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After Ukraine, Europe is wondering who Russia’s next target is

BELGRADE – For some European countries watching Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, there are fears that they may be next.

Western officials say the most vulnerable could be those who are not members of NATO or the European Union and therefore alone and unprotected – including Ukraine’s neighbor Moldova and Russia’s neighbor Georgia, both formerly part of the Soviet Union. together with the Balkan states of Bosnia and Kosovo.

But analysts warn that even NATO members could be threatened, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Russia’s doorstep, as well as Montenegro, whether by direct military intervention by Moscow or attempts at political destabilization.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “said from the beginning that this was not just for Ukraine,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Warsaw.

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“He told us what he wanted to do when he listed his demands, which included a change of government in Kyiv, but he also spoke about NATO’s eastern flank and the rest of Eastern Europe,” Baranowski told the Associated Press in an interview.

While Ukraine has strongly opposed the two-week Russian attack, Baranowski said “it is unclear at this time how it will meet its other goals.”

But the Biden administration is aware of deep fears in Eastern and Central Europe that the war in Ukraine could only be a prelude to wider attacks on former Warsaw Pact members in an attempt to restore Moscow’s regional dominance.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “Russia will not stop in Ukraine”.

“We are concerned about our neighbors Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkans,” he said. “We need to keep an eye on the Western Balkans, especially Bosnia, which could face destabilization from Russia.

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A look at the regional situation:

MOLDOVA

Like its neighbor Ukraine, the former Soviet republic of Moldova has had separatist riots in the east in the disputed territory known as Transnistria, home to 1,500 Russian troops. Although Moldova is militarily neutral and has no plans to join NATO, it formally applied for EU membership when the Russian invasion began in a quick attempt to strengthen ties with the West.

The country of 2.6 million people is one of the poorest in Europe and hosts tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war. The invasion has raised growing concerns in Moldova not only about the humanitarian crisis, but also over fears that Putin may try to link separatists east of the Dniester River with Ukraine through the latter’s strategic port of Odessa.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Moldova last week and promised: “We are with Moldova and any other country that could be threatened in the same way.”

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Moldovan President Maya Sandu said there were no indications yet that Russian forces in Transnistria had changed their position, but stressed that concerns were present.

“There is no way we can feel safe in this region now,” Sandu said.

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GEORGIA

War broke out between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, when Georgian government troops tried unsuccessfully to regain control of the Moscow-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia. Russia defeated the Georgian military in five days of fighting and hundreds were killed. Russia then recognized South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia, as independent states and increased its military presence there.

The West Georgian government condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but did not show the same solidarity that Kyiv showed during the war between Georgia and Russia. Hundreds of Georgian volunteers have been stopped by authorities from joining an international brigade fighting Russia in Ukraine.

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Georgia’s seemingly neutral stance has sparked thousands of night rallies in central Tbilisi in solidarity with Ukraine. Last week, the Georgian government applied for EU membership just days after announcing it would not speed up its candidacy as fears of a Russian invasion grew.

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THE BALTICS

Memories of Soviet rule are still fresh in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Following the invasion of Ukraine, NATO undertook a rapid increase in its military presence in its eastern flank allies, while Washington promised additional support.

For the people of the Baltic states – especially those old enough to live under Soviet control – tensions before the February 24 invasion were reminiscent of mass deportations and oppression. The three countries were annexed by Joseph Stalin during World War II and regained their independence only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

They joined NATO in 2004, placing themselves under the military protection of the United States and its Western allies. They say it is imperative that NATO’s show be resolved not only in words but also in boots on the ground.

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“Russia always measures military power, but also the will of the countries to fight,” said Janis Garisons, Secretary of State at the Latvian Ministry of Defense. “Once they see a weakness, they will take advantage of that weakness.”

Blinken, who visited the Latvian capital Riga on Monday, said the Baltic states had “formed a democratic wall that now opposes the tide of autocracy” that Russia is pushing for in Europe.

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THE BALKANS

It would be difficult for Russian troops to reach the Balkans without deploying NATO forces stationed in all neighboring countries. But Moscow can destabilize the region, as it is already doing, with the help of Serbia, its ally, which is armed with tanks, sophisticated air defense systems and fighter jets.

The Kremlin has always considered the region its sphere of influence, although it has never been part of the Soviet bloc. A devastating civil war in the 1990s left at least 120,000 dead and millions homeless. Serbia, the largest country in the Western Balkans, has usually been blamed for starting the war, trying to prevent the break-up of Serb-led Yugoslavia with brutal force – a move reminiscent of Moscow’s current efforts to pull Ukraine back into orbit with military force. .

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There are fears in the West that the pro-Moscow Serbian leadership, which has refused to join international sanctions against Russia, may try to use Ukraine’s attention to further destabilize its neighbors, especially Bosnia, where minority Serbs are threatening to split. their territories from the joint federation to join Serbia. Serbian authorities have repeatedly denied interfering in neighboring countries, but have tacitly supported the secessionist actions of Bosnian Serbs and their leader, Milorad Dodik.

The Russian embassy in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, warned last year that if Bosnia took steps to join NATO, “our country will have to react to this hostile act.” Joining NATO will force Bosnia to take part in a “military-political confrontation”, it said.

The EU peacekeeping force in Bosnia announced the deployment of about 500 additional troops in the country, citing “the deterioration of international security (which has the potential to spread instability”.

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Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in 1999 following a NATO air war against Serbian troops, has called on the United States to establish a permanent military base in the country and speed up its NATO integration following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Accelerating Kosovo’s NATO membership and having a permanent US base is an urgent need to ensure peace, security and stability in the Western Balkans,” Kosovo Defense Minister Armend Mehai said on Facebook.

Serbia has said the move is unacceptable.

Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence has been recognized by more than 100 countries, mostly in the West, but not by Russia or Serbia.

Montenegro, a former ally that turned its back on Russia to join NATO in 2017, has imposed sanctions on Moscow over the war in Ukraine and is considered the next in the Western Balkans to join the EU. The country is divided between those who support pro-Western policies and pro-Serbian and pro-Russian camps, raising tensions.

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Russia has repeatedly warned pro-Western Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who led the small Adriatic country to NATO, that the move was illegitimate and without the consent of all Montenegrins.

Russia can hope to eventually improve its ties with Montenegro in a bid to boost its presence in the Mediterranean.

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Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania, Matthew Lee in Washington, Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Lazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to the report.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

After Ukraine, Europe is wondering who Russia’s next target is

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