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Separatist leaders in Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region announce they plan to hold a referendum on joining Russia.

Kremlin-backed parties lead the polls in Moldova with the pro-Western government in Chisinau mired in corruption allegations.

And Moscow appears to be getting its way on the implementation of the Minsk cease-fire in Ukraine.

Anybody who thinks Russia's military adventure in Syria means the Kremlin is scaling back its ambitions in its own backyard should probably think again.

The Syrian blockbuster may be the main show on Russian television screens, but the main theater of Vladimir Putin's confrontation with the West remains the Eurasian landmass -- and Moscow is making advances there on every front.

And while there may not be an Iron Curtain descending on the continent, there is an emerging bipolar order.

"What has emerged is not a renewal of blocs in the Cold War sense but two distinct normative systems," veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr of Chatham House said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.

"The Western system based on rights, including property rights, the sanctity of contracts, and the rule of law. The other system is based on patron-client relationships, the merger of money and power, and the subordination of law to the state."

The Graft Zone

Moscow is determined to keep the former Soviet space as part of its normative system. The Putin regime is doing this formally through institutions like the fledgling Eurasian Union, but the main tool of Russian statecraft in this conflict is corruption.

By ensnaring post-Soviet elites in the web of shady deals emanating from Russia, the Kremlin is establishing a zone of control.

Putin is fond of calling for a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. But what he is creating in fact is a zone of graft.

And if the corruption tool fails, if a post-Soviet state attempts to break out of Putin's graft zone, then the Kremlin resorts to more aggressive and coercive measures.

This was the case with Georgia, which since the 2003 Rose Revolution has made strides in combatting corruption -- and by extension reducing Moscow's influence.

But Georgia has also had 20 percent of its territory -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- occupied by Russia. Following Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia Moscow formally recognized these protectorates as independent states and continues to use them to pressure Tbilisi.

This summer, Russia redrew a section of Georgia's de facto border with breakaway South Ossetia, effectively seizing control of a portion of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline.

South Ossetia's separatist leaders have also signed a pact with Moscow effectively merging their militaries and security services.

And this week's announcement about plans to hold a referendum on unification with Russia ratchets up the pressure on Tbilisi another notch.

A War Of Values

Using force after the graft tool failed was also the case with Ukraine.

In Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow had exactly the kind of leader it wanted in Kyiv: one that was completely tangled in the Kremlin's web of corrupt schemes.

When Yanukovych came under pressure from civil society and his own oligarchs to sign a free-trade and association pact with the European Union, Putin did what came naturally: he threatened him and then he bribed him with a $15 billion payoff.

And when that led to Yanukovych's overthrow in the Euromaidan revolution, Putin resorted to using force. But in doing so, he brought the true nature of the conflict in the former Soviet space into sharp focus.

"Starting with the Maidan, Ukraine has become more than it seems. It is no longer about language, nationality or citizenship – it has inconspicuously become a space for values," journalist and political analyst Pavel Kazarin wrote recently.

"And the war today is waged not so much between Kyiv and Moscow as it is between the pro-Soviet and post-Soviet."

Russia is still hoping to have its way with Ukraine, despite the society's strong consensus to join the West.

The Kremlin is maneuvering to reintegrate the separatist-held areas of the Donbas back into the country with Moscow's proxies in control -- an outcome that would turn them into a virtual pro-Russian Trojan horse.

The failure of Ukraine's pro-Western leaders to sufficiently combat corruption also gives Moscow a window of opportunity.

Ukraine "is still hopelessly corrupt and gripped with infighting among oligarch clans, despite the government having created no fewer than five new anticorruption bodies," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote recently.

"The war the Ukrainian government is losing now is against mismanagement, over-regulation and graft.That's just what Putin wants."

A Matter Of National Security

In Moldova, the Kremlin appears to be counting on corruption to do the job.

The former prime minister, Vlad Filat, who served from 2009-13 and led Moldova into an Association Agreement with the European Union, was detained earlier this month in connection with a $1 billion bank fraud.

The country's current pro-Western government is deeply unpopular and is under pressure from protesters demanding it step down.

And pro-Moscow parties who have vowed to undo the EU agreement and join the Russian-led Eurasian Union are leading in the polls.

"To understand how Russian President Vladimir Putin may get his way in Ukraine without having to continue the war there, watch its neighbor, Moldova," international-affairs columnist Marc Champion wrote recently in Bloomberg View.

Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova are stuck in the middle of Putin's bipolar order in Eurasia -- and that is a very dangerous place to be.

"The countries that wish to be part of the Western normative system but lack either the wherewithal or commitment to actually do it and bear the cost are the very countries that are the most vulnerable in Europe," Sherr said.

For these countries, fighting corruption isn't just a matter of good governance, it's a matter of national security.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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