Home Nonmilitary action It’s time to tame Transnistria | CEPA

It’s time to tame Transnistria | CEPA


The Kremlin is doing everything it can to crush Ukraine, opening up opportunities for countries with an unwanted Russian presence.

Russia’s increasingly egregious military adventures are a horrifying experience for Ukraine and a shock to a once complacent European continent. And yet, the Kremlin’s behavior amounts to such overreach that it may have exposed itself to counteraction in its illegal colonial outposts.

Wherever Russia can, it grabs land from other countries, usually arguing that it helps Russian speakers living beyond the country’s borders. These so-called frozen conflicts have proliferated in Ukraine, but also in Georgia and Moldova, where the oldest puppet state is called Transnistria.

After the Russians failed to get a de jure veto over NATO enlargement in the 1990s and early 2000s, they figured out how to achieve a de facto veto. This is well described in How Russia keeps post-Soviet states in its orbit by Luka Jukic, who describes Russian efforts to trap countries in “seemingly unwinnable conflicts” that keep them “firmly aloof from Western institutions like NATO or the EU”. Although Russia failed to prevent the Baltic states from joining the two organisations, the Russians attacked Georgia in 2008 and occupied territory in Ukraine in 2014.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the security map of Europe so much that it is time to reconsider the fundamentals. The status quo in Ukraine is currently being forcibly renegotiated by the Kremlin, the outcome of which is unknown. Georgia, while also a candidate for EU and NATO membership, and also the target of Russian threats, is unlikely to redefine the terms of regional geopolitics. It is reasonable to assume that any attempt to take over the small Russian puppet states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is beyond its capabilities, even if the government wanted to act.

Moldova, on the other hand, is in a much better position. It is geographically separate from Russia, borders NATO ally Romania, with which it shares a language, and lies to the west collective consciousness just because of its apparent vulnerability (and of course because Russia regularly targets its pro-Western government with military threats.)

The history of Moldova, Russia, Transnistria and Romania is long and centered on historical borders and population movements over the past centuries. At the end of the Cold War, some small groups of ethnic Russians in former Soviet territory resented seeing the local ethnic majority in control. Russian forces on the bank of the Dniester River helped ethnic Russians form an illegal entity not recognized by any UN member state. In 1993, the international community agreed “facilitate the achievement of a comprehensive and lasting political settlement”, which is codified in the Mandate of the OSCE Mission to Moldova. This required the withdrawal of foreign (Russian) troops and respect for minority rights. Russia made no serious effort to honor the agreement for the next three decades.

Recently, Moldova has become more willing to fend off Russian malign activity. The Moldovan government has issued an official protest in response to the appeal of a Russian general claim on April 22 that linking its territory with Transnistria through occupied Ukraine was a key objective of the invasion.

Moldova should now go further and openly state that the Russians should leave Transnistria and that the region should peacefully integrate into Moldova. If Moldova takes the agreed benchmarks as a starting position and openly guarantees human and minority rights, it could gain support from a variety of international actors. European entities are already highlighting the situation: in March 2022, the Secretary General of NATO declared that in “Moldova and Transnistria, which is part of Moldova, there are Russian troops without the consent of the government in Moldova” while the Council of Europe has changed its point of view and designated Transnistria as a territory occupied by Russia.

The Military report 2022 says that before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russians maintained about 1,500 soldiers, while number of local forcesed some 4,500 to 7,500; because the Russians can only bring in reinforcements by air over the Black Sea or Ukraine, these forces are isolated and vulnerable to conventional military operations.

Moldova could expel Russians from Transnistria in several ways. The key to all of them is that the Moldovan government should make the decision to get rid of the Russians. Any outside help without an express request from the Moldovan government would play into Vladimir Putin’s hands and give him an information victory by allowing him to claim that this “proves” that his invasion of Ukraine was a response to the aggression carried out by the United States and based on NATO. against all Russians everywhere and therefore legitimate. Although very few would believe it, several states could use it as an excuse to end their opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Although there is no guarantee of success, there are three military options. The first two use the classic “hammer and anvil” approach. In the first case, the Moldovan forces would be the anvil and the Ukrainian forces could cross their border like the hammer. The second would be for the Ukrainians to mass forces on their side of the border like the anvil while the Moldovans attack the separatist forces in Transnistria. However, this last option presents two problems: the Moldovan army only has 5,150 active members, and this type of operation would force the Moldavians to make a contested crossing of the Dniester, a complex maneuver that would discourage the best modern armies. A third approach would be a simultaneous attack by the Moldovans and the Ukrainians.

The problem should not be solved by force. A non-military approach would involve European states and organizations supporting the negotiations combined with information and strategic communication operations aimed at convincing the Transdniestrian population to voluntarily join Moldova. The weakness is that it could take a long time and could miss the window of opportunity offered by the current situation.

Russia has clearly demonstrated its hunger for the land of sovereign states and its unwillingness to leave once established. Its war of aggression against Ukraine and its threats against Moldova paint a very clear picture casus belli, as is its illegal occupation. From the Moldovan point of view, any action would be perilous, but it is difficult to think that he will have any better chance of regaining his own territory. Moldova should openly accept the criteria established by the international community, call on the Russians to leave its territory and ask for help from other European states and institutions.

Alexander (Alex) Crowther is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is a practical professor for cyber issues at Florida International University and conducts research for the Swedish Defense University.