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Ukraine crisis: are Moldova and its Transnistrian region next on Moscow’s to-do-list?

Sovereign state: the newly opened Moldovan Parliament EPA/Dumitru Doru

NATO foreign ministers have agreed to suspend all cooperation with Russia and bolster their defence posture in the Baltic states and Poland. This move reflects the continuing perception of a Russian threat to Ukraine, a point made abundantly clear in a statement by the German chancellor Angela Merkel – which is particularly significant given that Germany is usually seen as Russia’s closest ally in the West.

The NATO decision follows an inconclusive meeting in Paris on Sunday between US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Russian counter-part, Sergei Lavrov about finding a diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Ukraine. No real breakthrough was achieved, but Moscow and Washington committed to keeping their talks going. Unlike Kiev, Kerry did not explicitly reject Russian proposals for the federalisation and neutrality of Ukraine.

Western unease, and the responses so far, reflect lingering concerns over Russia’s longer-term intentions. With few exceptions, most analysts expect similar land grabs, based on the assumption that Vladimir Putin and his inner circle are intent on restoring as much of the geographical zone of influence that the Soviet Union had as possible. Putin’s speech justifying the annexation of Crimea certainly lends credence to such assumptions – as does the track record of Russian policy from the 2008 war with Georgia and the subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to the aggressive push for the creation of the Eurasian Union (so far including Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus), to the annexation of Crimea and the aggressive rhetoric about Russia’s rights to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers outside the Russian Federation.

A lot of this debate and commentary has centred on Moldova and its break-away Transnistrian region as being high on Moscow’s list of most likely targets.

This makes sense in many ways. Russia has a military presence in Transnistria in the form of remnants of the 14th Army, supposedly guarding Soviet military equipment and munitions from the Soviet period left there at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991. Russian forces are also one component of a CIS peace-keeping force set up at the end of the brief violent conflict between Moldova and Transnistria more than two decades ago. Military exercises by these forces are obviously adding to existing tensions.

Handbook of International Economic Statistics, CC BY

According to a 2004 census, there is also a sizeable ethnic Russian population in Transnsitria (approximately 30%, with similar numbers of ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Moldovans). Around 90% speak Russian and many also hold Russian passports. In a referendum in 2006, some 97% of the Transnistrian population expressed a desire for independence. While these figures clearly suffered from Soviet-style inflation, there is little doubt that the majority of the people in Transnistria do not, at present, want to be part of a Moldovan state. More than 20 years of separation have clearly contributed to a pre-existing sense of a distinct regional identity.

Yet, during the past 20 years, a fairly stable status quo had been established between the authorities in Transnistria and the Moldovan government. A status quo, moreover, that saw many gradual and incremental improvements, facilitating relatively free movement of goods and people across the River Nistru and enabling Transnistrian companies to enjoy the same Autonomous Trade Preferences with the European Union as Moldovan ones for the past six years, provided they registered in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.

European ties

Moldova has moved increasingly closer to the European Union, a process that was begun under the previous communist government and has been accelerated by the current Alliance for European Integration. With negotiations on an Association Agreement completed last year and now ready for signature in June, visa liberalisation approved, and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement likely to come into force after a transitional period in January 2016, Moldova has embarked on a path similar to Ukraine. From the Kremlin’s perspective, assuming this is all about restoring a Soviet-like zone of influence, this must be worrying.

Moreover, there is also a renewed strategic value in having control over Transnistria (and by extension, Moldova), as this gives the Kremlin additional leverage over Ukraine. This, however, is counter-balanced by the fact that Russia has no direct access to Moldova and Transnistria, landlocked as they are and wedged between a deeply anti-Russian western Ukraine and Romania, a member of both the EU and NATO.

Moscow’s options

Moldova and Transnistria clearly are close to, if not at, the top of the Kremlin’s list. So what might Moscow do? One scenario is a military push through eastern and southern Ukraine, capturing the port of Odessa and moving into Moldova and Transnistria from the south. A version of this scenario might be simply to take Odessa. This would be a highly risky strategy for Moscow, triggering most certainly open war with Ukraine which would likely receive significant Western political, economic and military support (although without full Western military engagement). Russia’s military build-up on the eastern borders of Ukraine would indicate that Moscow wants this to be seen as a potential option for the future, even though the Kremlin has promptly denied any intention to invade Ukraine.

Transnistria: dreaming of a Russian homeland. EPA/Zsolt Czegledi

A second scenario could involve the continuation of a status quo of sorts, albeit one with a noticeable destabilisation of the political and security situation in both Moldova and Transnistria. This would be a relatively low-cost/high-benefit option for the Kremlin. It could also pave the way towards the first scenario, creating the very conditions under which Moscow could claim that it needs to act in order to protect ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers, and Russian passport holders.

The strategy, however, would not be risk-free either. While a large number of Moldovans favour closer ties with Russia, this does not equate with a desire to become a client state of Moscow, let alone a province of the Russian Federation. The calculation may be somewhat different for the residents of Transnistria, but the economic consequences of cutting all ties with Moldova and the EU would be devastating, given that a total of over 70% of all Transnistrian exports go west.

A third option for the Kremlin would be to work towards a settlement of the conflict, with the aim of keeping Moldova permanently outside the influence of the EU and NATO. This could be achieved by simultaneously keeping up the pressure on Moldova (under scenario 2) and encouraging a gradual rapprochement between Tiraspol and Chisinau that would create a fully federal Moldova (with the southern region of Gagauzia possibly being a third and the northern region of Bălţi/Belz being a fourth federal entity) in which federal subjects can exercise a veto over key foreign policy decisions –- such as EU or NATO membership, or even closer ties with either of these organisations.

It is in this context, that we need to see the new talks on Ukraine, especially given Russian proposals for the country’s neutrality and federalisation and Moscow’s insistence that the next round of the so-called 5+2 Talks on Transnsitria should go ahead as planned on 10 and 11 April.

The third scenario outlined above may, therefore, appear to be the most likely and palatable – and it is, given the other options considered. Yet, it would mean that Moldova would essentially lose the ability to make a free and sovereign choice over its future strategic political, military, and economic direction. If this is to be avoided, the West needs to send a much clearer message to Moscow and back it up with credible policy. The question, however, is whether policy makers from Berlin to Brussels, London and Washington think that Moldova is worth such a tougher line.

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. ben Sammons


    This whole affair by the drama queens of world power has a familiar ring to it. I can't help thinking about our own civil war (US). On one side you had a politically, power hungry, and central power oriented president, Abe Lincoln, and on the other side you had a population of individualist who believed in the rights of individual states to make laws for their people. These people declared their state's independence from the central power of the national government and Lincoln decided to teach…

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    1. Paul Burns

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to ben Sammons

      Ben, you are free to comment as you wish about events in the USA during the 1860s and I am free to point out there are several more recent situations in Europe that could be more relevant to what the Kremlin is up to with neighbouring states and regions.

      My hunch is that Putin will engineer an incident to use as a pretext for invading the rest of the Ukraine, just as Hitler did when he shared Poland with Stalin. Once an invasion of the Ukraine is underway, Russia will have little to lose adding other territories that are not members of NATO to the new Russian empire.

    2. ben Sammons


      In reply to Paul Burns

      Paul, I agree with your assessment of Putin's intentions, but it was a no brain-er that Putin would eventually do this. Why the big surprise, and the questions? Putin is controlled by his nature, like a rattle snake. He can't help it. and, like a rattle snake, He can't be talked out of it - much the same as Lincoln was. They are, and were, narcissists which is the first step toward the tendency to control people and prove their superior intellect, and that they are chosen to fulfill destiny…

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    3. Michael Ekin Smyth


      In reply to ben Sammons

      Ben: that old Dixie revisionism is getting a bit tired, isn't it? Lincoln has gone down in history as one of the great democratic leaders - and that won't change. Washington negotiated with the southerners over many decades and Lincoln himself took a very conciliatory path. Far too conciliatory for many.
      The first shots were fired by the rebels, not the US army.

    4. ben Sammons


      In reply to Michael Ekin Smyth

      Michael, you're getting your b. v. d.s in a wad for the wrong reasons. I fault Lincoln for not being conciliatory before he pushed a war that cost the nation untold misery in human lives. The question of slavery was not high on Lincoln's agenda. It was the narcissistic attitude he took toward the saving the union that costs the human toll. Lincoln was a guru with all the mental manifestations that gurus suffer, and he thought of himself as being placed in the position of being the savior of the union by God. He believed that he was appointed to this task. This is evidenced by visions he claimed to have had. He was nuts. Its not surprising that the first shot was fired by the Rebels. Sort of reminds me of the situation with Putin. He's nuts too. I'm one of those people who give Lincoln admirers no credit for accurate history, but accuse them of guru worship, and a refusal to look at reality.