The world is watching with bated breath the crisis unfold in Eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian self-appointed militia men appear to prepare the ground for a Russian invasion. Yet Putin's next move could well be in quite another place: in tiny Moldova, population 4 million, most of them pro-West except for the Russian-speaking eastern region of Transnistria.
This slow-brewing crisis is now coming to a head, with Transnistria ready to secede from Moldova and asking to join Russia - a perfect repeat of the Crimea scenario.
Why should Putin heed Transnistria's call?
First, because it falls right into the grand Putin scheme of rebuilding Greater Russia, pulling together under the Kremlin's sway all Russophones across Europe.
Second, because of geo-political reasons, it comes at exactly the right time. It provides Putin with the perfect pretext for attempting to control Southern Ukraine - which is precisely what is needed to obtain direct Russian access to Crimea. Take a look at the map. Here is Transnistria:
And here's Southern Ukraine (the red and brown areas):
What Putin is dreaming of is this (note that this is a map showing the Russian Empire ca.1897):
Obviously Ukraine will never allow Putin to control its own access to the Black Sea. Yet, because of major economic interests, in particular Russia's gas, Putin can never give up control over the sea. He needs direct access to Sebastopol, the major Russian military port in Crimea.
So we could soon have a new front in the south. This is like a game of chess - though much more dangerous, a wong move can precipate war.