Briefing

How Russia's war could expand beyond Ukraine

Russia's invasion of Ukraine raises questions about what's next for neighboring countries

Over the last two months, Russia's invasion has devastated Ukraine, but it has also shifted the balance of power in Eastern Europe, raising questions about what's next for neighboring countries. Here's everything you need to know:

How is Moldova involved in the Russian-Ukrainian war?

Since March 1, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — displayed a map that appeared to show Russian forces moving from southwestern Ukraine into neighboring Moldova, observers have suggested that the small Eastern European nation might be Russia's next target.

Speculation grew last week when Russian Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev said one of Russia's war goals was to its army access to the Russian-backed Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria. Minnekayev alleged that Transnistria's Russian-speaking population "is being oppressed," an echo of the rationale that Putin used to justify invading Ukraine when he announced his intention to protect the mostly Russian-speaking separatists of the Donbas.

The situation grew even tenser on Tuesday when Transnistrian authorities "reported an attack on a military unit … hours after a pair of antennas broadcasting Russian radio were blown up," according to Bloomberg. Russian state-owned news agency TASS blamed the attacks on Ukraine, while Ukrainian defense officials "accused Russia of causing the explosions as a pretext to invade Ukraine from the west," The New York Times reported.

Despite these fears, Russia has no clear path to invading Moldova in the near future. In a Sunday appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer noted that Russian forces "are a long way from cities like Odessa and certainly from Moldova. They have a lot of fighting still to do."

Russia maintains a peacekeeping force of around 1,500 troops in Transnistria, but that would be nowhere near enough to open a western front against Ukraine. There have been no reports of a Russian military buildup in Transnistria, nor is it obvious that Russia has the capability to move large numbers of troops to the region.

Will Belarus join the war?

So far, there's been no indication that Belarusian troops will be joining Russia's war in Ukraine any time soon.

Belarus became a virtual vassal state after Putin helped Lukashenko hang onto power during the riots that followed the highly fraudulent 2020 election, in which Lukashenko supposedly received 80 percent of the vote. In January 2022, Putin solidified Russian control over Belarus when he sent 30,000 Russian troops into the country for joint military exercises.

Many of those troops joined Russia's invasion of Ukraine the following month, but, as Jason Fields noted in The Week last month, some of them remained in Belarus to keep the Russian vassal in line. On Tuesday, Fox News reported that Belarus and Russia plan to hold joint air defense exercises this week.

Since the Ukraine invasion began, multiple reports have suggested that Belarusian troops would be crossing the border to support Russian forces in their fight against Ukraine, but so far that hasn't happened. One possible reason is that Russia just doesn't need what little help Belarus would be capable of providing. According to the CIA's World Factbook, the Belarusian armed forces have only around 45,000 active-duty troops; Russia's military has around 20 times that number.

Ordering Belarusian troops into Ukraine might also provoke further unrest within Belarus, where opposition to Putin's war has already snarled Russian supply lines. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported on a homegrown campaign of railway sabotage in Belarus carried out by "a clandestine network of railway workers, hackers, and dissident security forces."  

With Russia's withdrawal from around Kyiv, it's possible that Belarus has missed its chance to participate meaningfully in the war. Instead of simply sending troops south along the Dnipro River toward Ukraine's capital, Belarus would now have to send its forces on a long journey through Russia to get them to the front in southern and eastern Ukraine — probably more trouble than it's worth.

What about the drone that crashed in Croatia?

Another possible vector for escalation would be an accidental strike by Russian forces against a NATO member on Ukraine's border.

Last month, Harry J. Kazianis, the director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, wrote about a 2019 war games exercise that he participated in, which simulated a war between Russia and Ukraine. The conflict escalated when a malfunctioning Russian missile killed 34 civilians in a Polish village near the border with Ukraine. The exercise ended with a nuclear exchange that killed a billion people.

An incident seemingly not dissimilar happened just a few days later when a drone carrying an aerial bomb flew from Ukraine to Croatia and crashed near a student dormitory. The blast damaged 40 parked cars but caused no injuries, ABC News reported. Both Russia and Ukraine denied launching the drone, but ABC reported that "[m]ilitary experts say Ukraine is the only known current operator" of that type of drone.

Are Finland and Sweden joining NATO?

Probably. Finnish and Swedish media reported on Monday that the two countries have agreed to submit simultaneous membership applications to the alliance in May.

Earlier this month, both countries' prime ministers said they were contemplating membership because the Russian invasion of Ukraine had changed the "security landscape" of Europe. Moscow warned the countries against applying for membership, claiming Russia would be forced to deploy additional troops and perhaps even nuclear weapons to the Baltic Sea region in order to "restore military balance."

NATO membership is more popular in Finland — which fought against the Soviet Union during World War II and has sent troops to support NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan — than in Sweden, which has not fought a war since 1814. About 68 percent of Finns and a narrow majority of Swedes support joining the alliance.

Finland shares an 800-mile border with Russia. If Finland joins NATO, that border will be guaranteed by the full military might of the United States and 29 other countries, slamming the door on one of Russia's few remaining paths to westward expansion.

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