What you need to know about Transnistria
As Moldova faces being dragged into Russia’s war against Ukraine via Transnistria, it seems neither Chișinău nor its breakaway region are interested in further conflict
Transnistria, the thin slip of land between Moldova and Ukraine, is back in the news.
For the first time in 30 years, the frozen conflict between Moldova and the separatist region came close to ‘unfreezing’ when several explosions rocked strategic locations in Transnistria last week. Around the world, politicians began talking about the threat of Russia’s war in Ukraine spreading to Moldova via the Moscow-backed breakaway territory.
Concern arose after a senior Russian military official said that the “second phase” of Russia’s war against Ukraine would involve seizing a land corridor to Transnistria, where Russian-speaking citizens allegedly suffer from discrimination.
Then, a few days later, on the evening of 25 April, several unidentified men fired RPG rockets at the Ministry of State Security building in the centre of Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital. The next night, explosions were reported at Tiraspol airport – according to Transnistrian officials, the result of a drone attack.
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Further incidents occurred when two radio towers, which were broadcasting Russian radio frequencies in the region, were also brought down, and shooting was reported near a major stockpile of Russian weapons at Kolbasna. No one was injured in any of these incidents.
However, it seems neither Chișinău nor Tiraspol really want war and are trying to maintain peace with all their might. Though the separatist conflict between Transnistria and Moldova, which emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, has been frozen since the 1990s, the reaction to the recent escalation has shown that the positions of the two sides are closer than it might seem.
In a matter of days after the attacks, Chișinău and Tiraspol were able to agree on a number of issues that had not moved forward for months.
Why is Ukraine worried?
From the start of Russia’s invasion on 24 February, Kyiv has routinely expressed concern about the possibility of attack from the Moldovan separatist territory, either by Transnistrian forces or by Russian troops stationed there. Ukraine shares a 400km-long border with Transnistria, which hosts a 1,500-strong Russian peacekeeping force and has its own military.
For example, in a report on 17 April, the Ukrainian General Staff announced that three motorised rifle brigades of the Transnistrian army were undergoing a combat readiness check with the participation of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. According to the Ukrainians, the check revealed that these units were not ready to conduct combat operations.
Moldovan officials, on the other hand, have regularly reported no signs of suspicious military activity in Transnistria. And Tiraspol has been trying to convince the Ukrainian authorities that it poses no military threat to the country – while retaining its political and economic relationships with Moscow.
25 April: unknown men fire RPGs at State Security building in Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Military forces in Transnistria
Three military forces are stationed in Transnistria: in addition to the Russian peacekeeping force and the region’s own army, there are soldiers from the Operational Group of Russian Troops (OGRF).
Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in Transnistria on the basis of a 1992 agreement between Moldova and Russia. The OGRF has no legal status on Moldovan territory, and the Moldovan authorities have been demanding for many years that it withdraws from its territory – Transnistria – under an existing 1999 agreement.
The Operational Group of Russian Troops (OGRF) is the successor to the Soviet 14th Army, which was stationed in Transnistria in Soviet times. Most of its battalions were withdrawn from Moldovan territory in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As of today, the OGRF comprises two motorised rifle battalions, and a security and maintenance battalion. A former senior Moldovan official told openDemocracy that the OGRF may include up to 1,500 soldiers.
Since 2014, Russia has not been able to rotate military personnel in Transnistria, so Russian units in the region are recruited mainly from local residents with Russian citizenship. The commander of the OGRF has also not changed since 2014.
Transnistria’s owned armed forces – comprising four motorised rifle brigades – are larger than the OGRF. The total number of troops is not known, but estimates vary from between 7,000 and 15,000 personnel.
Together, the OGRF and the Transnistrian forces have small arms, Soviet-era armoured personnel carriers, mortars and anti-tank artillery guns. The Transnistrian forces are believed to have no more than 18 T-64 tanks and some Grad rocket launchers.
Previously, officials in Kyiv have stated that they have few illusions about the combat effectiveness of Transnistria’s army – made up of local residents without proper military training, armed with old Soviet equipment.
But while the Tiraspol administration tries to reassure Kyiv, the existence of a Russian military contingent as well as local Transnistrian forces stationed on Ukraine’s western borders cannot fail to alarm the Zelenskyi administration.
“Bad news: if Ukraine falls tomorrow, Russian troops will be at Chișinău’s gates. Good news: Ukraine will definitely ensure strategic security of the region. But we need to work as a team,” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted on 26 April.
Around this time, Ukrainian military intelligence and its military command claimed that Russia was preparing a rocket attack against Transnistria, with the aim of causing civilian casualties – and would then accuse Ukraine of the attack.
“It could happen that Russia decides to use its troops and Tiraspol’s own forces to open an additional front against Ukraine, supporting the Russian offensive in the Odesa region,” said Dumitru Mînzărari, a former secretary of state for the Ministry of Defence of Moldova, currently a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“Russia can also use these armed forces to put pressure on Moldova. Both scenarios are quite realistic, depending on how the situation develops and the success of Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
How does Transnistria survive?
Despite its foreign policy orientation, close political ties with Moscow, and economic dependence on the Russian Federation, Transnistria retains some sovereignty. The region is not totally controlled by Moscow.
For many years, Sheriff, a local conglomerate that controls all major business in the territory, has retained influence on the political authorities in Tiraspol. Sheriff’s owner, businessman Viktor Gușan, is rightfully known as the most influential person in Transnistria. The current ‘president’ of the breakaway region, Vadim Krasnoselsky, previously worked for the company.
Yet Transnistria can hardly be called a self-sufficient region from an economic point of view. In 2021, roughly half of its exports came from the Moldovan Metallurgical Plant, which supplies metal products to Moldova and EU countries. Electricity supplied to the right bank of the Dniester River – that is, Moldova proper – by a hydroelectric dam made up another 20% of exports.
The competitiveness of Transnistria’s enterprises is mainly ensured by low gas prices. For years, the Russian state company Gazprom, through a Moldovan subsidiary, has supplied gas to Transnistria without requiring payment. Transnistrian businesses and households pay for Russian gas at tariffs well below market rates. The Transnistrian authorities use the proceeds from this gas at their own discretion.
How much does Transnistria owe Russia for gas?
Transnistria currently owes Gazprom more than $7bn for gas under the current scheme.
The difference in energy rates on either side of the Dniester is striking: while in Moldova the price is over $1,000 per thousand cubic metres of gas, the Moldovan Metallurgical Plant and other Transnistrian companies pay around $168.
“Where in the world have you seen such a price? This is a fraudulent and thieving scheme, which is being implemented with the permission of the majority shareholder of Gazprom,” former minister Alexander Flenca complained.
But Russian gas supplies to Transnistria, as well as Moldova, could stop altogether.
In autumn 2021, Gazprom and Moldova’s Moldovagaz agreed to extend Moldova’s contract for gas supplies on new terms. One of the conditions was an audit by the Moldovan government of its historical debt for gas (excluding the debt of Transnistria) and an agreement to settle the debt by 1 May 2022.
Following the Russian invasion, the Moldovan authorities have not managed to conduct an audit and have asked to postpone it. Gazprom, as far as is known, insisted on signing an agreement on debt settlement before 1 May. Several days before the deadline, it was reported that Moldova would receive gas for May, giving both Moldova and Transnistria another month of gas supply.
The Moldovan authorities have said they are ready to buy gas for both Moldova and Transnistria on European markets, but only if the consumers on the Dniester’s left bank pay for the gas in full. Legally, Gazprom cannot supply gas to Transnistria by bypassing Moldova’s gas network.
At the same time, Ukraine has now closed all checkpoints on the Transnistrian section of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. As Moldova’s current deputy prime minister for reintegration, Oleg Serebrian, said recently, Moldova, for the first time in 30 years, now completely controls the movement of goods and citizens into the separatist territory. For people living there, this has already led to a temporary shortage of goods and an increase in prices for imported products.
It also means that companies in Transnistria now have to comply with Moldovan standards when exporting products. Tiraspol has accused Chișinău of impeding the region’s exports.
What is Transnistria’s position on Ukraine?
Transnistria seems to be well aware of the complexity of its current situation.
According to Moldovan deputy prime minister Serebrian, the Transnistrian authorities have taken an ambivalent position.
On the one hand, they demonstrate their peaceful position to Kyiv, suppressing any pro-Russian public displays and keeping a tight lid on news about the war in the official media. In early March, for example, the Transnistrian administration interfered in every possible way with a pro-Russian rally in Tiraspol, though it still took place, with several dozen people standing with Russian flags and symbols in the city centre. So far, no similar protests have been held in Transnistria.
On the other hand, Tiraspol continues to remind Chișinău that the region, though sympathetic, is ‘not on the same path’ as Moldova in terms of EU accession.
Is there an immediate threat?
A few days after explosions and shooting rocked Transnistria, the media learned about a meeting between Moldovan officials and Krasnoselsky, Transnistria’s ‘president’ – the first high-level meeting between Moldovan and Transnistrian officials in recent years. The last time representatives of the Moldovan authorities met with the head of Transnistria was under Moldovan president Igor Dodon, who left his post in 2020.
The officials discussed security issues, as well as the tariff for electricity produced by Moldova’s hydroelectric dam, which is under Transnistria’s control and provides about 80% of Moldova’s electricity.
In exchange, Chișinău made concessions on the JSC Moldova Steel Works, which is under the control of Tiraspol. Since Russia’s invasion, Chișinău had not renewed the plant’s environmental authorisation. These agreements appear to have reduced the immediate tension around Transnistria.
Speaking on 30 April, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană stated that the alliance “expect[ed] false flag provocative actions [in Transnistria], designed not so much to pose a threat to Moldova, but to interfere with Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine, in the Odesa region”. Geoană did not see “imminent military threats” against Moldova.
What is the future of the Transnistria conflict?
Experts who follow the Transnistrian conflict agree that the invasion of Ukraine could change the situation around Transnistria and create a fundamentally new regional context.
Moldova’s former deputy prime minister, Alexander Flenca, said that Chișinău cannot take its usual passive position following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but must initiate a new reintegration model for Transnistria.
“For 30 years the situation was frozen – in the region, in the Transnistrian settlement. There was a certain status quo that created a false sense of security for Chișinău. It was very difficult to change anything. It was an ossified, entrenched situation. And now everything is changing in the world and in Europe,” he told openDemocracy.
The former deputy prime minister added that Moldova needs “to form a broad consensus of political forces and civil society around [the Transnistria issue]”, including international partners and Tiraspol.
The Moldovan authorities, in turn, are yet to show any intention to speed up the final settlement of the Transnistrian conflict.
What is Moldova’s vision for the reintegration of Transnistria?
The last time Chișinău and Tiraspol were close to a resolution of the conflict and the reunification of the country was in 2003. At that time, Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin refused, at the last minute, to sign a memorandum agreed with Tiraspol and Moscow, which would have transformed Moldova into a federal republic and kept a Russian military force on its territory until 2020.
In 2005, Chișinău wrote its basic principles governing the future status for Transnistria into a law, which has not changed in the 17 years since. This law, adopted unanimously by the Moldovan parliament, would have granted Transnistria autonomous status, as well as democratisation and demilitarisation. The document remains in force today, although Tiraspol did not receive it positively.
Since then, the Chișinău authorities have made no more attempts to find a model for a political settlement. In 2015, Moldova’s then prime minister,Valeriu Streleț, admitted that Chișinău did not have a vision for settling the Transnistrian conflict. Judging by the statements of the current Moldovan authorities, it does not have one today, either. In November 2021, the Moldovan parliament created a special commission on the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. One of the commission’s tasks is to develop a nationwide position on reintegrating the breakaway territory.
What are the problems?
International negotiations over Transnistria under the “5+2” format have been at an impasse since 2019. Moldova and Transnistria are parties of this negotiation platform; the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine are mediators, and the EU and the USA are observers. The future of the talks remains uncertain given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Last autumn, Tiraspol and Moscow repeatedly made it clear to Chișinău that they were ready to intensify negotiations on the final settlement of the Transnistrian conflict.
In December 2021, Transnistria’s leader Krasnoselsky wrote to Moldovan President Maia Sandu urging the Moldovan side to sit down at the negotiating table and start discussing a comprehensive settlement of the conflict. Krasnoselsky also declared his readiness to discuss the status of Transnistria within Moldova. That appeal was immediately supported by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
In response, Sandu has repeatedly stated that there are no quick solutions to the Transnistrian problem, and that she had no intention of meeting with Krasnoselsky.
Alexei Tulbure, Moldova’s former permanent representative to the UN and the Council of Europe, believes that one of the factors holding back the reintegration of Transnistria may be fears over Moscow’s desire to influence Moldovan foreign policy. He said that the integration of Transnistria into Moldova could have political consequences that would affect the country’s pro-European course.
Indeed, since the Russian invasion, Moldovan voters who favour right-wing and pro-European parties are likely to be much less interested in a possible compromise between Chișinău and Tiraspol. This pro-European, right-wing electorate, on which Moldova’s ruling Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) largely relies, reacts negatively to any negotiations with Tiraspol.
Yet according to Flenca, Chișinău simply does not have the right to miss the historic chance to move the Transnistria reintegration process forward, despite all the difficulties.
As he put it, the Transnistrian authorities will have to choose: to lose everything or make the territory ‘legal’.
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