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Eye on Moldova: Keeping the Peace in Transnistria as War Ravages Ukraine Secretary Blinken meets with Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita in July 2022. State Department photo.

Eye on Moldova: Keeping the Peace in Transnistria as War Ravages Ukraine

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By Giorgio Cafiero

Along the Dniester River, precariously wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, is the Republic of Transnistria. Visiting this tiny Russian-speaking breakaway enclave no larger than Delaware feels like returning to the Soviet era. The Lenin statues and other forms of communist nostalgia in Tiraspol, the capital of this Moscow-backed separatist region, make for a unique time travel experience.

Officially existing within Moldova’s UN-recognized borders, no country—not even Russia—sees Transnistria as legitimately independent. Yet, this breakaway statelet controls its own borders. Transnistrians have their own passports. The Transnistrian ruble (not the Moldovan leu) is the breakaway republic’s currency.

Transnistria has maintained de facto independence since the 1992 Transnistrian War. That conflict erupted after Moldova declared independence in 1991. That was at the same time in which the Supreme Soviet in Tiraspol proclaimed Transnistria’s “independence.” Moldovan forces fought Transnistrian militias supported by Russian soldiers and Cossack fighters with a few hundred dying on each side before the Russian and Moldovan presidents signed a ceasefire on July 21, 1992. Ever since that war ended, up to 2,000 Russian forces have remained present in Transnistria. They belong to a small group of Russian “peacekeepers” and to the larger Operational Group of Russian Forces, which is there under the pretext of safeguarding 20,000 tons of ammunition left over from the Soviet days. Russia provides the separatist republic with pension supplements and free natural gas.

Like Moscow’s actions in parts of Ukraine and Georgia, the Kremlin asserts that Russia’s role in Transnistria serves to protect the local population. The Russian government’s narrative is that Transnistrians would suffer from “oppression” under Moldova’s Romanian-speakers if not for breaking away from Chisinau.

Moscow’s geopolitical interests are about ensuring that the Moldova-Transnistria conflict remains frozen. “This ambiguous state of affairs continues to benefit Moscow for it has a relatively low-cost ally on the very edge of the European Union,” John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus, told the American Security Project (ASP).

Over the years Moldova has become increasingly pro-Western. In June, the former Soviet Republic became a candidate for European Union membership. Despite Chisinau’s orientation toward Brussels and the regime in Tiraspol being Moscow-backed, Moldova and Transnistria have basically been at peace since 1992. Neither side seeks a return to violence, especially given how Moldova and Transnistria have grown increasingly economically interdependent.

Yet after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Chisinau-Tiraspol relations have become more tense.

The Ukraine Shock

On April 22, Rustam Minnekaev, the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, declared that Moscow seeks to establish a land bridge connecting Donbas to Transnistria. Should Russia ever succeed in doing so, Ukraine would become a landlocked country with the war spreading into Moldova. In response to Minnekaev’s statement, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry said that his words are “unfounded” and in contradiction with the Russian government official’s position in support of Moldova’s territorial integrity.

Regardless of whether the Russian commander’s statement reflects Moscow’s formal position, experts contend that the Russians would fail in any pursuit of this objective. Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said in an interview with ASP that Moscow has zero chance at establishing this land bridge.

“This would entail not only taking Odesa, which [the Russians] have already tried and failed to do, and it is much better defended now, but also holding a long stretch of territory in which they would have no allies and some serious vulnerabilities.”

For Moscow, Transnistria’s importance stems from the enclave’s ability to usefully distract. Minnekaev’s words about connecting Donbas to Transnistria were based on the “hope that it would persuade Kyiv to shift forces away from where they were needed, and towards a threat that didn’t really exist,” Galeotti told ASP.

Made up of Moldovans, Ukrainians, Russians, and Bulgarians, the local population of Transnistria has mixed views on the war in Ukraine. This contrasts with the rest of Moldova where public opinion is more sympathetic to Kyiv. Nonetheless, there is a general desire among Transnistrians to maintain the peace in the breakaway republic. Inevitably, peace would fall apart if Moscow would seek to carry out what Minnekaev said Russia aims to achieve.

“Many Transnistrians, whatever their feelings about the Kremlin, would probably not support any Russian actions against Moldova proper,” said Feffer.

Yet, even if Moscow could never create such a path from Donbas to Transnistria, the Ukraine war still has potential to fuel high levels of tension in the breakaway statelet and the rest of Moldova. Since Russia began attacking Ukraine on February 24, events in Transnistria have already raised concern about the Ukrainian crisis spilling into Moldova.

The April Explosions

On April 25 and 26, mysterious blasts damaged old radio masts in Transnistria, raising fears among Moldovans about Ukraine’s conflict spreading into their country. Transnistria’s leader Vadim Krasnoselsky accused Ukraine of culpability while the leadership in Chisinau attributed blame to “internal differences between various groups in Transnistria that have an interest in destabilising the situation.”

Officials in Kyiv used these blasts to send warnings to Western capitals about risks of the war in their country spreading elsewhere and the Kremlin reacted by warning Chisinau to stop aiding the Ukrainian resistance.

“It’s not clear who was responsible for the bombings,” explained Feffer. “But at this point, it would seem that the events are ‘noises off,’ in other words, actions that are happening off-stage that might be distracting but are not centrally connected to the main action.”

Testing Moldova’s Resilience in the Face of Russian Threats

Chisinau faces serious dilemmas as the war in Ukraine rages on. Moldova has its own interests in maintaining peace with the regime in Tiraspol and caring for the influx of Ukrainian refugees. The country also has an important energy relationship with Russia; Moldova is almost entirely reliant on Russia for gas.

The Moldovan government sees potential Russian aggression against Chisinau taking different forms. There are concerns about Moscow possibly taking military action—either an overt ground invasion via Transnistria and/or by launching missiles at Moldova from Russia, Crimea, or Belarus under the banner of protecting Russian-speaking people in the former Soviet republic from NATO-backed “neo-Nazis”—essentially repeating the Ukrainian playbook.

The Russians also have the ability to weaponize propaganda in ways that can mobilize Eurosceptic segments of Moldova’s population against the government. Moscow can exploit local grievances regarding burdens of caring for Ukrainian refugees, high gasoline prices, and salt shortages to stir up anger which can be directed toward the Moldovan government. Already authorities in Chisinau have been censoring such “fake news” for fear of how it advances Moscow’s agendas which take advantage of Moldova’s problems.

It is also critical to monitor southern Moldova’s pro-Russian Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. In this region, where Orthodox Turkic-speaking, ethnic Gagauz who make up just over four percent of the Moldovan population live, there has been some opposition to the central government’s authority. Experts have warned that Moscow could stoke unrest in Gaguazia and possibly annex it down the line.

Additionally, since the EU granted Moldova candidate status within the bloc in June, there have been scores of false bomb threats in the country. Those behind these threats are suspected of coming from within Moldova and from abroad. Such threats have harmed the Moldovan economy, required the government to spend more money hiring counterterrorism specialists, and spread fear among Moldovans. “Those who have planned and carried out this wave of false bomb threats have achieved their goal,” said Alexandru Flenchea, an expert on conflict resolution who previously worked on efforts to reunite Transnistria with the rest of Moldova.

Common Cause with Ukraine

The President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, was in Kyiv in June speaking at a news conference with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when she declared, “We are closely following all developments in Transnistria and we are seeing no threats looming. We are doing everything we can to prevent this separatist region from posing a threat to Ukraine and Moldova.”

Ukraine, however, is wary of the threat of a Russian-friendly breakaway region on its border. On July 22, Ukraine’s Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense, Kyrylo Budanov, said that Kyiv will help Moldova expel the Russian forces from Transnistria. As he put it, Ukraine will “do everything to help a brotherly state get rid of the invaders from its land.”

Budanov made this remark on a newscast against the backdrop of Vitaliy Ignatiev, the head of Transnistria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declaring that the breakaway state seeks to be annexed to Russia and a member of the Russian Duma Committee on International Affairs expressing support for this annexation.

Acting to limit Russia’s potential to cause chaos,  Moldova has not allowed Russia to rotate its troops in and out of Transnistria since 2015, which it was doing every six months prior. Additionally, Ukraine closed its border to the separatist enclave after this year’s war began. As Moscow is unable to access Transnistria without entering hostile Ukrainian airspace, this severely limits its ability to supply or reinforce its forces in the breakaway region.

For Kyiv, such coordination with Chisinau is critical to ensuring that the Russians can’t open a new front against the Ukrainians in the Western part of their country via Transnistria. Chisinau sees such circumstances as opening the door to an ejection of Russian forces who are, under international law, illegally occupying Moldovan land.

Ultimately, warfare in Ukraine might never spill into Transnistria or the rest of Moldova. Yet, there are growing concerns that the longer the conflict in Ukraine drags on, the frozen conflict in this separatist enclave risks unfreezing.

Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

Having long viewed Transnistria as the “black hole of Europe,” the U.S. government rigidly favors recognizing Moldova’s sovereignty over every square inch of territory within the country’s UN-recognized borders. In 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden visited Moscow before arriving in Moldova where he met with the country’s then-Prime Minister Vlad Filat. Biden addressed Moldova’s decades-old frozen conflict by declaring, “America supports a settlement, but not any settlement: a settlement that preserved Moldova’s sovereignty and Moldova’s territorial integrity. Transnistria lies within Moldova.”

Eleven years later, amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, Washington’s stakes in Moldova are high. The U.S. and its Western EU/NATO allies fear the leverage that this Russian-back breakaway republic hugging Ukraine’s Western border provides Moscow and the risk of the warfare in Ukraine spreading into Moldova.

In line with the history of successive U.S. administrations, American lawmakers, and the foreign policy establishment in Washington supporting EU enlargement, the Biden administration quickly welcomed the EU’s decision on June 23 to grant Moldova and Ukraine candidate status within the bloc. Within one month of Moldova receiving this candidate status, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita came to Washington and met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who congratulated her country on the development “and its progress on continued reforms to advance its European integration.”

The White House views expansion of the European project into former Soviet republics as serving U.S. interests in various ways, including by weakening Moscow’s geopolitical clout on the doorstep of NATO’s Eastern flank. As Biden said on his 2011 trip to Moldova, “We believe Moldova’s future lies with Europe. You are a European country. You should be, and you will be, fully integrated into European institutions.”

Nonetheless, the EU is not a military alliance. Instead, it is a political and economic institution. Thus, Moldova entering the bloc would not require the U.S.’s European allies to intervene against the Russian presence in Transnistria, which would be the case if Moldova joined NATO under current circumstances, and for that reason the NATO charter prevents Moldova from entering the Western Security Alliance as countries which do not fully control their sovereign territory are not permitted to join. However, the EU’s mutual defense clause obligates the bloc’s other states to assist any fellow EU member that is the victim of any aggression on its land, which applies to Moldova.

Therefore, although most of the ways in which Moldova would gain from EU membership are in economic domains, Chisinau would possibly also benefit militarily if Moldova becomes more firmly embedded in NATO’s sphere of influence as an EU member. Although Moldova might not obtain EU membership in the immediate future, if the war in Ukraine rages on for the long-haul, the Moldovan state would be in a stronger position to fortress its land from Russian aggression down the line after eventually becoming a full-fledged member of the bloc.

Irrespective of how long Moldova’s path to the EU takes, the U.S. is remaining committed to backing the country in the face of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine. Russia’s overt invasion of Moldova’s neighbor on February 24 prompted Washington to boost its support to Chisinau with the aim of accelerating the country’s path toward EU membership and helping Moldova stand strong as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues leaving Moldovans nervous about their future.

Since the war erupted in February, the U.S. has supported Moldova by committing approximately $75 million to help Chisinau cope with the humanitarian challenges posed by the influx of Ukrainian refugees, plus $124 million for assistance in the areas of economics and security. Such support from Washington builds on the pledges made by donors from EU at the Moldova Support Platform held in Romania on July 15, in which European actors pledged €600 million to support Moldova deal with inflation, refugees, energy challenges, and security concerns as the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight. As Blinken told Gavrilita last month in Washington, the Biden administration is working with Congress to deliver $64.5 million in additional funding “to support Moldova’s long-term democratic and economic resilience and to help Moldova defend its sovereignty.”

Looking ahead, it appears the U.S. can be counted on to remain staunchly supportive of efforts to secure Moldova even if the conflict in Transnistria remains frozen and unresolved.