1 – Eastern Corner. Transnistria Primer
BSSB.BE fpri.org 10.10.2016
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?
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.
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 Parliamentasked the Russian Duma in 2014 to make it a federal subjectof Russia.
- 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 Transnistriato 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.
- 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.
- 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 corridorbetween 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.
- 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 Moldovaand Transnistria, and it continues to own 50% of Moldova’s domestic gas distribution system.
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