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Transnistria: Will Russia's next war be in Moldova?

Vitalie Calugareanu in Chisinau | Keno Verseck in Berlin
March 1, 2024

Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria has asked Moscow for protection. Although President Putin made no mention of the appeal in his annual address to the nation, is Russia's next war imminent?

A statue of Lenin on a pedestal outside the building of the Supreme Soviet in Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway region of Transnistria
The Lenin monument is just one of many symbols and remnants of the Soviet era still on display in the separatist region of TransnistriaImage: Violeta Colesnic/DW

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Russia has almost continually been waging — or at least provoking — wars against its neighbors.

The first of these conflicts came just over two months after the collapse of the Soviet empire, namely in early March 1992 in the small former Soviet republic of Moldova.

Two years previously, pro-Moscow separatists in Transnistria, a thin strip of land on the eastern bank of the Dniester River in eastern Moldova, proclaimed a republic under the pretext of protecting Russians and the Russian language. To this day, it hasn't been recognized by any country in the world.

The extremely bloody hostilities in spring 1992 lasted only a few months. But Russian troops have been stationed in Transnistria ever since, despite the fact the Kremlin signed an agreement pledging to withdraw them 25 years ago.

Throwback to the Soviet era

Outwardly, Transnistria is like a gigantic Soviet outdoor museum, with monuments to Lenin, red flags and hammer-and-sickle symbols galore.

Behind all this Soviet memorabilia, however, this sliver of land could more accurately be described as the extensive premises of a company and a military depot run by a small group of former KGB officers who are probably also working for the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service.

Under the guise of Sheriff, a huge holding company, they run money laundering and smuggling operations and practically control all economic activity in the region.

'President' of Transnistria speaks of 'genocide'

Whenever these operations are threatened, the region's powerless parliament, the Supreme Council of Transnistria, or other forums come together and ask Moscow for help, protection or accession to the Russian Federation.

And every time this happens, the threat of a hot war in an otherwise frozen conflict increases.

Aerial view of the bridge over the Dniester River near the town of Vadul lui Voda, Moldova, March 1, 2023
The Dniester River separates the breakaway region of Transnistria from the Republic of MoldovaImage: Fedja Grulovic/REUTERS

Most recently, on Wednesday, a "congress of deputies of all levels" convened in Tiraspol, Transnistria's nominal capital, and passed a resolution to ask Russia for protection in the face of "increasing pressure" and the "economic war" unleashed by Moldova.

Vadim Krasnoselsky, the "president" of Transnistria and Sheriff's former head of security, accused the authorities in Chisinau of "genocide" against the people of Transnistria.

Chisinau seeks more control over Transnistria

What made Tiraspol's appeal to Moscow so explosive was its timing, just a day before Russian President Vladimir Putin made his annual address to the nation.

There was widespread speculation as to whether Putin would use the appeal as a pretext for announcing some kind of military intervention in Moldova or the annexation of the republic. But Putin made no mention whatsoever of Moldova in his address on Thursday.

Ahead of Putin's address, Moldovan politicians and media alike spoke of a "feint" and a "propaganda bluff" on the part of Transnistria that should not be taken seriously.

But what led up to the appeal this time around? Since January 1, companies in Transnistria have had to pay customs duties when exporting goods to Moldova proper. It is part of a catalog of measures the government in Chisinau is applying in an attempt to gain more control over Transnistria.

Ukraine's border with Transnistria closed

Sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova, Transnistria has been an uncontrolled hub for illegal trade, smuggling and money laundering for the past 30 years.

A street in Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway region of Transnistria, lined with billboards in Russian
Tiraspol is internationally recognized as the second-largest city in Moldova, but is the capital and administrative center of TransnistriaImage: Goran Stanzl/Pixsell/imago images

Moldova's pro-Western head of state, Maia Sandu, who was a civil rights, anti-corruption activist before being elected president, has made every effort since coming to power in 2020 to stop illegal economic dealings with Transnistria.

Paradoxically, Russia's war against Ukraine helped her in this undertaking. After Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian authorities closed the country's border with Transnistria to prevent any acts of sabotage or attacks by Russian soldiers on the port city of Odesa and the surrounding region, which is only 70 kilometers (43,5 miles) from Transnistria.

As a result, Transnistria's role as a hub for smuggling and money laundering has diminished drastically.

'Signs of weakness and a collapse'

Oleg Serebrian, Moldova's deputy prime minister and minister for the reintegration of Transnistria, said after Putin's address that he was optimistic that Russia's grip on the separatist region was slipping. In Tiraspol, he said, there were "several centers of power and, therefore, signs of weakness and a collapse."

Serebrian described Transnistria's appeal to Russia for protection as an "operation designed to paper over the problems of the separatist regime."

"Things are going badly both economically and socially in Transnistria," he said, "and the people there need an explanation. The one they are given is that Chisinau and the new customs duties are the mother of all evils and that this is why things are going badly in the region. The reality is, however, that things have been going badly in Transnistria for a long time."

Oleg Serebrian, deputy prime minister of Moldova and minister for the reintegration of Transnistria (left), and Paun Rohovei, Ukraine's ambassador-at-large with responsibility for Transnistria, stand at lecterns in front of Moldovan and EU flags, Chisinau, Moldova, January 29, 2024
Oleg Serebrian (left, pictured here with Ukraine's special envoy on Transnistria, Paun Rohovei) described Transnistria's appeal to Russia for protection as an 'operation designed to paper over the problems of the separatist regime'Image: Elena Covalenco/DW

The fact is that for want of direct access to Moldova, Russia has practically no way of attacking the country. That said, Moscow has between 1,500 and 2,000 soldiers in the country in addition to Transnistria's own armed forces. Together, they are probably much stronger than Moldova's small, very badly equipped 5,000-strong army.

What's more, near the village of Cobasna in northern Transnistria is Europe's largest ammunition depot, which houses about 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition and equipment. Should Russia succeed in advancing into the Odesa region, it could herald the start of an invasion of Moldova.

Russia would attack, under the right circumstances

From a political perspective, Moldova is just as lost to Russia as Ukraine. Last December, the EU decided to open accession negotiations with Moldova. The majority of Moldovans are pro-Europe, many hold Romanian — and therefore EU — passports, and hundreds of thousands work in EU countries.

Nevertheless, Moscow's hybrid war against the country shows it has not yet given up its claim on Moldova and would indeed attack it if the circumstances were right.

Pro-Russian parties, which are financed among others by the Israel-based pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor, are waging bitter campaigns against President Sandu and the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Dorin Recean. Social media there are also awash with pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation.

A presidential election and a referendum on the country's accession to the EU are due to be held this fall. According to Moldovan Foreign Minister Mihai Popsoi, the authorities are "already seeing attempts to destabilize the situation" in the country.

This article was originally written in German.

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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter