Putin May Be Planning More Aggressive Moves In East-Europe: Moldova-Transnistria

Written By Neil McKenzie-Sutter, Posted on August 19, 2022

Prior Russo-Ukrainian War (2014 to present) which is devastating to that nation, the tiny landlocked Moldova was the leading candidate for the most backward country in Europe. Situated between Romania and Ukraine, chief among Moldova’s issues is the unresolved ‘Transnistria war,’ and Russia’s stance on that issue. 

Although unacknowledged by much of the mainstream press, spillover from the Ukraine war has already started to affect Moldova-Transnistria tangibly, but the situation is complicated. 

Since a brief civil war in 1990-92, the main Moldovan government has retained no control over the region of Transnistria, making it a de facto separate country; bordered in the East by Ukraine and in the West by the Dniester River, that the region is named after. 

Since 1992 it’s been Russia’s position Transnistria should be recognized as an independent nation. In pursuing this goal, Russia established a peacekeeping force in Transnistria in the mid-90s; reshuffling units that had existed in Moldova from the Cold War era.

Controversially, these Russian units intervened in the 1990-92 war on the Transnistrian side and were critical in determining that conflict’s outcome. Today Russia maintains approximately 1500 troops in Transnistria, over the protests of Moldovan and Western authorities.  

Putin is able to maintain this troop presence because of the intense popularity Russia enjoys in Transnistria. In fact, many Transnistrians view their de facto nation state as part of Russia.

This relationship between Transnistria and Russia is eerily similar to how the Ukraine-Russia war stemmed from several ethnically Russian-majority provinces in Ukraine wanting independence and/or desiring to join the Russian Federation.

But from 1992 to January 2022, it was hard to envision a path for Transnistria toward independence/integration with the Russian Federation. For years, Ukraine appeared destined for greater Western integration, and with the militarily built-up Ukrainian city of Odessa so close to Moldova, any Russian or Transnistrian aggression was potentially risky.

Flag of Transnistria.

During the same time, Russia appeared in decline as a world power, but this situation has dramatically changed in the last half-year. 

While most of Russia’s offensive is taking place in Eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s military capacity has been significantly reduced overall at this point, and now it seems Russia may be testing Moldova-Transnistria. 

These tests by Russia are subtle, but nevertheless on several occasions in 2022, Russia has attacked and disabled the Zatoka Bridge; a railway/highway bridge spanning the Dniester estuary, connecting mainland Ukraine to the far-flung Budjak, which exists almost an exclave from Ukraine without the easy access the Zatoka Bridge provides.

Budjak is comparatively underdeveloped and thus not strategically important to the war per se. Also, each time Russia has attacked the Zatoka Bridge the Ukrainians have brought it back online quickly. However, each time the bridge was disabled, Ukrainian traffic between Budjak and the mainland was detoured onto the E87 highway, which runs through Moldovan territory for 7.5 kms.

Zatoka Bridge.

This stretch of E87 is controlled by the main Moldovan government; not Transnistria, and so in theory these diversions aren’t a problem because Moldovan-Ukraine relations are amicable currently, however, the diversions are undeniably starting to drag Moldova into the Ukraine-Russia conflict in a small capacity. On top of this, the situation in Moldova degrading in other ways. 

Until 2022 Moldova was able to maintain friendly relations with both Westerners and Russia, but the current government is Western-leaning and political arrests of the out-of-power Russia-friendly political faction began in May, which is exacerbating tensions, and also for the first time since the Transnistria war, violence has erupted in the breakaway region in the form of terrorist bombings

Authorities in Transnistria operate in an opaque manner reminiscent of Stalinist-era Soviet countries, so it’s not clear at all what’s happening in the region, however, the Transnistrians claim there were no casualties from the attacks and it also isn’t clear where the attacks originated from.

What is clear, though, is the security situation is deteriorating in Moldova-Transnistria, and the cause is likely related to the war in Ukraine.

In late June the EU granted candidacy status to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, but the path for these nations becoming member states will be hard and the official release by the EU clearly states membership for candidates must be ‘merit-based.

Even without the unresolved Transnistria conflict, Moldova doesn’t meet the EU standards for entrance in terms of government corruption, organized crime, etc., but there is a greater obstacle in Moldova’s path to strengthening international security relationships.

That obstacle is Moldova’s constitution. What Moldova needs now more than even as the Ukraine-Russia war threatens to spillover is the security benefits the U.S. and NATO might offer, however, Moldova’s 1994 constitution declares permanent neutrality, preventing it from joining international security organizations like NATO, and the Moldovan Prime Minister recently reiterated this idea

Moldova could hold a referendum on this line of their constitution, however presently there appears to be no Moldovan political will to pursue this, at least in comparison to the EU membership bid. In this context, it’s hard to see the offering of EU candidacy as anything more than a symbolic show of support for these ravaged nations. 

This is not to say Putin will necessarily expand his offensive into Moldova-Transnistria; the tension in the region may simmer down. The purpose of this article is merely to highlight a possibility, as many commentators have pointed out there is an increasing likelihood of a Chinese invasion/blockade of Taiwan on the table

The situation in the South China Sea is concerning, however it may be unsafe to assume Eastern-European troubles are over.

Again, Putin doesn’t even have to invade Moldova-Transnistria, as 1500 Russian troops are on the ground there already.

In the final analysis: Moldova-Transnistria looks like low-hanging fruit for Putin, who is already on the march, and so far since Biden took office, the U.S.-NATO has spectacularly failed every geopolitical challenge thrown their way. Why should Moldova-Transnistria prove any different?  

Neil McKenzie-Sutter

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