The possibility that the invasion of Ukraine will reawaken old conflicts, such as the Armenian-Azeri confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh, or provoke new ones, is very real.
On April 22, Rustam Minnekayev, acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, outlined the new guideposts of Russia’s offensive: seizing the Donbas and southern Ukraine to secure Crimea. The general also claimed that “control over southern Ukraine is another way to get to Transnistria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed”. These words caused ‘deep concern’ in the Moldovan government and a recall of the Russian ambassador for consultations.
Transnistria is a region of Moldova that proclaimed its independence in 1992 amid the separation of the USSR but has no international recognition.
Three days later, several explosions occurred at the Transnistria State Security headquarters, caused, according to the Ministry of the Interior, by grenade launchers. The following day, two explosions damaged the antennas of a radio center in Maiac.
Transnistria President Vadim Krasnoselsky claimed that his investigations into these attacks led to Ukraine and called on Kyiv to investigate the “illegal movement of Ukrainian fighters on the territory of Transnistria”. Ukraine rejected Krasnoselsky’s insinuations and spoke of a “false flag” attack, while Moldovan President Maia Sandu said this was “an attempt to increase tensions” and blamed “internal differences between various groups in Transnistria who have an interest in destabilizing the situation”.
Moldova, born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and independent since 27 August 1991, lost control of the Transnistria region the following year after a brief armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists. Transnistria has a population of around 470,000 people, with Russians and Ukrainians combined outnumbering ethnic Moldovans.
Since its de facto independence, although it has not even been recognized by Russia, Transnistria has had a presidentialist regime that continues to make extensive use of all Soviet symbology. The territory is completely dependent on Russia, which keeps more than 1,500 men deployed as a “peacekeeping force” to protect Russian citizens and prevent clashes between Moldovans and Transnistrians.
On March 15, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe designated this secessionist region of Moldova as “Russian-occupied territory” as opposed to the previous designation, territory “under the effective control of the Russian Federation”. The resolution leaves no room for doubt: “By their attitude and actions, the leadership of the Russian Federation poses an open threat to security in Europe, following a path that also includes the act of military aggression against Moldova and, respectively, the occupation of its region of Transnistria”.
The change of designation is not a mere formality and has led to Russia’s suspension from the Council of Europe, of which it has been a member since 1996. Rather than be expelled, Russia preferred to leave the Council.
The resolution, which was tabled by a majority of Romanian MPs (Moldova was part of Romania in the inter-war period and its inhabitants speak Romanian) is also a show of support for the pro-Western Moldovan government. Indeed, the opposition, the openly pro-Russian socialist and communist bloc, condemned the resolution’s “haste, sentimentality and lack of insight”. At the Victory Day celebrations on May 9, socialists and communists demonstrated carrying Soviet flags and symbols banned since April by the Moldovan parliament, such as the St. George ribbon.
Moldova has a small army of 6,000 men and a much larger number of poorly trained reservists, compared to similar separatist forces backed by Moscow. Therefore, if Ukraine falls, Moldova would find itself in a situation where it would be difficult to defend itself. Moldova is not a NATO member and has maintained a policy of neutrality enshrined in its constitution. Following a bilateral meeting in March with a US delegation in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that if Moldova were attacked, the US favors an international response, isolating Russia and damaging its economy.
“Whenever and wherever that aggression appears, we will do the same.” A response that, given what has happened in Ukraine, does nothing to stop an invader. The same goes for the EU. Moldova has applied for membership but the road is long and winding. On May 4 the EU offered financial support for Moldova, overwhelmed by the influx of Ukrainian refugees, and non-lethal equipment for its army. Again, this does not seem to be enough.
However, Moldova has another possible way forward, a union with NATO and EU member Romania. Moldova was seized from the Ottomans by Russia in 1812 and designated as Bessarabia, but its western part joined Romania in 1878. After the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the Chisinau Assembly voted to become part of Romania. Under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the USSR again took over the territory that after World War II would become the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The Moldovan unionist movement, which has grown in recent years and is linked to more pro-Western currents, promoted in 2018 the ‘symbolic union’ of different municipalities with Romania. The then-president, the pro-Russian Igor Dodon, said: ‘Union means civil war’. According to an iData poll, as many as 44 per cent of Moldovans would support unification, while in Romania supporters reach 74 percent. A quarter of Moldovans have dual Moldovan-Romanian citizenship.
One of the advocates of this union is Senator Claudiu Târziu, president of the National Council of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) party. In his opinion, Russia is responsible for all this instability: “For thirty years, international law has been blatantly violated in this narrow separatist strip, which falsely claims to be ‘independent’ and ‘autonomous’. In 1992, separatist troops, with direct support from Moscow, attempted de jure secession.”
“Neither the armistice concluded in July 1992 – Romania was not accepted in the negotiated format – nor subsequent developments were satisfactory. Not only has Chisinau completely lost control, but the separatist authorities in Tiraspol consider it hostile. The fear of war is as great today as it was three decades ago. All these incidents and challenges in recent days seem to indicate that Moscow is trying to open a second front. What happens in Tiraspol will be reflected in Chisinau. Romania has no right to remain indifferent. The fate of Chisinau is the fate of the Romanian people,” he added.
Since the April incidents, the region has been living in a tense calm with no new incidents, although last Thursday the Transnistrian government reported two attempted Molotov cocktail attacks on an oil depot and a recruitment center in the capital, Tiraspol. The Russian offensive on the Donbas is advancing slowly in the face of fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, who have also moved to counter-attack around Kharkov. Control of southern Ukraine, which would bring Russian troops to the Transnistrian border, therefore seems a long way off.
In that event, Moldova could be faced with the difficult choice of either opting for “unification” with Romania, which would certainly provoke an extreme reaction and leave it exposed to “denazification” by Russia and its separatist allies.
Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.