April 27, 2022
By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant
On February 21, 2022, three days before its invasion of Ukraine, Russia recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent states. Later on March 5, the Moldovan break-away region of Transnistria, formally known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, requested formal recognition of its independence, something it has not received from any state. Despite Transnistria’s three-decade long relationship with Russia, it was Moldova’s decision to apply for European Union (EU) membership without consulting Transnistria, that pushed authorities in the territory’s capital Tiraspol, to request a “civilized divorce and the establishment of interstate relations”.
Tiraspol understood Moldova taking the step towards EU membership, prompted undoubtedly by Russia’s war against Ukraine. It indicated willingness to seek a diplomatic resolution to one of history’s frozen conflicts, calling on Moldova to engage in dialogue with the goal of seeking a “final civilized settlement of relations” between the “two independent states”. Moldova’s fast-track application in March followed those of Ukraine and Georgia, both of whom are also seeking NATO membership. Moldova has not taken this step however, with Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita saying neutrality is enshrined in its constitution.
Dissolution of the Soviet Union
The sliver of land some 4,163 square kilometers large with a population of about 475,000 people, borders Ukraine to the east and Moldova to the west, both demarcating lines being some 400km long, though the Moldovan border consists nearly entirely of the Dnister River. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, the territory of Transnistria, recognized internationally as being part of Moldova, declared independence on September 2 of that year, though this is only recognized by the self-declared republics of Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Artsakh. A civil war was fought against Moldova with the support from the Russian military from 1991 to 1992, ending in that latter July with a brokered cease-fire, since which Russian forces have been present in the region. Over a decade later, on September 17, 2006, a referendum was held in favor of independence, though it’s status remains unresolved.
Transnistria maintains its own security services with an army of some 5,000 soldiers, its own de-facto government, and its own currency and border control. About 500 Russian ‘peacekeepers’ are present in the territory, along with about 1,000 soldiers as “security guarantors”, with the task of guarding some 22,000 tons of ammunitions housed in the village of Cobasna, believed to be the largest ammunition depot in eastern Europe. About 1/5th of the Transnistrian population are reportedly Ukrainian, with Russians and Moldovans comprising another approximately 30% each. However, much of the older population still identifies as Soviet, and Moscow continues to provide gas and pensions subsidies to the territory, even distributing Russian passports since 2002, testifying to the strong relationship with Tiraspol at the displeasure of Chisinau and Kyiv. It is perhaps ironic that Russia does not recognize Transnistrian claims to independence, along with every other United Nations member.
The 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War
The de-facto government in Tiraspol was quick to take a cautious approach to the war by using terms such as “situation” and “events”, and local media seemingly avoiding reporting on the war. On the first day of the invasion, de-facto President Vadim Krasnoselsky neither endorsed nor condemned Russia’s actions. He stated the government would “ensure the stability and security of citizens”, advising them to “remain calm”. At the same time, he signed a decree establishing a task-force to assist the estimated 6,000 Ukrainian refugees (by March 16) with temporary housing, food, clothing, schools, access to day-care, and Covid-19 vaccinations. Further, he described the war as “regrettable” and “tragic”, recalling sentiments made in 2017 in which he said that “maintaining and furthering relations with Ukraine was one of Transnistria’s top priorities”.
Krasnoselsky emphasized this active neutrality by stating Transnistria would continue to “provide assistance to everyone who asks for help, regardless of citizenship and place of residence”. Transnistria’s de-facto foreign minister, Vitaly Ignatiev, re-iterated non-alignment by stating the primary concern was the “security of the country’s population”. These sentiments are echoed by Transnistrians, as many have family in Ukraine and Russia and fear the war coming to Transnistria if Russia was seeking to “consolidate its hold on its former empire”. However, many people do support Russia and demonstrations in favor of both Russia and Ukraine have been taking place.
Accusations of Involvement
A statement by Ukraine’s military on February 24, the day the invasion began, claimed Russia aimed to create a land-corridor from Russia towards Crimea and onwards towards Transnistria. This was likely given credence after Russia undertook military drills in Transnistria earlier in month on February 2, with the justification that the Russian presence was necessary to protect its citizens and to maintain peace between Moldova and the territory.
Then on March 1, Belarusian President Alexandre Lukashenko gave a televised address to his security council which included an apparent map of Moscow’s invasion plans of Ukraine, which seemingly marked Moldova for occupation as well. Upon summoning the Belarusian Ambassador in Chisinau, Prime Minister Gavrilita is said to have been told that the map was “a misunderstanding”, to which she responded by saying this unsatisfactory answer was not to be believed. Transnistria was also marked in the same colors as Luhansk and Donetsk, logically indicating the presence of Russian forces, with arrows of the same color pointing towards this area from the Ukrainian coastal city of Odesa, indicating intentions for a naval landing and later troop movement.
On March 3, Krasnoselsky denied rumors Transnistria was preparing for combat operations, and a further statement by Tiraspol on March 5 reiterated this point, claiming its people “know how important it is to appreciate and preserve peace”, while stating that their only intended course of action is the “preservation of calm in our multinational republic, preservation of peace”. Krasnoselsky has taken a stand and “ruled out the possibility of involving units of the Transnistrian Armed Forces in Russia’s war against Ukraine”.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu said prior to March 9 that no indication existed of the Russian soldiers in Transnistria changing their default posture while stressing concern for events in Ukraine. Krasnoselsky also criticized Ukrainian Media for speculating that the Russian forces in Transnistria may be used in an attack against Ukraine and that shelling from the territory had occurred. Yet on March 9, Ukraine’s Armed Forces claimed that Russia was considering the possibility of involving up to 800 soldiers from Transnistria in the war, possibly in an offensive against Odesa. So far at least, there has been no verified instance of neither Russian nor Transnistrian action against Ukraine from the territory of Transnistria. However, Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicu Popescu, perhaps summarized the current situation best when he said that “we can’t predict what will happen tomorrow or in two weeks from now or in two months from now”.
A Balancing Act
Tiraspol’s actions show that despite close ties to Russia, Transnistria is heavily dependent on Ukraine, especially concerning access to foreign markets and Ukraine being one of its major trading partners. Many Transnistrians have relatives in Ukraine, many prominent figures identify as ethnic Ukrainians, including Krasnoselsky himself and the head coach of Tiraspol’s football team who went to fight for Ukraine, Ukrainian is an official language in Transnistria, the region’s main university is named after Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, also appearing on the 50-Ruble note, and several statues of Ukrainians stand in the break-away region, likely recalling the support Transnistria received from Ukraine during its war with Moldova.
It is clear then that elites in Transnistria cannot afford to support Russia publicly and are refusing to take a stand, as this would risk severe international political and economic consequences – perhaps even military action by Ukraine. Of course, should Russia indicate willingness to recognize or even annex Transnistria, what many of the older generation and powerful elites desire, these sentiments may change. Though as long as the outcome of the war continues to remain unpredictable, Tiraspol is likely to stick to its neutral position, neither condemning nor endorsing, and continuing to support those fleeing the war.