Stuck Between Two Worlds: The Issue of Transnistria

By Pearce Hopkins

When and how will Moldova attempt to resolve the issue of its unrecognised bordering state that has the potential to give Russia the upper hand in its conflict with Ukraine?

After months of tension and violence in Eastern Europe, the Russia-Ukraine conflict remains an ongoing issue as Ukrainian soldiers continue to hold the line against invading forces coming from all across the border. With the conflict still ongoing, what is unclear is how and when the crisis will draw to an end, as are the roles that potential players might fulfil in the unfolding narrative of the war. However, one issue that has not been raised so prominently is that of the tiny, unrecognised, Pro-Russian nation situated on the Western border of Ukraine, situated far from the epicentre of the violence – Transnistria.

Where is Transnistria?

The little-known state of Transnistria is a slice of land that sits on the border between Moldova and Ukraine, its eastern divisions being drawn up by the shape of the Dneister River, and it has a very complicated history. Existing under the control of a mix of various Lithuanian, Crimean and Russian communities between the 14th and 20th centuries, Transnistria became a part of the Soviet Union alongside Ukraine after the Russian Civil War in 1917. The region was subsequently industrialised to suit the agenda of the socialist leadership, leading to the development of various Soviet-era housing blocks, factories and railroads. In 1989, as the structure of the USSR began to crumble, Transnistria began an independence movement of its own, separate from that of Moldova, campaigning for its autonomy as a Soviet nation and resisting notions of progression into a Western society. This resistance caused a short war to break out in 1992 as the UN attempted to coerce the region into following suit with other post-Soviet nations. The violence concluded within a few weeks after Transnistria received Russian backing not long after the conflict broke out.

Transnistria Today

Today, Transnistria remains a relatively insignificant state with not much to offer. With the state making up 11% of Moldovan territory, a population of around half a million and a vast mix of Eastern European cultural identities, the region is largely dependent upon its neighbours to both the East and West. However, Transnistria does hold some traits that legitimise its case as a nation. As argued by Vera Galchenko, a Transnistrian public servant: ‘We have our own constitution, government, military, currency and even passports.’ Whilst this infrastructure lacks validation from other counties, for example Transnistrian passports not being deemed valid outside of the region, the region certainly has the foundational core of a nation set in place. In the past 30 years, not much has changed for the unrecognised nation state, but the conflict in Ukraine seems to be unearthing this long silent issue.

The Transnistria Problem

The current concern for NATO and other Western countries is the presence of Russian troops in the Transnistria area. Since the end of the war in 1992, Russia has based around 1,500 soldiers in the region bordering Ukraine. Given these circumstances, it is understandable why the positioning of these Russian forces would stir tensions in the West. In March 2022, NATO openly identified these troops, calling them ‘Russian troops without the consent of the government in Moldova’ and referring to Transnistria as a ‘Russian occupied territory’. The stationing of these troops in Transnistria creates a potentially hazardous situation for Ukraine, Moldova and their nearby Western allies.

From the Moldovan perspective, Transnistria has been a challenging issue, especially given its history of failed reintegration negotiations. After the 2003 reintegration plans – which would have established a Moldovan Federal Republic – collapsed when the previous Moldovan leader pulled out at the last minute, there has been almost no talk of regional assimilation. In December 2021, as the Ukraine conflict was beginning to heat up, Moldovan President Maia Sandu rejected Transnistrian leader Krasnovsky’s requests for discussion over political status as there were ‘no easy solutions’. Whilst refusing to comment on the issue, Sandu was likely worried about Russian influence in the region, highlighting that as the main barrier preventing Moldova from pursuing re-integration efforts.

Even though re-integration may still be a pipe dream, Transnistria remains dependent upon Moldova and the West to survive. In 2021, 54% of Transnistrian exports went to the EU, of which Moldova has applied to join, whereas only 19% of their exports went to Russia. However, Transnistrian authorities have accused the Moldovan government of imposing a trade blockade inhibiting the region’s access to medicines, fertilisers and agrifood. Vitaly Ignatiev, Foreign Affairs Minister of Transnistria, deemed this to be ‘unjust’ and a barrier to regional development, highlighting one of the many strains on Transnistria’s relationship with Moldova.

Comparatively, Transnistria has much stronger ties to Russia; often referred to as the ‘Mother Country’, it is perceived by many Transnistrians as a cultural homeland. Russian is the most commonly spoken language in the region and the last 30 years has seen around a third of the region’s population migrate to Russia in search of a better standard of living. The region usually votes for Pro-Russian political representatives, with 62% of the region in July of last year doing so, when Krasnovsky was elected. Even though he continues to campaign for Tranistria’s recognition as an independent state through peaceful means, this does not satisfy the West’s fears for the potential danger Transnistria poses.

These fears were confirmed for the West on April 22nd, when Russian general, Rustam Minnekaev, openly spoke about plans to take control of Southern Ukraine in a move to make a connection with the ‘oppressed’ Transnistria. Whilst this plan poses no ‘imminent threat’ at the moment, as the situation develops over time, this plan could cause potential chaos for both Moldova and Ukraine.

However, upon taking a look into the perspectives of the people of Transnistria, it becomes clear that the population of the region has no desire to get involved in another conflict. In terms of the Ukrainian conflict, Transnistrian authorities state that the region is ‘ambivalent’ and peaceful towards both Kyiv and Moscow. Additionally, even amongst the population’s mix of opinions either in favour or in opposition of Putin, most Transnistrians seem to share a desire for peaceful solutions to the issues that hang over the region.‘If you asked me how I’d like [the Ukrainian War] to be solved, I would like peace and harmony.’ claimed 36-year-old restaurant security guard Sasha, echoing the opinion of many like him in Transnistria. He went on to say that he believed the best case scenario for Transnistria would be joining the Russian Federation through peaceful means, but also that earning its independence would also be a satisfying conclusion.

What can Moldova do?

Unfortunately, the peaceful attitudes of the Transnistrian people are not enough to settle the worried minds of nations in fear of Russian mobilisation that could take place through the few thousand Russian troops present in the region. So, under the circumstances that Russia chooses to use Transnistria to its strategic advantage, what are Moldova options for handling this potential threat?

Out of the three potential options, should the Transnistria issue come to a conflict, two of Moldova’s strategies would involve a cooperative military operation with Ukraine. The first strategy would involve a ‘Hammer and Anvil’ Approach, whereby one group is used to pin down – or ‘hammer’ – an enemy force and the other is used to make use of the enemy’s disadvantage to effectively crush them – the anvil. In this case, the position of hammer or anvil is quite interchangeable between Ukraine and Moldova, although it might suit better to have Moldova as the anvil since their military is more limited (only around 5,000 active members) and the hammer must have a strong army to effectively pin down the enemy.

The other, slightly less strategic military option, is a simultaneous attack from both Ukraine and Moldova from either side of the border, which would work very similarly to the hammer and anvil approach.

However, it seems incredibly unlikely that the current international circumstances would trigger any serious military action within the Transnistria issue. Moldovan analysis has shown that there are ‘no imminent risks of the expansion of the war in Moldova’, according to Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita. Additionally, since a military intervention would involve antagonising Russian troops stationed in Transnistria, this would further dissuade Moldova from interfering in the region. Thus, given that Moldova has no clear reason or intention to begin a military operation in Transnistria, any kind of military solution to the issue seems improbable at present.. 

The final, and most likely option is the non-violent, diplomatic approach. This would likely involve the internationalisation of the issue, which would not be to Russia’s favour, and focus on convincing the Transnistrian people to re-integrate with Moldova peacefully. These talks would likely take a long time, and seem a long way off given Sandu’s attitude towards the issue, but seem like they would be the most effective solution to ending the issue.

Ultimately, it’s up to Moldova to step up and solve the Transnistria issue. If the situation begins to worsen as a result of the Ukrainian crisis, Moldova will have to put its apprehensions aside and make a decision to diffuse the contentious issue before it becomes an international crisis.

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