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Which countries could Putin try to ‘protect’ next?

The Kremlin has used the pretext of defending Russian speakers to threaten former Soviet states.

By Nicu Calcea and Michael Goodier

The Kremlin has used the pretext of defending ethnic Russians to attack Ukraine, and to threaten other former Soviet states. Recently it has threatened Moldova, with a Russian commander saying in April that gaining control over southern Ukraine would help Russia link up with the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, claimed in June that Moldova associates its pursuit of EU candidate status, which it was granted on 23 June, with opposition to Russia. “The more they become anti-Russian, it seems to them that the more Europeans should like them. We would really not want this to happen,” he said.

Ukraine and Moldova are far from the only countries with large populations of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. Belarus and Kazakhstan have high proportions of Russian speakers. Latvia and Estonia, which are members of the EU and Nato, have more than 30 per cent.

The New Statesman has mapped the areas in these countries where ethnic Russians and Russian speakers live. Where might Putin be tempted to "protect" next?


Igor Krasnov, the Russian chief prosecutor, recently claimed that Ukrainian activists in Kazakhstan were helping to fuel anti-Russian sentiment in the country. The Daily Telegraph reported in June that, privately, Kazakh government officials are concerned that Putin may turn his attention towards them after Ukraine.

Ethnic Russians are particularly concentrated in Kazakhstan’s northern and eastern provinces. The district of Altay in the east is 77 per cent ethnically Russian, while Magzhan Zhumabaev in north Kazakhstan is 58 per cent Russian, according the latest Kazakh government figures.

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The areas with high Russian populations all fall along the countries' 4,750-mile land border, the longest continuous international border in the world, which would surely be the focus of any potential military action.


The recent veiled threats against Moldova have mainly been over the autonomous region of Transnistria, which is under Russian-backed separatist control. There is no census data for that region, but Russian is the main official language. Transnistria borders Ukraine, so if Russia was able to link up its occupied Ukrainian territory with the breakaway region, that could threaten Moldova.

Moldova’s second autonomous region is Găgăuzia, where the native language is Găgăuz, a Turkic language, but most people speak Russian.

Bălți is the second-biggest city in Moldova and the Russian-language capital of the country. The country’s capital, Chișinău, also has a large Russian minority.


Roughly 9 per cent of Kyrgyzstan speaks Russian. However, 23 per cent of the capital Bishkek and 21 per cent of those in the surrounding region of Chuy speak Russian. Kyrgyzstan has no border with Russia. Its neighbours are Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the west.


Estonia shares its eastern border with Russia and, like Kazakhstan, its border municipalities are more likely to contain Russian speakers. In particular, the border city of Narva in the north-east is 96 per cent Russian-speaking, making the most Russian city in the European Union.

The city has a bridge crossing with Ivangorod on the Russian side, and before the invasion of Ukraine, residents freely mixed with their Russian neighbours. The war has led to an increase in people taking up Estonian citizenship in the city, however, and visas have become more difficult to obtain.

Neither Estonia nor Russia has completed its ratification of their 2014 border agreement yet. Estonia is a member of Nato, making Russian invasion far less likely because of the pact meaning that the alliance treats an invasion of one of its members as an invasion of all of them, including the US.


Latvia is also a Nato member that has a border with Russia. Around 34 per cent of the country speaks Russian, mainly in the east, along its border with Russia, and south, along its border with Belarus. Pededze parish in the north-east is 70 per cent ethnically Russian, Goliševas parish in the east 71 per cent, and Lauderu parish 74 per cent.


Language and ethnicity of course isn’t the only excuse Russia has used for invading other nations.

Chechnya was independent after the fall of the Soviet Union but was then reconquered by Russia, despite Russians making up only 2 per cent of the population. Some regions, such as Ingushetia, which neighbours Chechnya, have fewer than 1 per cent ethnic Russians. South Ossetia, the focus of the 2008 invasion of Georgia, was just over 1 per cent Russian in the 2015 census.

Other non-ethnically Russian countries that share borders with Russia are also worried about actions Putin’s government might take. These include Finland, which has comparatively few Russian speakers (Imatra, a town in the east, has the highest proportion at just 5 per cent), and which along with Sweden is in the process of joining Nato.

[See also: How big is occupied Ukraine? Use our interactive map to find out]

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