By Reggie Kramer*
(FPRI) — Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), exists unsure of its place in the world. To its west, across the Dniester River, lies the breakaway region’s parent state, Moldova, and, beyond that, European Union (EU) member Romania. To the east are Ukraine, Russian-occupied Crimea, and the Black Sea. Pulled between east and west, resurgent Russia and western-minded Moldova, the region is of significant strategic importance for a Western alliance looking to prevent the realization of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperialist goals. But how did we get to this point?
During the 19th century, present-day Moldova was part of the Russian Empire, which the Ottoman Empire had ceded to Russia. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Moldovan Parliament quickly formed and, in 1918, voted to join the Kingdom of Romania. The newly-formed Soviet Union (USSR) did not recognize Romania’s political control of what it considered Russian territory. In 1924, the USSR created the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic out of the territory that it still controlled: the land east of the Dniester, modern Transnistria. During and after the Second World War, the USSR regained control of all of present-day Moldova; it maintained control over this area until 1990.
In that year, Moldova, still part of the Soviet Union held its first free elections since becoming part of the USSR. The Popular Front of Moldova, a pro-Romanian ethnic nationalist party, won. Its policies demoted the status of the Russian language in Moldova and discriminated against ethnic minorities, who made up more than half of the population of Transnistria, by promoting the joint Moldovan-Romanian culture as the “national culture.” Many of the ethnic Moldovans in the region were also native-Russian speakers. Upset by these developments and fearing that a Moldova-Romania union would further marginalize them, Transnistrians declared their region independent of Moldova and named it the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Pridnestrove means Transnistria in Russian). The Popular Front government mobilized popular militias to combat separatists in Transnistria and Gagauzia, the other region of the country with a significant ethnic minority population. Small-scale incidents broke out with ethnic Moldovans attacking ethnic minorities—the government turned a blind eye to such incidents. In 1991, the Popular Front government in Chișinău declared Moldova independent of the USSR. Transnistrians did the same with their capital in Tiraspol.
War on the Dniester
The newly independent Moldova, eager to assert its sovereignty over all of its claimed territory, tried several times between 1990 and 1992 to send its own government officials and police forces across the Dniester River. Each time, PMR militias rebuffed them. Armed, trained, and supported by former Soviet troops now loyal to the new Russian Federation, these militias composed a capable and well-equipped, albeit decentralized, military force.
The murder of a militia leader in the village of Dubăsari on March 1, 1992 sparked the Transnistria War. PMR leadership blamed the murder on policemen loyal to Moldova. Together with Russian Cossack volunteers, militiamen besieged the police precinct and held 26 Moldovan policemen hostage. Battles broke out between Moldovan loyalists and PMR militias; the Popular Front government ordered the bulk of Moldova’s fledgling military, made up primarily of police officers and volunteers, to cross the Dniester by ferry. In the area around Dubăsari, the Moldovan forces and PMR militias engaged in trench warfare. In June, Moldovan troops stormed the city of Bender (the only PMR-claimed territory west of the Dniester), and during the ensuing battle, Moldovan forces destroyed three Russian tanks fighting alongside the Transnistrian separatists. In response, the Russian 14th Guards Army launched an artillery attack that devastated the Moldovans stationed outside of Bender. The Russian government subsequently threatened to order its army into the fighting if Moldova continued its attempts to assert political control over Transnistria. A ceasefire agreement was signed in July 1992. It created a joint peacekeeping force consisting of five Russian battalions, three Moldovan battalions, and two PMR battalions. While nominally governed by this joint force, Transnistria is, to this day, a de facto autonomous state ruled by the PMR—though it is internationally recognized as Moldovan territory.
Why Transnistria Matters
Given the recent reemergence of Russia as a regional aggressor, the United States and its European allies are hard-pressed to contain Russian expansion. Already, Russian influence and military forces have moved westward; pro-Russian separatists control a significant stretch of Ukraine; and Russia itself has annexed the Crimean peninsula. Russia could easily look to Transnistria as the next target of its aggression.
Transnistria is another region, like Crimea, that is a majority Russian-speaking and ethnic-Russian enclave within a non-Russian speaking country dominated by non-ethnic Russians. Russia has deep, uninterrupted historical ties with the area, which date back more than 200 years. It openly supported the PMR during the Transnistria War and has maintained close political ties since. Russian military forces remain in Transnistria as a part of the joint peacekeeping force, and Moldova is not a member of NATO; therefore, a Russian occupation of Moldovan territory would not automatically lead to Western retaliation. The opportunity for Russia to annex Transnistria exists, especially after the Transnistrian Parliament asked the Russian Duma in 2014 to make it a federal subject of Russia. This request came in response to the Moldovan government’s plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union; Transnistrians fear that closer relations with the EU could lead to Moldovan-Romanian reunification, which would make them even more of an ethnic and/or linguistic minority.
The Russian government has taken slow but steady steps at consolidating its control over Transnistria giving rise to the concerns that Putin has his eyes set on it. During Duma elections in 2011, Russia opened voting stations in Transnistria to allow its soldiers and the many dual citizens in the region to vote, and it plans to do the same for the 2016 Duma elections in September. The Moldovan government has protested, but it seems as though Russia will go ahead with opening these stations anyway. Russian state media reporting on these events seems to imply that this move is designed to legitimate Russian governance of the region in the absence of direct Moldovan control.
The continued presence of Russian military forces in Transnistria since 1992 has worried Moldova and the West. Moldova has continually asked that Russia remove these troops from its territory and that an international peacekeeping force come in, but Russia has resisted. These troops have carried out several military exercises in Transnistria, including on the bank of the Dniester River. Moldova has condemned these exercises as violations of its sovereignty and a tactic of intimidation. Like its administration of voting stations in the region, these exercises are attempts to assert Russia’s control of Transnistria.
Also, there is worry that the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria will cause further Russian aggression in Ukraine. In 2015, the Ukrainian government suspended a military cooperation deal with Russia that allowed troops and supply convoys destined for Transnistria to travel through, so now, Russian soldiers in Transnistria are effectively stranded there. Even if Russia wanted to remove these troops, it would have difficulty doing so. If Putin feels that the soldiers are threatened, he could order Russian forces to create a land corridor to Transnistria to get them out. It is worth noting that in the two years since the annexation of Crimea, many policymakers have predicted that Russia would seek to create a land corridor between its own territory and the peninsula, but Russia has yet to do so. Any conflict in Eastern Moldova would likely spill into Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast creating even more chaos in that country.
Furthermore, Russia has employed propaganda and disinformation to gain further influence over Transnistria. Russian-language media dominates the landscape because under-funded Transnistrian and Moldovan television stations regularly rebroadcast Russian programming. A survey in 2015 found that nearly 40 percent of Moldovans receive most of their information from Russian sources. These sources publish videos outlining plans for Romania and Moldova to unify and subsequently fight a war against Transnistria, with the help of Ukraine; it is hardly surprising that Transnistrians, almost all of whom consume exclusively Russian-language media, should gravitate towards Russia. Even if they are not completely besotted with Putin’s Russia, they certainly fear Moldovan-Romanian unification.
Finally, Moldova’s (lack of) energy security and the geographic importance of Transnistria, especially in regards to oil and gas transportation, is a cause of concern. Russian energy giant Gazprom formerly had a complete and total monopoly on supplying gas to Moldova and Transnistria, and it continues to own 50% of Moldova’s domestic gas distribution system. Russia claims that the Moldovan government is responsible for the four billion dollar debt Transnistrian consumers owe to Gazprom. Russia could use this debt as a means of influencing Moldovan politics. In addition, a large amount of Russian-produced natural gas bound for Europe goes through pipelines that cross Transnistria. Moscow is sure to keep a close eye on Transnistria for that reason; any action that might threaten Russian pipelines risks inflaming Putin’s temper.
What’s Being Done and What Could Be Done?
At the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland, Moldovan Defense Minister Anatol Şalaru asked for assistance in removing Russian troops from Transnistria. In 1999, Russia had agreed to remove its military from the territory, but it has yet to follow through. To complicate matters even more, NATO leadership has been unwilling to risk further exacerbating tensions over a separatist conflict in a non-member state. Romania, Moldova’s neighbor and cultural cousin, could ostensibly provide help, but is unlikely to do so. With its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has territory—and military forces, including the Black Sea Fleet—just over one-hundred miles from Romania. Therefore, it would not want to risk provoking Putin.
The EU has taken steps towards further integrating Moldova into the West, via its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). In 2014, Moldovans gained visa-free access to travel in the EU, which also extended to Transnistrians, who are considered Moldovan under international law. This policy could have the effects of encouraging Transnistrians to identify more with Europe. As an ENP partner, Moldova committed itself to making political reforms to reduce corruption and increase civic participation, including among Transnistrians. Greater cooperation between Moldova and the EU could therefore mean greater cooperation between Transnistria and Moldova, which could serve to shrink the space for Russian involvement. Moreover, Moldova does have a strong relationship with NATO even though it is not a member. It belongs to NATO’s Partnership for Peace and has an Individual Partnership Action Plan. It regularly participates in NATO summits and meetings of NATO bodies making it the only non-member country to do so. Moldova’s participation has, in fact, become so commonplace that it is referred to as the 28 members + Moldova format. The level of Moldova-NATO integration, even though not a relationship of membership, should still serve as a deterrent to Russian intervention in territory internationally recognized as Moldovan.
As it stands now, a rushed attempt at incorporating Moldova into NATO to warn Russia off from militarily intervening in Moldova and Transnistria appears to be off the table. Putin has made it quite clear that Russia will respond aggressively to NATO expansion—the situation in Ukraine proves this point. Given Putin’s paranoia, the Kremlin is likely to see a provision of troops or advisors to Moldova as an offensive act as well. Also, Moldovan law makes it unlikely to join NATO in the near future; the country’s constitution prevents it from joining a military alliance. While reunification between Transnistria and Moldova proper is an admirable goal and would thwart Russian ambitions towards the region, it seems unlikely to happen in the near future. Nevertheless, there are policy options that are being discussed:
- Grow economic ties between Transnistria and Moldova and the European Union:
Fifty-five percent of Transnistria’s imports come from Moldova and the EU, and those same actors make up 81.6 percent of the market for Transnistrian exports. Opportunities exist to further increase these numbers: the Transnistrian economy has increasingly pivoted westward over recent years due to Moldova’s signing of an association agreement with the EU in 2014. That agreement gave Transnistria tariff-free access to the European market and spurred European investors to invest in Transnistria, which Moldova has allowed (unlike Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Even if closer economic ties between Transnistria and Moldova and the EU do not lead to closer diplomatic or political ties, they still may give the government and people of Transnistria pause before siding with or inviting in Russia. A closer economic relationship could provide the West with a source of leverage on the PMR.
In addition, from 1992 to 2015, about ten percent of Transnistria’s GDP came from direct Russian financial assistance. In 2016, Putin suspended payments to the PMR government due to his growing personal frustration with Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk, who has been accused of skimming from economic assistance. The West could seek to replace that money through either trade or direct assistance (which seems unlikely) and thus gain further influence in Transnistria at Russia’s expense.
- Twist the sanctions knife:
It is well documented that Western-imposed sanctions on Russia, first implemented in the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis, have negatively affected the Russian economy in significant ways. According to a report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the sanctions are an important reason for why Russia hasn’t already taken military action in Transnistria. “A useful effect of the sanctions,” the report states, “is that, even if they do not help the EU much in its policy on Crimea, they do minimise the risk that Russia will seek to openly destabilise other parts of Ukraine or, say, Moldova and Georgia.” Increasing the sanctions could further minimize that risk.
- Hybrid warfare—Fight fire with fire:
Russia’s hybrid strategy has been successful at gaining support from local populations in Russian ethnic and linguistic enclaves. While the Western alliance has tried to counter Russian military actions—NATO deploying more troops along the Russian border is a prime example—it has not even attempted to fight an information war in places like Transnistria. In “Freedom in the World 2015,” Freedom House wrote of Transnistria’s media:
The media environment is restrictive. Nearly all media are state owned or controlled and refrain from criticizing the authorities. The few independent print outlets have small circulations. Critical reporting draws harassment by the government, which also uses bureaucratic obstruction and the withholding of information to inhibit independent media.
The PMR government determines what information its population receives. Much of this information is pro-Russian. For example, in June 2016, the Shevchuk government passed legislation criminalizing criticism of Russia’s peacekeepers. Moreover, almost all opposition media is in Romanian—meaning that ideas contrary to those of Russia and the PMR government are only reaching those Transnistrians who already agree with them. There is a dearth of Russian-language opposition media and even unbiased news. The West could provide Moldova and Transnistrian opposition activists with financial and technical support to create pro-Western (or unbiased) Russian-language media outlets in Transnistria. Romania has already begun to do just that. Eroding public support for Russia and the pro-Russian PMR would be a victory because it would give Putin less of an opportunity to intervene. This strategy of supporting Russian-language media for Russian-speaking minorities has been supported in order to combat Russian influence in other post-Soviet areas, most notably Estonia.
The Moldovan government has tried to limit the influence of Russian media propaganda by banning Russian journalists from entering the country and by regulating which Russian programming Moldovan television channels can rebroadcast. These policies have been met with resistance even from pro-European Moldovans because these people fear that these policies could be used to silence critical coverage of the Moldovan government. Furthermore, they have little effect on propaganda in Transnistria due to Moldova’s lack of enforcement capability there.
- Fall back and consolidate:
All of the above three policy options can co-exist with one another. This fourth one cannot. In fact, it directly contradicts them. Yet, it remains on the table: Moldova could cut its losses and renounce its territorial claim to Transnistria. An independent Transnistria could potentially reorient away from Russia having achieved its goal. However, even if this scenario does not come to pass, and Russia annexes or otherwise gains control of the region, Moldova without Transnistria could be more easily defended and integrated into the Western alliance and the EU or it could unite with Romania, which would have the effect of causing Moldovan territory to fall under the purview of NATO. At this point in time, Russia seems unlikely to invade the undisputed territory of a NATO member state thus triggering Article 5 and a full-scale conflict. Also, ceding Transnistria could be presented as an act of good faith—one that could potentially placate Putin for long enough to allow Moldova to regroup and work with the West or to join Romania. In either such a scenario, Moldova would become the furthest bulwark against Russian expansion. Russia’s sphere of influence would diminish, and any Western-Russian conflict would take place further from the economic and cultural heartland of Europe and be less costly as a result.
This decision would be a highly risky policy decision and only worth employing if there was concrete evidence that Russia was planning to imminently annex Transnistria and threaten Moldova. Even in that case, it could further embolden rather than deter Russian regional aggression, and Transnistria could become the next Sudetenland. In addition, Romanian-Moldovan unification, should it come to pass, could potentially spark conflict in Moldova’s Gaugazia—primarily inhabited by a Turkic ethnolinguistic minority—and Taraclia—primarily inhabited by a Bulgarian ethnolinguistic minority—regions. Both regions have ties with NATO member states (Turkey and Bulgaria, respectively), which could further complicate the situation.
A Stuck Region
Russia’s long history of dominance over Transnistria, coupled with the region’s ethnolinguistic makeup and the presence of Russian soldiers, makes it a potential target for Russian intervention. The inconclusive end to the Transnistria War has left this area in limbo for quite some time: a strip of land de jure part of Moldova but de facto independent and supported by Russia. Since the end of the war, Russia has had significant influence on Transnistria, but it has attempted to further consolidate its power through a combination of political, military, and informational tactics. The West must prevent these tactics from succeeding; a stronger Russian presence in Moldova means a greater threat to the EU and to peace and security in post-communist Europe, particularly in Ukraine. Several policy options have been enacted, such as beginning to integrate Moldova (and Transnistria by extension) into the West via deals with the EU or discussing to increase sanctions on Russia. Only time will tell if any of these scenarios will be successful.
In the short term, what is almost certain is that nothing is likely to change with regards to the situation in Transnistria. No party with a stake in the peace and security of Eastern Europe wants to risk unfreezing the conflict. That is why Russia did not annex Transnistria even after it was asked to; why NATO has not taken steps towards the forceful removal of Russian troops from the region; and why Moldova is unlikely to unify with Romania any time soon. The outcome of Moldova’s presidential election, scheduled for October 2016, may clarify the picture and inform the policies towards Transnistria chosen by all relevant actors. Until then, Transnistria remains an important, but hardly pivotal, region in global politics.
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This article was published by FPRI