Transnistria is another fracture in Ukraine crisis

Transnistria is another fracture in Ukraine crisis

As the European Union and United States negotiate with Russia over the situation in Ukraine, another disputed territory is attracting international attention. With the tension escalating in eastern Ukraine and Moldova ready to join the EU, Transnistria may become a second front for Russia and Ukraine’s geopolitical crisis.

Present Crisis

The commander of NATO forces in Europe, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, expressed concerns that Transnistria may be a potential flashpoint between Russia and Moldova. On 25 March, Russia conducted military drills in Transnistria, aggravating such fears.

A recent study found that ethnic Moldovans, Ukrainians and Russians who live in Transnistria favor joining Russia. Meanwhile, the Transnistrian government recently sent a letter to Moscow asking to join the Russian Federation.

Irina Kubanskikh with the Transnistrian parliament said, “[Transnistria] appealed to the Russian Federation leadership to examine the possibility of extending to Transnistria the legislation, currently under discussion in the State Duma, on granting Russian citizenship and admitting new subjects into Russia.”

A referendum in 2006 expressing popular desire for Transnistria to become part of Russia was quietly rebuffed by Russia, which urged Transnistrians to resolve their issues with Moldova first.

Artem Filipenko, the head of the Odessa branch of the National Institute of Strategic Studies explained, “Transnistria for years was showing itself as a stronghold of the so-called Eurasian integration in this region. They were seeking independence and joining Russia as a member of the federation, and given the events in Crimea these hopes revived.”

Russia voiced concerns that Ukraine is implementing a blockade of Transnistria. Ukraine, meanwhile, asserted that the increased security presence is necessary in order to prevent separatist agitators from entering Ukraine to foment unrest. The Kuchurgan border crossing, which connects the Ukrainian city of Odessa to Tiraspol, usually sees 2,000-3,000 civilians pass through daily.

Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk spoke of the border situation: “In March, the Ukrainian border guards refused passage to more than 200 Transnistrian residents who had Russian passports. About 200,000 Russian citizens and almost 100,000 Ukrainian live in our republic. Many have family ties in the neighboring countries, and these measures contradict the good neighborly relations norms, they create tension.”

EU push for Moldova

Moldova remains one of the most impoverished countries in the EU. Russia, in order to pressure Moldova into backing away from the EU, halted imports of the well-known Moldovan wine and threatened to sever the flow of gas from Russia. Moldova is entirely reliant on Russian energy and pays an estimated $400 per 1,000 cubic meters while Transnistria benefits from free gas supplies.

Many Transnistrians still frequent Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, for education and medical services. Transnistrians still hold on to their Moldovan passports in order to travel with ease throughout the EU’s Schengen zone. The Transnistrian business community is quietly hoping to gain from Moldova’s closer EU ties.

In November 2013, Moldova signed the EU association and free trade agreements at the summit in Vilnius. Moldova recently received $10 million from the United States to enhance its border patrol capabilities.

Romania is at the forefront of Moldova’s drive towards the EU. On 19 March, Romanian President Traian Băsescu made a plea to hasten Moldova’s EU membership process. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Chișinău appeared increasingly vulnerable. Romania’s continued lobbying for reunification with Moldova, which is also not a member of NATO, will only serve to antagonize Russia.

Historical background

Transnistria is an unrecognized de facto state that split from Moldova after a civil war in 1992. Only two other pro-Russian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke off from Georgia in the 2008 war, recognize Transnistria. The enclave has a population of 500,000 within a thin stretch of land that rests between the Dniester River and Ukraine.

The longtime rule of Transnistrian president Igor Smirnov was replaced by new leadership in the last election in 2011. Smirnov was reported to have fallen out of favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. With the backing of the Kremlin, Yevgeny Shevchuk won the election and took office in December 2011.

Russia has roughly 1,500 military personnel stationed in Transnistria. They have been there as part of a peacekeeping force since the Moldovan civil war. Their main purpose is to guard large weapon stockpiles. In addition to the Russian garrison, the Transnistrian army has a force of 4,500.

Around 60 percent of Trasnistrians speak Russian and view its military presence as guaranteeing their protection against a perceived wave of extreme nationalism in Ukraine. Seventy percent of Transnistria’s budget is funded by Russia, which provides subsidized gas and worker pensions.

Despite the recent agreement to ‘de-escalate’ the situation in Ukriane, a peaceful outcome remains uncertain. If relations between the West and Russia decline further, the disputed region of Transnistria may become Europe’s new source of geopolitical tension with Russia.

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris