Transnistria: The Meltdown of a Frozen Conflict?

It is November 1990 and the river Nistru has a double value. For those situated on its right bank, the river is a boundary, a fronter meant to separate The Republic of Moldova from Transnistria. For those who reside on the left bank, the river is just a cross-point towards the most Eastern part of Moldova. The contention point is the existence or not of such a thing as an autonomous and sovereign Tranistrian state (PMR). At this point a war breaks down between the two sides,a pro-Moldavian force and the separatist one which had some military support from Russia. The open conflict ends with a cease-fire that has not been replaced by a more stable resolution since 1992.

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Flag of Transnistria Source: Dieter Zirnig

Back to present times, the Moldavian-Transnistrian relation is what we would call a ‘frozen conflict’. On the international level, the region between the Nistru river and Ukraine is recognized as being part of Moldova. In practice however, a filo-Russian centre of power exercises actual control over the disputed territory from its Tiraspol headquarters. I will argue that in a sense, this region is another chess board where NATO and Kremlin show off their skills.

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Kaliningrad on the map

There is an ongoing presence of Russian troops on the ground with the double moral purpose to protect Russian nationals from potential threats coming from the Moldavian majority and to help stabilize the situation in the form of peace-keeping. There is furthermore the strategic goal of maintaining an open door into Eastern Europe, following Kalinigrad’s example. If we imagined a dark scenario where the Old Continent would once more fall into violent conflict, the Kaliningrad exclave would play the part of a strategic military outpost for Russians, which could be further supplied with weapons and soldiers through the Baltic Sea.

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Map of Crimea

The same logic could have been applied to PMR until the current Ukrainian turn of events. As I see it, Ukraine stands between this potential outpost and the Russian Federation. Events in Ukraine bring to light at the least the possibility of a future NATO membership. That translates into the blockage of access to Transnistria for Kremlin’s hard power capabilities. Metaphorically it resembles the clogging of an artery which eventually leads to the death of an organ. The strategic benefit of Transnistria will be lost if Kiev-Moscow relations get interrupted. As a consequence, Russian leaders point now their energy on another outpost in the Black Sea, which is Crimea.

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An example that proves all the above is the recent diplomatic scuffle between Romania and Moldova on one side and the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Rogozin. The latter one was intending to fly to Tiraspol for the Victory Day celebration. Since Ukraine and Romania blocked their airspace to the plane on which he was travelling, Rogozin was stuck in Moldova. He managed eventually to return to Moscow, from where he made serious threats to Romanian authorities: ”Next time I’ll fly on board TU-160”. That is Russia’s largest bomber.

It is being said that Rogozin carried with him back home the signed petitions of Transnistrian residents which claim the recognition of their half-a-million-people Republic as independent and autonomous from Moldova. The relation between the two is now at a very low point both because of Russia’s support for PMR independence and also because of EU’s decision to sign the association agreements with the authorities in Chisinau and Tbilisi. The existing pattern shows that most Eastern and Southeastern European countries were admitted into the EU only after being granted NATO membership. If the habitual way of handling EU enlargement does not change, then there is a high probability that Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia will in the foreseeable future have NATO troops on their territories. Under such circumstances, Article 5 will enforce itself directly against Russia in the case of any type of aggression towards the mentioned countries. The West will have the responsibility to act militarily.

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Source: [email protected]

Finally, this big power politics explains the recognition movement undergoing in Transnistria. Its parliament is on the path of recognizing Russian legislation as applicable to its citizens who will officially have the Russian language as their national language. These are preparatory steps for being part of the Russian Federation, a desire expressed openly by Transnistrian officials. Nevertheless, prior to Moldova moving a step closer to the EU, Russian politicians appeared a bit reserved in accepting Tiraspol’s offers. Some even went as far as to say that Chisinau is behaving properly in observing the cease-fire and the truce and that only a reunification with Romania would automatically call for a solution as dramatic as annexation. This fear was as a matter of fact probably the main cause for the secessionist move in the first place. Aside from this, most probably it will very much depend on the results of the election for new leaders in Kiev and the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. More than this, it will be conditioned by the love and hate relationship between the EU and the US which materializes in NATO’s strategy.

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Source: Medien [email protected]

To conclude our discussion, we can sum up and observe the main antagonists and their interests. First, we have the opposition between Moldova and Tiraspol on PMR’s right of self-determination . Going on a higher level, we have Romania who sees itself as a gateway to Europe and therefore must act as a responsible, strong actor in the face of any potential threat coming from its East. On the big power playing field, we have Russia who is feeling pressured from NATO and US expanding their grip towards its borders. Finally we have the EU and its member states who have a very strong interest in creating a free market that would incorporate the countries around the Black Sea and also an existential need of finding alternative energy supplies, mainly from Azerbaijan, supplies which would cross Georgia and even Ukraine. These are the conditions that will shape Transnitria’s fate and with it most certainly everyone’s future. The heat is increasing around this frozen conflict and its meltdown will unfortunately bring a big flood with it.

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Claudiu Sonda
Passionate student of IR and European politics with an interest in developing a high-level expertise in International Security and geopolitics.