The Fire That Didn’t Burn: Transnistria’s Unanswered Call For Russian Support – Analysis


By Walter Landgraf

(FPRI) — On February 28, the legislature of Transnistria, a pro-Russia, de facto independent state internationally recognized as part of Moldova, appealed to Moscow for “protection” from the pro-European government in Chisinau. This preceded Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual address the following day, offering the prospect of a surprise public announcement about recognition or even formal annexation of the breakaway territory.

The news immediately prompted a surge of Western commentary. Some press outlets categorized it as the latest episode in which Russian-backed separatists attempted to subvert the geopolitical ambitions of a fledgling democracy on Europe’s fringe, with the Kremlin calling the shots behind it all. Deutsche Wellewondered if the region’s request could “reignite” the long-running territorial conflict with Moldova, which has eluded a permanent settlement. Meanwhile, The New York Times found the temptation to connect the issue with the “highly flammable scenario” that took place before Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine irresistible. Similarly, The Guardian suggested Transnistria’s plea had “fueled comparisons” with developments in eastern Ukraine in the months preceding February 2022. The recurrence of incendiary language in the discourse was hard to miss.

Such rhetoric provides a simplified framework within which local events in one place can be related and upscaled to a larger picture or phenomenon. We are immersed in an intense contemporary media ecosystem, so geopolitical discourse offers busy policymakers and citizens a seemingly clear view of global politics. Thus, according to the prevailing narrative, Putin might use the threat of military escalation to respond to Transnistria’s request. Indeed, Russia has stationed troops within the area since 1992, although their readiness and will to fight are uncertain. Deeper Russian involvement in the region could also help to destabilize Moldova by making it seem a poor candidate for European Union membership—President Maia Sandu’s main foreign policy goal. Putin may even opt to open a southwestern front to Ukraine in the direction of strategically important Odesa, home to the only deepwater port in that country. Thus, the references to “fire” in the interpretation of events— with alludes to threats and danger more broadly—offer an attractive, if seductive, frame for explaining a great deal in simple terms. The problem with such practices, however, is that they tend to overlook local power structures and historical and geographical contexts. In other words, both domestic and international factors—as well as contemporary and historical factors—are at play in an issue like this.

Following the wave of speculation by many Western observers, nothing happened. While the region’s legislature appealed to the Kremlin (among several other entities, including even the European Parliament) “to protect Transnistria” in the face of “increasing pressure from Chisinau,” it did not seek recognition or annexation by Russia. Moreover, Putin did not mention Transnistria or Moldova at all in his speech on February 29. With the Russian presidential elections looming in March, he allocated most of his time to domestic issues and putting a positive spin on the war in Ukraine.

The latest events involving Transnistria did not lead to renewed destabilization efforts for many reasons, not least of which was how President Sandu’s reaction was pragmatic, addressing economic grievances while avoiding pricklier topics. One obvious factor prevented conflict escalation this time: Russia is unable to reinforce its forces in the region in a way that would alter the current military balance in favor of the separatists or the trajectory of the war in Ukraine.

There are several points to consider in developing a thicker understanding of the situation on the ground in this regard. First, the variable of geographical proximity, specifically territorial contiguity, has been central in driving Russian militarized conflicts in the post-Soviet region. Russia’s run-ins have tended to involve disputes with former Soviet republics (except for the Syria intervention). Transnistria, on the other hand, not only lacks a shared border with the Russian Federation but is landlocked. This is important because it prevents Russia from amassing forces on a shared border under the guise of military drills—as it had done before the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. Thus, Russia could only send troops to Transnistria through an airlift operation, a costly and risky mission. This would entail transiting through Ukrainian airspace, where Russia lacks air superiority, or flying through Romanian, and thus, NATO territory. The latter would trigger US and Romanian fighters stationed less than two hundred miles away near Constanţa, Romania, to intercept Russian aircraft—the consequences of which could quickly spiral out of control.

A second and related issue has to do with logistics. Even if Russia were to miraculously bolster its existing troops in Transnistria through airlift, it would then have to figure out how to sustain such physically isolated forces while fighting a war with Moldova. The Russian army would experience far greater sustainment challenges on a southwestern front than it has so far in the east, where it benefits from a dense ground logistics and transportation infrastructure inside Russian territory and behind the forward line of troops. Unless it were to create a land bridge between the now-occupied area near Kherson and Transnistria through Odesa, Russian army logistics forces would be deprived of using the railroads they depend on to conduct large-scale ground offensive operations.

A final factor limiting Russia’s ability to project power into Transnistria relates to the contested situation in the Black Sea region. Despite having limited resources, Ukraine has been able to degrade Russia’s dominance through the efficient use of drone and missile attacks against naval assets, demonstrating an effective coastal defense capability. In addition, NATO has established multinational battlegroups in Romania and Bulgaria, whose size and composition can be adjusted to meet current operational needs. In January 2024, the two countries agreed to carry out a joint demining mission in partnership with Turkey in the Black Sea. Ankara has also forged a new strategic partnership with Kyiv, which could significantly enhance Ukraine’s defense industrial base. Given these developments, Russia has limited axes of advance toward Transnistria from the western Black Sea.

At present, Russia lacks the ability to deepen its conventional military presence in Transnistria due to geography, among other factors. Despite this, some Western commentary of the de facto legislature’s latest request for protection failed to take this real-world constraint into account. Besides overestimating Russia’s power projection capabilities, the reporting also ignored the possibility of a disinformation operation: that the speculation about calls for Russian recognition or annexation was deliberate and orchestrated by Moscow. Moving forward, Russia will likely continue trying to inflame the unresolved conflict between Moldova and Transnistria through unconventional means, including information warfare, to undermine Chisinau’s Western geopolitical aspirations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the author: Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Walter Rick Landgraf, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and the Managing Editor of the Texas National Security Review.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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