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Will Putin’s Russia Set Its Sights on Destabilising Moldova?

Nikola Mikovic reports on developments around Transnistria, Moldova’s Russian-sponsored breakaway region

President-elect of Moldova, Maia Sandu. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/Tass/PA Images

Will Putin’s Russia Set Its Sights on Destabilising Moldova?

Nikola Mikovic reports on developments around Transnistria, Moldova’s Russian-sponsored breakaway region

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is struggling to hold onto influence in Moldova – a small landlocked country in eastern Europe that could soon face political instability. 

Maia Sandu, a former Moldovan Prime Minister who is in favour of closer ties with the European Union as well as Moldova’s reunification with Romania, won the country’s Presidential Election on 15 November. She is now pushing for early parliamentary elections in order to consolidate her power and possibly change the country’s geopolitical orientation.

On 6 December, thousands of her supporters gathered in the capital city of Chisinau calling for the resignation of the current Government, which many believe is dominated by pro-Russian forces. Some of Sandu’s allies are considering launching a national strike and organising long-term protests starting on 10 December, in an attempt to force the Government to resign, triggering snap parliamentary elections.

It is believed that Russia could try to prevent Sandu and other pro-Western forces in Moldova from completing her consolidation of power. That is why the outgoing, allegedly pro-Russian, President Igor Dodon recently decided to place control of the country’s national intelligence agency with Parliament – where pro-Russian Socialists still have a majority.

In an interview with a Russian television channel on 4 December, Dodon also pointed out that he would not allow Sandu to use force against Moldova’s Russian-sponsored breakaway region of Transnistria. Sandu has called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region. “She has no opportunity to use the force,” Dodon said. “We will go out to protests, we will defend the peace.”

Transnistria, officially called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), is a self-proclaimed nation sandwiched between Moldova in the west and Ukraine in the east. It is unrecognised as a country by any member of the United Nations despite declaring its independence in 1990 after armed conflict with Moldova.

The war between Transnistria and Moldova resulted in the PMR’s victory and hostilities in the region ended in 1992 after entry of a Russian peace-keeping contingent. Ever since, the truce has been holding and is being monitored by a joint peace-keeping force, which includes 402 Russian military personnel, 492 Transnistrian, 355 Moldovan and 10 military observers from Ukraine.

The only three states that recognise Transnistria are also disputed territories – Abkhazia; South Ossetia in Georgia; and Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Republic of Artsakh, in Azerbaijan.

It is believed that the frozen conflict in Transnistria was engineered by Russia to prevent Moldova from joining NATO and the EU. The Kremlin used the same pattern in Georgia, although Moscow eventually recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, following a short war against Tbilisi in 2008. Russia also created two proxy self-proclaimed nations in the east of Ukraine – the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic – and the conflict in the Donbass has been on hold for more than five years.

In the early 1990s, when the Russia-backed PMR was fighting against Romania-backed Moldovan forces, Ukraine – at the time still in Moscow’s geopolitical orbit – provided indirect assistance to Transnistria, primarily by allowing Russian volunteers to cross the border and take part in hostilities.

Given that relations between Kyiv and Moscow have been quite tense for the past six years – because of the conflict in the Donbass, as well as the Kremlin’s incorporation for Crimea into the Russian Federation – in the case of hostilities in Transnistria, Ukraine would likely side with Moldova against the PMR.

It is extremely improbable that Russia would start a war with Ukraine to gain access to the energy-poor Transnistria. In the past, Moscow could easily rotate its military contingent in the PMR through Ukraine’s port of Odessa. After 2014, Russian officers traveling to Transnistria had to fly to Chisinau in civilian clothes, hiding the true purpose of their trip, but they were still regularly detained at the border and deported.

Some Russian analysts fear that, if power in Moldova is completely in the hands of pro-American and pro-Romanian Moldovan nationalists, Chisinau will eventually impose an economic blockade of the PMR or even start a war against this Russia-backed entity.

Indeed, a potential blockade would create a humanitarian catastrophe for the entire population of Transnistria, which is estimated to be around 450,000 people. It is estimated that half of them are citizens of the Russian Federation. Russia also has some 1,700 military personnel stationed in the PMR – both the peace-keeping forces, as well as the remnants of the 14th Army, now the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria – but in case of war they could hardly protect the breakaway.

It is worth noting that the biggest ammunition depot in eastern Europe, stored in a village in Transnistria for almost 80 years, is one of the reasons cited by Russia for its continued presence in the region. Most of the ammunition was placed there after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the former East Germany, Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries. About 20,000 tons of weapons are currently stored at this depot and a possible explosion could cause a huge ecological and human disaster.

Since the only way for Russia to keep supplying its troops in the PMR is through Moldova, Moscow is expected to keep supporting pro-Russian forces in Chisinau and possibly destabilise the country. However, its room for manoeuvre in the former Soviet republic is very limited.

Pro-Western parties are likely to win the majority of seats in early elections, which could lead to a radical change in Moldova’s geopolitical orientation – and eventually reopen the frozen conflict in Transnistria. 

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