Nestled on the left bank of the Dniester river, between Moldova and Ukraine, sits Transnistria. Officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic and belonging to Moldova, Transnistria has claimed independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, its independence is still facilitated by Russia’s military and financial presence which has made this tiny de facto state the bone of contention between Moldova and Russia.
Transnistria’s stability has been threatened by the election of Moldova’s President, Maia Sandu. Unlike her predecessors, Sandu has explicitly challenged Russia’s presence in Transnistria and called for its military to leave. On the other hand, Tiraspol (Transnistria’s capital) and its internationally unrecognised government wholly advocate for Russia’s support and presence. The knock-on consequence of questioning Russia in Transnistria, I believe could have two serious outcomes. Firstly, if forced to leave, Russia may retaliate with economic sanctions against Moldova, as it has done previously, which would devastate its economy. Secondly, the removal of Russian forces would leave Tiraspol vulnerable to reintegration efforts by Chişinău (the capital of Moldova). This situation could restart conflict in Transnistria and threaten its independence.
Sandu: Moldova’s Firebrand Politician
In 2019, Moldovan politics experienced a notable shift. Sandu, leader of a pro-EU alliance, was elected as Prime Minister. She advocated for Moldova to become more western, which challenged her predecessors’ pro-Russian agenda. Her coalition created “not only the first genuinely pro-Western but also the first competently pro-Western government” in Moldova.
Sandu aimed to bring the country closer to Romania, advance EU integration efforts, and reunite Chişinău and Tiraspol. These moves had the explicit goal of redirecting Moldova away from the Russian sphere of influence. Sandu believed that a reunion with Tiraspol could only start by removing Russian peacekeepers stationed in Transnistria. Her view was supported by the EU and the 2018 UN resolution urging Russia to withdraw its troops and armaments from Transnistria.
However, in November 2019, Sandu’s cabinet was overthrown after a vote of no confidence. Nevertheless, she returned victorious again to Moldovan politics in November 2020. In the presidential elections, Sandu defeated the most trusted Moldovan politician, pro-Russian President Igor Dodon. Her return to politics has renewed talks to remove Russian peacekeepers from Transnistria. Sandu’s rhetoric puts her in opposition to Russia, and by proxy, Transnistria due to its unwavering support for Russia. In December 2020, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, deemed Sandu’s request irresponsible. He argued that Russian peacekeepers are critical to ensuring conflict does not resurface in Transnistria.
Contextualizing Tiraspol’s Independence
Moldovan-Russian relations have been explicitly marred by the military conflict over Transnistria. As part of the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic (Moldavian SSR), which preceded Moldova, Transnistria differed from the rest of Moldova. The ethnic majority of Moldova was Moldovan, and a large majority spoke Romanian as their mother tongue.
By contrast, of the estimated 400,000 people in Transnistria, the majority were Slavic (Russian and Ukrainian) and Russian was the dominant language. The Transnistrian economy was also one of the strongest in the Moldavian SSR as most of the country’s industry was situated there.
These differentiations fostered pro-Soviet sentiments in Transnistria. It also provided a rationale for Russia to support Transnistrian separatists who were Slavic citizens ostracised by rising Moldovan nationalism and anti-Sovietism. On 2nd September 1990, Transnistria seceded.
To preserve the crumbling Moldavian SSR, President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, voided the secession. Transnistria, therefore, was not recognised as a legitimate state and was relegated to de facto status. Whilst the official position of the Soviet Union on Transnistria was non-recognition, many soldiers and volunteers empathised with Transnistria. As fighting between Moldovan nationalists and Transnistrian separatists broke out in November 1990, soldiers from the 14th Guards Army, a unit of the Soviet Army headquartered in Tiraspol, began supporting the separatists.
In April 1992, it was decreed that the 14th Guards Army, all military equipment, and weapons in the territory of Transnistria would come under Russian control. In June, the 14th Guards Army officially entered the conflict against Moldova. Their role and artillery power defeated Moldova’s army in July. The Russian military secured Transnistria’s independence and continues today to fortify Transnistria against Moldova. The Russian forces have thus become an integral part of Transnistria’s identity.
Caught in the Crossfire Between Russo-Moldovan Relations
The first consequence if Moldova tackles Russia over its peacekeepers may be the return of sanctions against Moldova by Russia. Their relationship is complicated by their political and economic goals. At the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chişinău turned its gaze westward to separate itself from its Soviet legacy. But whilst it turned towards the West, Russia remained an essential trade partner.
Evidence of this dependence was brought home to Moldova when Russia banned their wines in 2006 and 2013. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. The bans wrecked its small economy which was reliant on trade with Russia. In 2006, losses were estimated at $180 million. The bans were seen as “economic blackmail” against Moldova for creating closer ties with the EU.
The economic power that Russia holds over Moldova has prevented the country from meaningfully challenging Russia over Transnistria. Under President Dodon (2016-2020), Moldova increased cooperation with Russia. Closer relations enabled Russia’s presence in Transnistria to continue largely uncriticised by Moldova since the conflict ended.
President Sandu’s explicitly pro-Western attitude is the most recent Moldovan challenge Russia has faced over its involvement in Transnistria. The economic weight which Russia can wield should worry Moldova. In 2018 Russia was Moldova’s 4th largest export market (7.5% of its export trade), and Russia was their 3rd largest import market (9.3% of import trade). By comparison, Moldova’s trade role in Russian trade is minimal (under 0.2%). Moldova needs Russia as an economic partner. By publicly challenging Russia’s monopoly in Transnistria and using Western institutions to back her position, Sandu is already vexing Russia. As we have seen historically, in similar situations, Russia has a record of introducing punitive sanctions. If this economic punishment for collaborating with the EU returns, the Moldovan economy could be crushed.
Brothers in Arms
The second consequence of the removal of Russian peacekeepers could be renewed fighting between Chişinău and Tiraspol. Transnistria is wholly supportive of the Russian military presence. The Russian military operates in two capacities in Transnistria. Firstly, as part of the Joint Control Commission, a trilateral peacekeeping force between Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria that maintains the ceasefire. Currently, Russia provides around 400 soldiers for this operation, less than its other partners. Russia and Transnistria insist that Moscow and its peacekeepers facilitate talks between Chişinău and Tiraspol. Secondly, the Russian Military Operations Group (OGRF) have been stationed in Transnistria since 1995 to protect leftover Soviet weapons. Presently, around 1000 Russian soldiers operate in this capacity.
Beyond protecting peace and weapons, the Russian military is a tangible example of the separation between Moldova and Transnistria. Its role is equally essential in maintaining pro-Russian sentiment in Transnistria as it is a physical reminder of how Transnistria achieved independence. Furthermore, as highlighted by Dr. Adrian Florea of the University of Glasgow, the continued presence of the Russian military “injects vital lifeblood into the arteries of [Transnistria] by providing rebels with the resources to prevent forceful reintegration” into Chişinău. Tiraspol cannot do this itself, as it is neither economically nor militarily strong enough.
The military is in addition to other Russian subsidies. Since the 2008 financial crash, Russia has provided Transnistria with free gas via Gazprom, Russia’s largest gas provider. This is managed through Gazprom transferring the bill to MoldovaGaz, Moldova’s national gas company, in which Gazprom holds the dictating stake. By 2019, the debt of MoldovaGaz to Gazprom was 431.66 billion Russian rubles (around $6.21 billion). According to Moldova, 90% of that debt belongs to Transnistria. The gas debt has caused further tensions between Sandu and Russia. Also, Transnistrians are eligible for Russian citizenship, which provides them with more education, labour, and pensions opportunities than are available in poorer Moldova. Russian patronage is the guarantor for Transnistrian independence and opportunities for its citizens that Moldova cannot provide.
But Sandu’s criticism of the Russian military in Transnistria is fracturing relations between Chişinău and Tiraspol further. Chişinău’s desire to reunite with Tiraspol is not reciprocated. If Sandu succeeds in removing Russian forces from Transnistria, the de facto state would be left vulnerable to reunification efforts by Chişinău. Without Russia’s military aid, Chişinău could succeed. This threat would force Tiraspol to either reunite or appeal to Russia for military assistance. It would likely choose the latter, resulting in a new conflict emerging.
The Three-Way Standoff
At present, Russian troops remain in Transnistria. Nonetheless, President Sandu’s public condemnation of the Russian military presence in the de facto state has caught global attention. Moldova has the backing of the UN in its request of Russia. Whilst Lavrov and Russia are adamant that they are essential for peace in Transnistria, their position is only supported by Tiraspol. If Moldova continues to redirect towards the West, the tension over Transnistria may reach a breaking point.
The consequences of tackling Russia over its involvement in Transnistria are yet to be seen. Nonetheless, Russia’s role in the economies and politics of Moldova and Transnistria complicate the situation. For Moldova to move away from the Russian sphere of influence, it would need to find alternative economic partnerships. More economic prospects could enable reunification with Chişinău and Tiraspol in the future as it would provide Tiraspol with a viable alternative to Russian patronage.
Moldova places its economic hopes within the EU and possible future membership. However, this is not guaranteed. Therefore, the economic and political role of Russia within Moldova and Transnistria will maintain Transnistria’s stability. Russia’s military presence will also secure Transnistria from the threat of forceful reunification efforts.
It is worth watching how Moldova develops under the guidance of President Sandu. If Moldova can separate itself from Russia and its western agenda materialises, the stability of Transnistria will be jeopardised. The de facto state may find itself caught in the crossfire between Russia and the West.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine