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Transnistria: West Berlin of the post-Soviet world

How to play hardball: Ukraine's parliament has revoked the agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the movement of Russian troops through Ukrainian territory to Transnistria.

Fresh intrigue is afoot in the Transnistrian 'frozen' conflict. On 21 May, Ukraine's parliament the Verkhovna Rada revoked the agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the movement of Russian troops through Ukrainian territory to Transnistria, the unrecognised republic that is, from a legal point of view, considered part of Moldova.

But that is far from everything. Rada deputies also wrote off a whole series of documents regulating the supply of Russian troops and ‘peacekeepers’ stationed in Transnistria – the Operative Group of Russian Forces.

Not to be outdone

After the Ukrainian parliament's decision, Chișinău Airport is now the sole connection to the 'mainland' for the Russian military. And Chișinău is taking advantage of the opportunity. The Moldovan authorities now require Moscow to inform them of their troops' arrival a month in advance. Since October last year, more than 100 Russian military personnel have been deported from Moldova. 

Chișinău doesn't see the Operative Group as peacekeepers: it's an undesirable foreign presence. For Chișinău , the Russian military presence only impedes Moldova's 'European choice' and fosters separatist desires on the left bank of the Nistru (Dniester) River. Made up of the former 14th Soviet Guards Army, the Operative Group was created in June 1995, when reforming the old Soviet army command.

The Russian military began its peacekeeping operation here following the 1992 Agreement on Principles of Peaceful Regulation of Conflict, between Moldova and Russia. At least 400 Russian peacekeepers, as well as troops from Moldova, Transnistria, and military observers from Ukraine are stationed in this territory. And although there have been several attempts to halt the peace process in Transnistria (particularly in 2014), Chișinău is yet to cancel the 1992 agreement. 

De-facto President of Transnistria Yevgeny Shevchuk with Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, Tiraspol, 2013. Photo CC: Kodru De-facto President of Transnistria Yevgeny Shevchuk and Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, Tiraspol, 2013. Photo CC: Kodru 
Be that as it may, Russian troops in Transnistria are increasingly isolated. So what risk do they pose to Russian interests here? And what solution will Moscow choose?

In the past week, the Russian and foreign press has devoted much attention to this latest decision by the Rada – it's a political sensation. But if the consensus is that this move is improvised at best, then it was, at least, planned. We're not talking about a conspiracy here, but the logic of the political process. The Transnistrian conflict is different from other post-Soviet frozen conflicts for several reasons; in particular, the involvement of two guarantors – Russia and Ukraine.

The Transnistrian conflict is different from other post-Soviet frozen conflicts.

For many, Kyiv's position as a second regulating party balances the plans of the Kremlin. Indeed, with more than 28% of the population in Transnistria being ethnically Ukrainian, Kyiv's position is logical.

Moreover, unlike Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Transnistria does not border with the Russian Federation, but shares a common one with Ukraine – 405km of it. 

Falling out

Prior to 2006, Moscow and Kyiv were often seen as successful partners in Transnistria. For instance, Ukraine did not obstruct plans put forward by Dmitry Kozak, a Russian politician with ties to the Kremlin, to unite Transnistria and Moldova as a federal state in 2003. In turn, in 2005, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs more or less supported Viktor Yushchenko's suggestions for a peaceful resolution of the stalemate. 

The events of 2006, however, sounded the first alarm bells after Kyiv and Chișinău amended regulations on Transnistria's external economic relations. Tiraspol's 'right' to economic independence was liquidated in March 2006. Meanwhile, for the first time after the conflict 'froze' in 1992, Transnistria became a negotiation battleground between Kyiv and Moscow. Fortunately, nine years ago, this conflict did not extend beyond trade relations and rhetoric. 

In contrast, the events of 2014 led to something rather different. The second Maidan and change of power in Kyiv prompted the 'Russian Spring' and Moscow's military and political intervention in Crimea and Donbas. In Ukraine, these moves were perceived as aggression from a neighbouring state, and Kyiv came to view Transnistria as an outpost of Russian influence (although, it should be repeated that, before 2006 and after the 'Orange' government fell in 2010, Kyiv tried to take a more balanced line on the unrecognised republic). 
 
Thus, the rise of militarist rhetoric and actions aimed at isolating Transnistria from the Ukrainian side – attempts have been made to increase security at border crossings and close off the republic with a defensive ditch. What's more, back in March 2014, all Russian male citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 with permanent residency in Transnistria were refused entry into Ukraine. According to local residents, exceptions are few and far between, and only concern journeys being made in certain circumstances (medical treatment, funerals). 

In this sense, it was only a matter of time before the issue of Russian military transit became a political football. In the current circumstances, this move looks like a demonstration of national unity, patriotism, and resolve to resist the 'aggressor'. 

Breaking the status quo

The Rada will not be condemned by its Western partners for its actions; indeed, it will be seen in the context of resistance to the 'imperial machinations' of the Kremlin. Russian diplomats, however, now speak of Kyiv's (and Chișinău's) violation of agreements and the breakdown in the former status quo.

In other circumstances, this argument might be accepted (or at least wouldn't provoke criticism in return). But when not only Ukraine, indeed the entire West, views Russia as having violated international law (the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and the1997 Russia-Ukraine agreement), this is more than problematic. And although BRICS countries (and Russia's allies in the Eurasian Economic Union) are not blocking Russia's position, they are yet to recognise Crimea's new status. In this situation, international understanding is limited to Narendra Modi's willingness to receive Sergei Aksyonov of Crimea, in the Russian Federation's delegation to India. 

What will Moscow's reaction to the actions of Kyiv and Chișinău be? Potentially, Moscow could raise the stakes – from a re-evaluation of Transnistria's status to increased military hardware supply. At a push, they may even 'surrender' Transnistria (the latter option comes up every time Moscow gets into difficulties on the Nistru).

The Soviet-inspired state symbols of Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, in Tiraspol. cc Dl.goe The Soviet-inspired state symbols of Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, in Tiraspol. cc Dl.goe 
But the 'exit' scenario looks unlikely. Firstly, it gives no guarantees that this 'surrender' will be the last. Leaving the Nistru won't stop the calls to 'return Crimea' or stop the 'occupation' of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Secondly, neither Brussels nor Washington have any desire to recognise Crimea in return for Russia leaving other parts of the former USSR. At least, these desires have not been made public. If they were, they would amount to a recognition of the post-Soviet space as a site of Russian special interest, highlighting the limits of American global hegemony. 
 
No, we are more likely to face a choice between the visions of two representatives of the Russian foreign ministry: on the one hand, the possible re-evaluation of Transistria's status should Moldova change its neutrality (an idea proposed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) and, on the other, the joining of Transnistria to Moldova as a 'special region' (proposed by Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin). And all this is happening against the background of Vladimir Putin's declaration of the necessity of keeping the 5+2 format.

Lessons from the past

The increasing isolation of Transnistria is unpleasant, but far from fatal. For Russia, the issue of maintaining the Operative Group could be solved at the expense of the local residents holding Russian passports. But what then? 

Perhaps the experience of the Cold War (the Berlin Airlift) may come in handy in this new historical era. The problem then would become one of military hardware and logistics, so avoiding the most controversial issue – status, which depends directly on the level of confrontation between Russia and the West, where people are inclined to view any change in the status quo by the Russian Federation as a plan to increase its sphere of influence in Eurasia rather than a reaction. As a result, responses are ever more aggressive.

However we choose to see the situation – how far it is grounded in fact, and how far it is the product of artificial fears – is not perhaps the main problem. If we choose to avoid the most controversial issue of status, Moscow will not be able to ignore its social obligations; and it is this that appears to be one of the most immediate consequences of Transnistria's increasing isolation.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on politcom.ru in Russian. 

About the author

Sergei Markedonov is Associate Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities

Read On

William H. Hill. Russia, the Near Abroad, and the West: Lessons from the Moldova-Transdniestria Conflict (John Hopkins University Press, 2012). 


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