Q: Will Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Moldova, and elsewhere revivify a 21st century version of the famous Domino Theory that played out in Asia during the Cold War?
A: It’s hard to say definitively at this point because at the strategic level Russian actions appear to be very much improvised. It’s clear Moscow is trying to give itself options, including military options vis-à-vis Ukraine and potentially other states (e.g. Moldova) as well. But there does not appear to be much of a grand design here, and how the next several weeks/months will play out seems to be dependent on a number of external factors, including whether Russian forces face armed resistance in Ukraine (and how much), as well as the impact of Western economic sanctions. Right now it appears that the initiative remains on Moscow’s side, but Moscow faces significant risks if it seeks further escalation. Moldova seems to be really the only place where a Crimea scenario seems thinkable, but Moscow no longer has the element of surprise, and additionally, any military incursion against Moldova would have to cross Ukrainian territory, which creates significant vulnerabilities.
So while I have no idea what Moscow intends to do, I don’t think the domino theory analogy really fits if only because there are not so many dominoes this time. Nor is there all that much demand for what Moscow is selling–during the Cold War, at least Communism had genuine adherents in the countries that the U.S. considered potential dominoes. Russian nationalism doesn’t play well except with ethnic Russians, and apart from Moldova, there aren’t many places they would be a factor. The Baltic states are in NATO and I don’t think Russia is stupid or reckless enough to provoke a military confrontation with them, and the only other place with a big Russian population is Kazakhstan, which is closely allied with Russia anyway. If anything, the Crimea incursion seems likely to send publics and elites in most of the post-Soviet countries looking for protection from Russia–dominoes falling in reverse, if you will, even if slowly.
—Dr. Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Russia and Eurasia Program. He is the author of Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics.