‘A QUARREL IN A FAR-AWAY COUNTRY': THE RISE OF A BUDZHAK PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC?
Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute
Written by John R. Haines
Frustrating former SOVIET republics’ ambitions of EUROPEAN UNION and NATO accession underlies RUSSIA’S instrumental use of territorial disputes—both historic and contrived ones—in the borderlands of its near abroad. As one recent commentary observed, “as the war in UKRAINE erupted last spring, observers largely unfamiliar with the former SOVIET republics of EASTERN EUROPE scrambled to understand the importance of the sub-national regions that suddenly waged great influence in the conflict between RUSSIA and the WEST.”
The dissolution of the SOVIET UNION, and the loss of its eastern and central EUROPEAN buffer between the RUSSIAN homeland and the NATO states of western EUROPEAN left RUSSIA with a single EUROPEAN bridgehead—the KALININGRAD enclave—at a distance 1000 kilometers from MOSCOW. What was once a matter of RUSSIA’S internal policy overnight became one of foreign policy. RUSSIA suddenly found itself at a distance of some 1300 kilometers from its MOLDOVAN and western UKRAINIAN borderlands with the EASTERN BALKANS, with one-half of the intermediate territory no longer RUSSIAN. In 1992, Russia acquired a second, equally distant EUROPEAN bridgehead in eastern MOLDOVA with the declaration of a PRIDNESTROVIAN MOLDAVIAN Republic in separatist TRANSDNIESTRIA. Since then, PMR-TRANSDNIESTRIA has acted as a stop on MOLDOVA plans for EU and NATO accession, and the hopes of some MOLDOVANS for unification with neighboring ROMANIA.
Short of overt military intervention, RUSSIA has limited instruments at its disposal for the protection of its geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the eastern BALKANS and the northern BLACK SEA littoral. These limits notwithstanding, RUSSIA exerts indisputable regional hegemony in its near abroad. Fomented territorial disputes within former borderlands have been an effective if crude instrument of RUSSIAN policy now for three decades. It has used that instrument willingly, if discriminately, in its near abroad while holding in reserve a failsafe to unfreeze “frozen” conflicts. The TRANSDNIESTRIAN bridgehead (seconded by another separatist MOLDOVAN region, the vocally pro-RUSSIA GAGAUZIA) undergirds RUSSIAN hegemony in MOLDOVA, and radiates outward into the eastern BALKANS and importantly, into southwestern UKRAINE’S pivotal ODESSA region.
There is regular speculation about RUSSIAN intentions to establish a so-called land bridge from CRIMEA and the DONBAS westward along the BLACK SEA littoral to ODESSA. Short of willfully disregarding the complications associated with seizing and holding a broad swath of contended territory in the face of determined resistance by (in all likelihood, WESTERN armed) UKRAINIAN armed forces and paramilitaries, that scenario is unlikely under the present circumstances. RUSSIA’S demonstrated preference for disruptive proxy forces and other hybrid instruments is at odds with a suggested large-scale (and in all likelihood, long-term) military operation requiring it to deploy conventional armed forces in mass.
THE REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA, MOLDOVAN TRANSDNIESTRIAN & UKRAINE’S BUDZHAK REGION
An alternate scenario postulates the projection of RUSSIAN hegemony southward from its TRANSDNIESTRIAN bridgehead to BUDZHAK, a southern BESSARABIA borderland in Ukraine’s Odessa region. This might take the form of political destabilization scaled to disrupt UKRAINE’S control of the region without triggering a strategic impact, blending, as FRANK HOFFMAN offered, “the legality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare.”
The Republic of MOLDOVA, MOLDOVAN TRANSDNIESTRIAN
& UKRAINE'S BUDZHAK Region
Thus the recent suggestion by ROMANIAN Foreign Affairs Minister BOGDAN AURESCU that RUSSIA might seek “new separatist areas, like the so-called BUGEAC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC,” using BUDZHAK’S ROMANIAN name.
UKRAINE’S STRATEGIC BUDZHAK
BUDZHAK is an historical region of southern BESSARABIA. It is located between the lower DANUBE and DNIESTER rivers on the coast of the BLACK SEA. Comprising the southwestern anchor of modern-day UKRAINE’S ODESSA OBLASTʹ, BUDZHAK is bordered on the north and the west by MOLDOVA’S autonomous GAGAUZIA and separatist TRANSDNIESTRIA regions; to the south, by ROMANIA; and to the east by the BLACK SEA.
UKRAINE'S BUDZHAK Region
“BUDZHAK” derives from the TURKIC word BUCAK meaning “corner,” in the sense of a distant frontier or borderland, which the region most certainly was for most of its history. It remains today geographically isolated from the rest of UKRAINE, attached only by a single, thin land connection. A figurative UKRAINIAN island, Budzhak is more integral geographically to neighboring MOLDOVA and ROMANIA than to the rest of the ODESSA region. One might perhaps be forgiven for suggesting BUDZHAK is less important for what it is than for what it sits a midst:
- UKRAINE’S ODESSA region, the northern BLACK SEA’S geopolitical epicenter.
- MOLDOVA’S autonomous GAGAUZIA and separatist TRANSDNIESTRIA regions.
- ROMANIA’S BLACK SEA hydrocarbon and BUGEAC shale gas fields.
BUDZHAK & NORTHERN BLACK SEA LITTORAL
Building on MACKINDER’S concept of the pivot area, ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI wrote that the importance of geopolitical pivots:
“[I]s derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behavior of geostrategic players. Most often, geopolitical pivots are determined by their geography, which in some cases gives them a special role in either defining access to important areas or in denying resources to a significant player.”
BRZEZINSKI continued, “The identification of the post-Cold War key EURASIAN geopolitical pivots, and protecting them, is thus also a crucial aspect of AMERICA’S global geostrategy.” So, as the western anchor of an ODESSA region that stretches from the DANUBE delta to the TYLIHUL estuary—and the geographic center of a larger littoral arc sweeping north from BULGARIAN Northern DOBRUJA and ROMANIAN BUGEAC through UKRAINE’S ODESSA region—BUDZHAK is indisputably a, perhaps the, key geopolitical pivot in the northern BLACK SEA.
ETHNO-NATIONALISM IS A ‘COMBUSTIBLE SUBSTANCE’
BUDZHAK was a UKRAINIAN administrative region in its own right known as the IZMAIL OBLAST before it was absorbed into the ODESSA region in February 1954. Its multi-ethnic population includes UKRAINIANS (40 percent), BULGARIANS (21 percent), RUSSIANS (20 percent), MOLDOVANS (13 percent), and GAGAUZ (4 percent). Unsurprisingly, BUDZHAK is replete with ethnic enclaves. There are RUSSIAN ones throughout, and others across its west and southwest: BULGARIANS and GAGAUZ in BOLGRAD and TATARBUNAR; RUSSIANS, MOLDOVANS, BULGARIANS and GAGAUZ in CHILIA; BULGARIANS in ARTSYZ; BULGARIANS and MOLDOVANS in IZMAIL and SARATSKY; and MOLDOVANS, GAGAUZ and BULGARIANS in RENI.
Ethnic Composition of UKRAINE'S BUDZHAK Region
Here as elsewhere, ethno-nationalism is, in JANUSZ BUGAJSKI’S phrase, a combustible substance, especially given the larger region’s stuttering progress toward the EUROPEAN UNION and NATO. It is standard RUSSIAN practice to seek out and exploit these soft spots—witness its actions in the western BALKANS.
BUDZHAK HAS DISPROPORTIONATE STRATEGIC VALUE AS A FIGURATIVE GEOGRAPHIC WEDGE BETWEEN UKRAINE AND BULGARIA
Despite being a largely neglected borderland, BUDZHAK has disproportionate strategic value as a figurative geographic wedge between UKRAINE and BULGARIA along the critical BLACK SEA littoral. This importance would increase greatly were the region to ally with its neighbors GAGAUZIA and TRANSDNIESTRIA to the north and west. A strategic locus and combustible ethnic patchwork make BUDZHAK a near perfect fit for the RUSSIA hybrid warfare playbook:
“Pulling political, economic, and military levers—all of which fall short of traditional invasion—to exploit ethnic conflicts in countries that used to be in its orbit. And the goal is to leverage these tensions, which are often relics of the SOVIET UNION’S messy consolidation and collapse, to gain influence in former SOVIET states, while preventing these countries from moving closer to the WEST.”
“WAR WITHOUT WAR, OCCUPATION WITHOUT OCCUPATION”
Is RUSSIA the proverbial “black knight in the EASTERN neighborhood”? A November 2014 report by the UKRAINE-based DAVINCI ANALYTIC GROUP speculates how RUSSIA might exploit the region’s ethnic patchwork:
“We expect RUSSIA to activate separatism in the BOLGRAD, IZMAIL, RENI, ARTSYZ, KILIYA and TARUTINSKY districts with additional attempts in the BILHOROD-DNISTROVSKYI and the SARATA and TATARBUNARSKIY districts. Shortly before, RUSSIA will purposely destabilize GAGAUZIA and TARACLIA in parallel with TRANSDNIESTRIA. The initial gambit may focus on an independent GAGAUZIA, which can make territorial claims in MOLDOVA and UKRAINE. The spring of 2015 is a critical period for the KREMLIN, which sees it as the most favorable time to initiate a new round of aggression against UKRAINE.”
DA VINCI’S speculation is congruent with the observation elsewhere that RUSSIA acts through small-scale gestures aimed at destabilization rather than full-blown military actions. These gestures, suggested the BULGARIAN Defense Ministry, include “disinformation, propaganda campaigns, media manipulation, exploiting social networks for disinformation, and using sympathetic local leaders to manipulate voting blocs and cause confusion.”
One analysis described RUSSIA’S strategy as “a form of political synecdoche”:
“[W]here a war inside a breakaway province stands for a potential war inside the de jure state, and where the occupation of the separatist region creates the constant threat that the country as a whole will be occupied. This war without war and occupation without occupation is nearly as effective, more flexible, and decidedly cheaper than a real occupation.”
It continued, “The key element of Putin’s strategy is to use…breakaway regions as perches from which to threaten the larger states that once governed them,” here, meaning UKRAINE and NATO member ROMANIA. It is in a manner of speaking, a scenario for controlling the ODESSA region without occupying it.