There is a view, expressed in Brussels last week with much passion by President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, that, having occupied Crimea, Russia will try to redraw the borders of its neighbouring states, starting with Moldova and the Baltic states. But how realistic is such a proposition?
Paradoxically, it is probably least likely in the Baltic states, the very place that Russian expansionism is feared the most. It was recognised in Moscow, even before the Soviet Union broke up, that the annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was of dubious legality and that the three states should be allowed to break away. That they are now members of both the EU and Nato affords them exactly the protection they sought when they applied to join.
Estonia, as the closest to Russia and the one with a Russian minority concentrated at the border, might be seen as the most at risk. Russia could, for instance, invoke the same "responsibility to protect" as it has threatened to invoke in eastern Ukraine. Two factors militate against this. Nato's Article 5 – an attack on one is treated as an attack on all – is the first. The second is the border treaty recently agreed between Estonia and Russia, which means that the frontier is no longer disputed.
Moving east, there is Belarus. Like Ukraine, it has developed a sense of its own nationhood in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like Ukraine, too, its economic ties with Russia – energy dependence, in particular – have not changed to reflect that new reality. But there is no need at all for Russia to use force to tie Belarus to Moscow more closely, partly because Belarus has no equivalent of the western Ukraine which hankers after a future in the EU, and partly because ties of all kinds could hardly be closer.
Moldova is in many ways the most vulnerable, not least because, like Ukraine, it looks both ways and, were Romania to push for closer relations with Moldova, Russia might interpret this as a threat. Against that, Russia has done nothing about Romania issuing passports to Moldovans. Nor has Moldova made any move to incorporate the mainly Russian-speaking territory of Transnistria – whether for lack of will or lack of power. This makes it hard for Moscow to claim security as a pretext for seizing Transnistria with which it has no common border.
Would Russia try to reincorporate the republics of the Transcaucasus? It had its chance to occupy and effect regime change in Georgia in 2008, but settled for leaving its troops in the two contested Russian enclaves. Armenia is independent-minded, with a strong sense of identity, but also relatively compliant. Azerbaijan prefers to grow rich from oil than engage in international politics.
Different considerations apply to the five central Asian states, but the conclusion has to be the same. Intervention would be more trouble than it was worth. There is a large, but declining, Russian minority in Kazakhstan that might one day seek protection from the Kazakh majority, but the logistics would be horrendous. Russia had an opportunity to intervene in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, but to the surprise of many, declined.
The only possible reason for Russia to become more actively engaged militarily in central Asia would be to combat the influence of China, but that is some way down the line. The comparative poverty of these states, booming populations and distance from Moscow would make them more of a liability than an asset to Russia in almost every way.
A factor contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union was the reluctance of Russians to continue supporting the poor and populous south. That same sentiment is now directed against the subsidies being funnelled to Chechnya. Ukraine is unique in its combination of a divided population, its strategic position and its age-old ties to Russia. But even here, the huge costs – not just in financial terms – of intervention beyond Crimea are likely to make Moscow think twice.