Russian President Vladimir Putin miscalculated the war against Ukraine in many respects. So far he has not been able to defeat the neighboring country – and probably won’t either. He could not paralyze and divide the European Union and NATO – quite the opposite. And: Contrary to his intentions, he has succeeded in bringing Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova much closer to European integration than they ever dared to hope.
More miscalculations could soon follow. One of the most important would be solving the so-called Transnistrian conflict in the Republic of Moldova. In Transnistria, that narrow part of the Moldova on the left bank of the Dniester River, Russia demonstrated in 1991/92, for the first time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, how to destabilize and split a union republic that had become independent, arm separatists loyal to the Kremlin, unleash a war, create pseudo-state structures and Conflict later freezes for a long time.
In Transnistria, around 200 kilometers long and a maximum of 30 kilometers wide, almost 2,000 Russian soldiers are stationed to this day. In the north, near the village of Cobasna, is one of the largest arms depots in Europe – around 20,000 tons of ammunition and equipment from old Russian stocks are stored here. Although Russia officially pledged to withdraw troops and weapons within a few years in 1999, it has never lived up to that promise.
According to a report by the European Parliament in 2002, Transnistria has been a “black hole” in Europe for more than 30 years. The region survived economically on money transfers from Moscow, as well as smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering. Ukraine also made its contribution: after 1992, the Ukrainian ruling elites, together with Russian economic officials, created a smuggling chain around Transnistria, which strengthened the region economically and made it impossible for the Republic of Moldova to control the separatist region economically. Gradually, however, the corrupt elites of the Republic of Moldova were also drawn into the dirty machinations.
The Transnistrian economy depended on the illegal movement of goods to and from Odessa and other Black Sea ports. The programs ran for more than three decades. The cornerstone was laid back in the 1990s, when the first “president” of the self-proclaimed separatist republic of Transnistria, Igor Smirnov, was received with great pomp by the then Ukrainian president. With good reason: the son-in-law of the then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is said to have owned one of the largest steel companies in Transnistria. Over the years, other politicians in Kyiv have also been seduced by the possibility of “doing business” with the Tiraspol separatists behind the back of Chisinau.
Meanwhile, Kyiv admits that it owes Moldova a moral debt for decades of tolerating and even benefiting from the “black hole” of Transnistria. The pro-government press in Kyiv devotes a lot of space to analyzing this issue and suggests that a possible Russian defeat in the war against Ukraine should also mean the liquidation of pro-Russian Transnistria. After many years of Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities turning a blind eye to Transnistria’s illegal practices and representatives of both states benefiting, writes Ukrainian journalist Sergei Sidorenko in the newspaper Evropeyskaya Pravda, Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed everything. Ukraine has recognized that Transnistria poses a threat to national security. The question is how this problem can now be solved.
The start of the war on February 24, 2022 prompted the Ukrainian authorities to seal off the Transnistrian section of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border with tanks. With that, smuggling has stopped and the separatist regime in Tiraspol is complaining almost hysterically about the “economic blockade” and calling on Russia to save Transnistria. So far unsuccessful – the goal of the separatist regime, the rapid occupation of Ukraine by the Russians and the annexation of Transnistria, failed due to the resistance of the Ukrainian army.
The Republic of Moldova stands in solidarity with Ukraine in this war, is helping Ukrainian refugees and firmly believes that it has put itself on the right side of history. However, the leadership in Chisinau believes that the Transnistria conflict should be resolved exclusively by peaceful means and in such a way that it does not affect Moldova’s European course. Moldovan President Maia Sandu stated that Moldova must become a member of the EU by the end of this decade.
“The Russian Federation’s bloody aggression against Ukraine has reinforced Moldovans’ desire to avoid war at all costs. This is the simplest answer to the idea, widespread in Ukraine, that the Ukrainian armed forces should help Moldova to get rid of separatism and the Russians in Transnistria. There are no circumstances under which Chisinau would agree to the actions of the Ukrainian armed forces on its territory,” writes Sidorenko, adding that Kyiv has now understood this too.
The government in Chisinau has set a record defense budget for 2023. Extensive investments are being made in airspace security. In addition, the Republic of Moldova will receive armored vehicles of the Piranha type from Germany. Nevertheless, the Moldovan government not only wants to avoid a military confrontation with Transnistria, but is currently avoiding a scenario of economic pressure on the separatist regime in Tiraspol. “We’re all in the same boat. We shouldn’t unbalance it,” Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Oleg Serebrian said recently.
The background: The Republic of Moldova is still dependent on electricity supplies from the Cuciurgan power plant in Transnistria. This, in turn, is powered by Russian gas, which is delivered from Chisinau to Tiraspol. What appears to be an absurd reality, namely that Moldova is supporting and funding separatism, is still a necessity – because without the flow from Cuciurgan, the country would be in darkness.
But that could change soon. The Republic of Moldova is working flat out on plans to make the country independent of electricity from Transnistria and gas from Russia. If that is the case, Transnistria could simply fall into Moldova’s lap – as a bankrupt entity. Because without the smuggling routes through Ukraine and the gas supplies from Chisinau, it would not be able to survive.
Author: Vitalie Călugăreanu, Keno Verseck
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The original of this post “Will the war against Ukraine solve the Transnistrian conflict?” comes from Deutsche Welle.