1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Will the war in Ukraine spell the end of Transnistria?

Vitalie Calugareanu | Keno Verseck
January 12, 2023

Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine has not been going according to plan. Russia's aggression could even inadvertently bring an end to the Transnistria conflict in neighboring Moldova.

Tank on a street in Transnistria, April 2019
Fewer than 2,000 Russian soldiers are stationed in the breakaway region of TransnistriaImage: DW/Cristian Stefanescu

Russia's war on Ukraine has not being going as President Vladimir Putin intended. He hasn't been able to defeat Ukraine so far, and it seems probable that he won't. Nor has he succeeded in paralyzing and dividing the European Union and NATO — quite the opposite, in fact.

Indeed, contrary to his plans, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are now several steps closer to EU integration than they had ever dreamed possible.

There may also be other unintended consequences of the war in Ukraine. One of the most important would be the resolution of the Transnistria conflict in Moldova.

In 1991-92, Russia showed the world for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that it was capable of destabilizing and dividing a former Soviet republic, arming pro-Russia separatists in Moldova, unleashing a war, creating a pseudo state (Transnistria) and then freezing the conflict for an extended period of time.

Map showing the location of the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova

The resulting pro-Russia breakaway region of Transnistria is a narrow strip of land almost 200 kilometers (120 miles) long and 30 kilometers wide between the Dniester River and Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine. It split from Moldova in 1992 but is not recognized as a sovereign state by the international community or, indeed, even by Russia.

Just under 2,000 Russian soldiers are still stationed in Transnistria. The village of Cobasna in the north is home to Europe's largest military depot, where about 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition and equipment are stored. Although Russia officially agreed in 1999 to withdraw both its troops and weapons from Transnistria within a few years, it never did so.

Europe's 'black hole'

For over 30 years, Transnistria has been a "black hole" in Europe, as a report by the European Parliament put it in 2002. It has kept itself afloat with money from Moscow and with smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering.

Street in Tiraspol, August 16, 2021
Tiraspol is Moldova's second largest city and the capital of Transnistria, which is not recognized as a state by the international communityImage: Goran Stanzl/Pixsell/imago images

For many years, Ukraine also played a role in this development: After 1992, members of the ruling elite in Ukraine and Russian economic officials created a smuggling ring centered on Transnistria that bolstered the economy in the breakaway region, making it impossible for Moldova to exert any economic control over it. Over time, corrupt members of Moldova's elite were also drawn into these illicit dealings.

Ukrainian ports vital for Transnistria's economy

For 30 years, Transnistria's economy depended on the illegal transportation of goods to and from Odesa and other ports on the Black Sea.

It all began in the 1990s, when the then-president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, rolled out the red carpet for Igor Smirnov, the first president of the self-proclaimed, internationally unrecognized Republic of Transnistria. The reason for the warm welcome was apparently that Kuchma's son-in-law was owner of the one of the largest steel companies in Transnistria.

Over the years, other politicians in Kyiv were enticed into doing "business" with the separatists in Transnistria behind Moldova's back.

Change in Ukraine's policy toward Transnistria

Ukraine now admits that it owes Moldova because it tolerated the "black hole" for decades and even profited from it. The pro-government press in Kyiv has devoted many column inches to the analysis of this subject and has even suggested that a possible Russian defeat in the war on Ukraine should result in the dissolution of pro-Russia Transnistria.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu stands next to the flags of Moldova and the EU
President Maia Sandu wants Moldova to join the EU by the end of the decadeImage: Dursun Aydemir/AA/picture alliance

"Kyiv just ignored the Transnistria issue, and some authorities benefited from this smuggling 'black hole.' Everything changed with the full-scale Russian invasion," journalist Sergiy Sydorenko wrote recently in European Pravda. "It is obvious that a frozen conflict near the border threatens national security and limits the European future of Ukraine and Moldova."

The question now, he wrote, is "how actually to eliminate the frozen conflict."

Tanks on the border

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Ukrainian authorities gave orders for the Transnistrian section of the Moldova–Ukraine border to be closed and secured by tanks. This brought the smuggling to an abrupt halt.

Lenin monument in Tiraspol
Throwback to the Soviet era: The Lenin monument in Tiraspol hints at the region's enduring ties to RussiaImage: 3BoxMedia

The separatist regime in Transnistria's capital, Tiraspol, responded with complaints about an "economic blockade" and called on Russia to step in and save the breakaway region. So far, its calls have been ignored.

What's more, Tiraspol's hope that Russia would swiftly occupy Ukraine and that the breakaway region would be unified with Russia was dashed by the resistance of Ukraine's army.

Conflict resolution by peaceful means

The government in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, stands in solidarity with Ukraine, helps Ukrainian refugees and is firmly convinced that, in doing so, it is on the right side of history.

It is also convinced that the Transnistria conflict should only be resolved by peaceful means and in a way that does not obstruct Moldova's pro-EU course. President Maia Sandu has said Moldova must become a member of the European Union by the end of the decade.

Oleg Serebrian stands next to the flags of Moldova and the EU
Oleg Serebrian is head of Moldova's Bureau of Reintegration, which is responsible for all matters relating to TransnistriaImage: Simion Ciochina/DW

In European Pravda, Sydorenko described Moldova's approach to the current situation. "Bloody Russian aggression against Ukraine only strengthens the desire of Moldovans to avoid war at all costs," he wrote. "There are no circumstances under which Chisinau would consent to welcome the Armed Forces of Ukraine on its territory." He also emphasized that Ukraine's government understands this fact.

Moldova's soft, soft approach

The Moldovan government's defense budget for 2023 is its biggest ever. Much of the money will be spent on securing Moldovan airspace. The country's armed forces will also be beefed up by Piranha armored vehicles from Germany.

Nevertheless, Moldova's government not only wants to avoid military confrontation with Transnistria — it also wants to avoid exerting any economic pressure on the separatist regime in Tiraspol. "We're all in the same boat. We should not upset the balance," Oleg Serebrian, Moldova's deputy prime minister for reintegration, said recently.

And he has good reason for saying so: Moldova relies on electricity from the Cuciurgan power station, which is located in Transnistria and is powered by Russian gas that is supplied by Moldova. As absurd as the situation may seem — as if Moldova is supporting and bankrolling the separatists — it is a necessity because, without power from Cuciurgan, the lights would go out in Moldova.

But all this could soon change. Moldova is working flat out on plans to break its dependence on Transnistrian electricity and Russian gas. If its plans work out, Transnistria might just go bankrupt and fall into Moldova's lap, because without the smuggling routes through Ukraine and the gas supplies from Chisinau, Transnistria would have no chance of survival.

This article was originally published in German.

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter