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Where Will Putin Start Trouble Next? Start Watching Transnistria

Tank from Ukraine's armed forces firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Tank from Ukraine's armed forces firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Transnistria Stirs the Moldovan Pot – While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to rage and both armies have settled into a war of attrition, the end of the war is nowhere in sight. However, Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor Moldova has emerged after the invasion as another location where Russian forces and Russian proxies have become particularly active. While its exact intentions are unclear, Russia will likely use the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria for the duration of the war to support its aims.

What is Transnistria?

During the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the Soviet Socialist Republics which made up the Union struggled with their own centrifugal forces and ethnic separatist movements. Moldova was no exception. Even before independence was declared, Moldovans and Russians in the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic were vying with each other, leading to the establishment of the “Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic,” in the city of Tiraspol, leading to sporadic skirmishes and standoffs.

After Moldova’s declaration of independence in 1991, Transnistria’s legislature voted to join what was left of the Soviet Union. In early 1992, fears that Moldova would seek to unite with Romania in the primarily Russian and Slavic areas of Moldova east of the Dniester River finally boiled over into large-scale armed conflict. The formerly Soviet and Russian-inherited 14th Guards Army played a significant role in supporting Transnistria in its fight with the central Moldovan government, forming the nucleus of Russia’s troops in Moldova following the war.

Russian troops remain in Transnistria to this day in the form of the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) in Transnistria, which Russia claims is entirely legal and legitimate within the 1992 ceasefire agreement, while Moldova has lobbied for their withdrawal. The true number of Russian troops in Transnistria remains hard to gauge at any one time, due to the fact that many troops which are described as Russian soldiers are in fact residents of Transnistria with Russian passports. While estimates of the OGRF’s size range from 1,500 to 2,000 troops, only a subset of them are likely to be in Moldova at any given time.

How has Transnistria Previously Been Used?

For most of its existence, Transnistria has been seen by Moscow as a tool to reel Moldova back into its orbit. In 2003, Russia propose the so-called “Kozak Memorandum” (named after Russia’s principal negotiator of the deal, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak) to facilitate Transnistria’s return to Moldova under terms which would have granted it significant autonomy and influence over nationwide Moldovan affairs. This deal was rejected by then-President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova, and Russia has not found the opportunity or the conditions to attempt a similar maneuver since.

Earlier in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Transnistria became a source of concern for Kyiv and Western observers. April 25 and 26 explosions at the headquarters of Transnistria’s so-called Ministry of State Security and radio towers used to transmit Russian broadcasts into the territory were described as Ukrainian provocations by Moscow. Transnistria’s local authorities echoed this line, and claimed Ukrainian saboteurs fled back across the border after their attack. Open speculation by Rustam Minnikayev, then a Deputy Commander of Russia’s Central Military District, that Russia would establish a land corridor to Transnistria by advancing to the border of the statelet through Ukraine injected particular unease into conversations about the territory. While Transnistria is yet to enter the fight, such saber-rattling succeeded in stripping some Ukrainian attention and resources away from the fight against Russia to fortify the region’s border.

However, Transnistria is also somewhat of a headache for Russia. As of 2015, nearly 20,000 tons of Soviet, Czechoslovak, and East German ammunition is reportedly in storage at a depot near the village of Cobasna (known as Kolbasna in Russian), which is located on the Ukrainian border in the northern half of the country. According to the Moldovan Academy of Sciences, an explosion of the dump would be on the scale of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The territory’s vast smuggling networks and moneymaking enterprises such as Sheriff (which controls a disproportionate share of the Moldovan economy and was founded by former KGB officers) have taken a hit ever since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine, which makes Transnistria less likely to sap the state capacity of Ukraine and Moldova through its smuggling rings.

How is Transnistria Being Used Now?

This week, new intrigues have emerged around Transnistria that threaten to distract Ukraine from its ongoing fight against Russia’s invasion. While it has proposed to join Russia many times previously, the head of Transnistria’s so-called Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed that Transnistria would seek recognition of its independence and to join Russia. However, the Kremlin, which does not recognize the independence of Transnistria, did not comment on the statelet’s aspirations. Transnistrian authorities have also tried to make hay out of the rotation of OGRF troops in the separatist entity, claiming on July 21 that Moldova’s authorities were interfering with the regular rotation of Russian troops. However, Moldova denied the accusations, and asserted that it was not blocking Russian peacekeepers, only that of the OGRF, which Chisinau differentiates from Russia’s peacekeepers and considers to be illegally present in Transnistria. On July 21, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concern about the “detention” of Russian officers by Moldova, which it claimed were on their way to join the Russian contingent in Transnistria. Transnistrian authorities also raised the familiar specter of NATO’s “infrastructural” presence in Moldova, an allusion to one of the many scattered reasons Russia alleged precipitated its invasion of Ukraine without proof.

Clearly, Transnistrian society has been shaken by the war raging next door. Economic shocks have followed logistical disruptions to goods usually flowing over the border from Ukraine. This has negatively impacted living conditions in Transnistria, which likely places pressure on the separatist government in Tiraspol to act to resolve the statelet’s unrecognized status. However, the Kremlin likely prefers Transnistria to be suspended in its current state, where it can live in the twilight zone between becoming involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine and a permanent block on Moldova’s Westward-facing aspirations while remaining a separate, distinct entity.

All signs seem to be pointing to the idea that Russia and Transnistria could be seeking to once again muddy the waters around Transnistria’s hypothetical participation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which appeared to have some success back in April. When combined with Lavrov’s claims that the territorial goals of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” had been expanded beyond Donbas, it is possible that both Tiraspol and Moscow decided to saber-rattle in Transnistria while the iron was hot.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.