On July 27, the Russian peacekeepers stationed in Transnistria, along with Transnistrian troops, crossed the Dniester River into Moldova as part of a military exercise. The exercise in and of itself was supposedly based on Russian and Transnistrian troops responding to a terrorist attack at a water purification plant, and in pursuit of the terrorists, they crossed the river and landed on Moldovan territory. Russian and Transnistrian troops crossing a border that had been in dispute since the civil war of 1992 was enough the sound the alarm in the capital of the official Moldovan state, Chisinau, as it was interpreted, not unjustifiably, as a rehearsal of an invasion of Moldovan territory.
This specific incident follows a series of Russian microaggressions in the area. Also, it is in line with Putin’s wider interference, as he has long advocated the independence of the Russian-speaking Transnistrian state that has only been recognized by Russia.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is because it follows the same tactical pattern that Putin has used in other areas of his immediate neighborhood, the most telling of which was the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s support of Russian-speaking separatists in East Ukraine. All of that makes the West anxious, and especially Europe, which seeks to approach former USSR states that Putin considers his sphere of influence.
Despite the fact that this specific incident was of a small scale and entailed a degree of deniability, one cannot but wonder how much Mr. Putin can push his luck with such tactics before it has consequences. Sanctions have already been imposed on him by the West. Of course, the Russian president has proven time and again that he places greater priority on his geopolitical dominance than any possible economic hardship in his country, even if the latter affects his own cronies. Thus, it is debatable if harsher economic sanctions will create any desirable effect. Russia has already suffered in that area and Putin seems undeterred, using those very sanctions as a scapegoat in order to convince his electorate of the economic war waged against them by the West.
All this coincides with the restoration of the relationship between Russia and Turkey, at a time when the West seems to be losing another difficult but indispensable ally. Despite the claims that it had been planned beforehand, what matters is that Putin was the first head of state to visit with President Erdogan after the attempted coup. And the resentment of Turkish authorities following the lack of support for the administration by its Western allies at the time of the coup creates the perfect conditions to push Turkey in Putin’s arms.
Erdogan accuses the U.S. of partaking in the coup plot and for protecting Fethullah Gulen. That’s a good enough excuse for him to silently withdraw from an unpleasant collaboration that forces him to tolerate cooperation with the Kurds in Syria, who the U.S. openly support.
As for Europe, Erdogan actually has the upper hand when it comes to his deal to reign in the refugee crisis. Breaching the deal will have two costs for Turkey: visa liberalization and resumed accession talks. The first might actually be a hit for Erdogan. As for the second, from the moment the negotiations first froze in 2006, the Turkish president became confident this was just an empty promise. In any case, it is doubtful he even wants it himself, given his recent turn toward the East and his intention to reinstate the death penalty, which is a clear red line for any member of the EU.
With the U.S. incapable of openly supporting the anti-regime forces in Syria, and with Europe weighed down by a multitude of crises and desperate to rid itself of the terrorist threat, the way is open for Putin to follow his own strategy in Syria. That will almost certainly include the restoration of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, creating a peculiar alliance between three authoritarian, despotic rulers. A collaboration between Putin, Erdogan, and Assad may very well put an end to the threat of ISIS. But what will happen to the Kurds and other rebels in Syria? What does this all mean for the future global status quo?