pressure on Moldova while offering concessions to Romania. But the second requires a diplomatic “compromise” with Poland (, March 25, 26).

According to the pundit, the basic outlines of such a compromise are obvious. “Russia could theoretically and for a time close its eyes to the introduction of Polish ‘peacekeepers’ into Galicia and Volhynia” and then the inclusion of those regions into Poland itself. “In exchange,” he contends, “we would obtain a land transportation corridor to Kaliningrad Oblast via Suwałki, where would be constructed a railroad line and highways, which would enjoy extra-territorial status.” Such an exchange would be acceptable to both Moscow and Warsaw, he suggests (, March 25, 26; see, July 17, 2020).

At the same time, other Russian analysts are considering the possibility of border revisions or the creation of Russian client statelets within countries that do not neighbor Ukraine. The most serious of these ideas concerns Latgale, a Latvian region adjacent to the Russian Federation and Belarus. Latgale has the largest share of ethnic-Russian inhabitants of any region in Latvia, and it is culturally, economically and politically distinct from the rest of the country. Since the start of Putin’s war in Ukraine, Russian writers have stepped up their attacks on the Baltic States in general for their treatment of ethnic Russians. Some have notably demanded that the Kremlin take action, raising the specter of Russian aggression against the three North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union members (Ritm Eurasia, March 10;, March 29; Vzglyad, March 13). Most recently, they seem to have focused on Latgale because a poll there has shown that residents are far more sympathetic to what Moscow is doing in Ukraine than are other residents of Latvia (, March 22).

However, while Latgalians and ethnic Russians in Latgale have their differences with Riga, neither group wants Moscow’s embrace (, May 22, 2017). The same is almost certainly true of all the other peoples whose maps, Russian thinkers suggest, Moscow should rearrange for its own convenience. Nonetheless, the appearance of such articles in the Russian press highlights why it is so important to stop Putin in Ukraine and not yield to his demands for territorial changes as part of some compromise. If there are any concessions on that point now, some in Moscow will bank them and then proceed to more radical moves elsewhere.