When Russia recognised the ‘People’s Republics’ in Donetsk in February 2022 and its invasion initially advanced rapidly westward along Ukraine’s southern coast in the direction of Odesa, this sparked not only strong emotions in right-bank Moldova but also in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. Speculation ran rife that Russia might try to connect its ‘land bridge’ from Crimea to Transnistria and use its longstanding military presence there to occupy and annex parts of Ukraine. These speculations were initially prompted by westward arrows on a Russian military map shown by the Belarusian ruler Lukashenka but further fanned by statements to this effect by the Russian general Minnekayev in April.
This served as a reminder that one of Europe’s longest protracted conflicts is by no means entirely ‘frozen’, that there are still Russian troops stationed on Moldova’s territory and that Transnistria poses a security risk to both Moldova and Ukraine. But when Russia’s troops were pushed back from Mikolayiv to Kherson and a Ukrainian official even openly began to speculate that Ukraine might help Moldova take back Transnistria, the mood in Transnistria began to shift. While some factions continued to staunchly support Moscow, others quietly began adjusting their calculations. This was further affected by both Moldova’s and Ukraine’s successful bids for EU candidacy status, which means Transnistria is now wedged between two EU candidate countries. The war between two of the official mediators in the conflict-settlement process known as the ‘5+2’ also effectively put an end to that process, although nobody has yet formulated an alternative.
This section briefly explores Russia’s leverage over Transnistria, the response of the different factions to the war in Ukraine and to Moldova’s EU candidacy status, and the prospects for the conflict-settlement process.
Although some of its roots are local, including some identity-related aspects as described in Chapter 2, the Transnistrian conflict cannot be seen separately from Moscow’s overall and long-term objective to retain control over Moldova. The small strip of land east of the Nistru was declared the ‘Moldovan Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic’ (MASSR) within Ukraine by Stalin in 1924 in response to Romania’s annexation of Bessarabia and served as a political and military ‘bridgehead’ to eventually regain control over what would then become the Moldovan Socialist Soviet Republic.
When Moldova’s leaders from 1989 to 1991 pursued a staunchly pro-Romanian course prior to and shortly after Moldova’s independence, pro-Moscow elites in Transnistria in turn declared their own independence as the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ (PMR). This sparked a relatively short but nonetheless bloody conflict in which Transnistrian militia worked closely with the Soviet and later Russian military to defeat Moldova’s limited armed forces and retain control over most of left-bank Moldova and the city of Bender on the right bank of the Nistru. The conflict ended in 1992 with a stalemate overseen by Russian ‘peacekeepers’ and a very slow conflict-settlement process under the auspices of the OSCE. Since then, Russia has held Transnistria in a firm grip and provided it with political, economic and military support, to the extent that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) twice deemed that the Russian Federation exercised effective control over the Transnistrian administration. While strong, Russia’s control over the Transnistrian leadership and population is by no means limitless and has a security, political, economic and cultural dimension. Each will be discussed in turn.
The most visible but often overstated element of Russian leverage is through the presence of its military and security services. In addition to the approximately 800 Russian peacekeepers that are stationed in Transnistria as part of the 1992 ceasefire agreement, Russia also has reformatted the 14th Army into an ‘Operational Group of Russian Forces’ (OGRF) of approximately 1,500 soldiers and several hundred support personnel that guard the enormous depot of decommissioned Soviet-era arms and ammunition in Colbasna. However, it would be incorrect to see these troops as wholly ‘Russian’: only very few come directly from the Russian Federation, while an estimated 90% of these soldiers are residents of Transnistria who hold Russian passports. In fact, the same soldiers often rotate from the Transnistrian security forces (‘PMR militia’) into the OGRF, then into the peacekeeping contingent where salaries are higher, and finally back into the PMR militia.
Both Russia’s military and the Transnistrian militia are only lightly armed and certainly not trained or equipped to mount an offensive against neighbouring Ukraine. Russia also has no good way to reinforce them, neither over land nor through the air. Some argue Russia saw them as a potential occupying force in case of a successful operation against the Odesa oblast and a way to pin down Ukrainian forces in the west of the country, but most analysts agree their practical use as invading force is very low. Estimates of Transnistria’s security forces vary; most put them around 3,000 troops, while the authorities could in theory mobilise 15,000-20,000 more. It remains doubtful how many of these would actually fight; many young men would rather flee to right-bank Moldova than participate in a war against the much better armed and combat-ready Ukrainian forces. In fact, the statement by Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s presidential administration who boasted that Ukraine could take over Transnistria at the snap of a finger if Moldova asked for it, reverberated throughout both left- and right-bank Moldova. After it became apparent that Russia’s troops were not able to make it to Odesa, Transnistria has instead tried to avoid being dragged into the conflict and is uneasily waiting to see what happens on the battlefield. A few shady security incidents initially raised concerns but were quickly defused.
Russia’s second lever over Transnistria is more political in nature, as its main patron and as its advocate for a special status within Moldova. While officially a mediator within the 5+2 process, Russia in practice positions itself as the main defender of Transnistria’s interests both vis-à-vis Chișinău and on the international political stage. This support is by no means unconditional and occasionally frustrating for Tiraspol, which has repeatedly but unsuccessfully appealed to Russia to recognise its independence and even to eventually integrate with the Russian Federation. Despite its recognition of no less than four other breakaway territories in Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow still maintains, for a variety of reasons, that Transnistria is and should remain part of the Republic of Moldova. Despite its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, its role as a 5+2 mediator and its grip over the Transnistrian de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its chief negotiator Ignatieff, Russia is unlikely to be able to ultimately block Transnistria’s reintegration with Moldova by political means alone.
Russia’s third, still potent but gradually reducing, influence is its key role in Transnistria’s economy through its direct and indirect subsidies. The primary source of leverage is, once again, natural gas, which Russia provides to Transnistria virtually free of charge. Transnistria uses this cheap gas to run its heavy and otherwise possibly uncompetitive industry such as the MMZ metallurgical plant in Rîbnița, to generate electricity that is used for cryptocurrency mining and, most importantly, to export to right-bank Moldova. Many of these schemes are also highly profitable for Russian businessmen – and used to be profitable for Moldovan and Ukrainian actors as well. In addition, Russia provides direct financial support to Tiraspol as ‘humanitarian aid’ and finances its law enforcement agencies and security forces. Without Russia’s support, Transnistria’s ‘aided economy’ would most likely collapse – and the de facto authorities would struggle to balance their budget.
That said, Russia’s role as trading partner for Transnistria is gradually receding. Over time, but in particular after the signing of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU in 2014, Transnistria has reoriented its exports towards the European Union (see Figure 6). After Ukraine fully closed the border with Transnistria and the region lost access to the crucial port of Odesa, more and more economic activity will need to be oriented westwards.
Source: European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM), “annual report 2021”, p. 16.
Finally, Russia holds a certain ‘soft power’ sway over Transnistria and its population through cultural, educational and historical links, as well as the prevalence of Russian media and the fact that most PMR residents hold Russian passports. Most Transnistrians study in Russian-accredited educational institutions that include entire chunks of Russia’s educational curriculum. For decades, young graduates of Transnistrian schools and universities struggled to find places to work and study in Moldova or western Europe, not least due to the lack of official recognition of their diplomas. While some of these obstacles have been partially addressed, for many, Russia remains the ‘default option’, as it allows Transnistrians to work and study freely; Russian universities have cooperation agreements with the Transnistrian ‘State University’ in Tiraspol, recognise Transnistrian high school diplomas and provide subsidised places for Transnistrian students. The two education systems have diverged further since Moldova adapted its higher education system to the European ‘Bologna process’ in 2005, while Transnistria operates according to Russian educational standards. The ‘soft power’ – and particularly its grip over Transnistria’s education system – gives Russia a long-term and sometimes underestimated influence over the Transnistrian population. This influence is partially countered by the EU’s visa liberalisation process which since 2014 allows Transnistrian residents, many of whom hold a Moldovan passport, to travel to the EU.
Despite Russia’s considerable leverage as described above, it is an often-held misunderstanding that Transnistria is entirely monolithic and subservient to Moscow. Despite a lack of genuinely democratic institutions, it nonetheless has its own internal political dynamics and various elites that each lobby Moscow and, increasingly, Brussels to advance their own political and business interests. Its first ‘president’, strongman Igor Smirnov, increasingly got into conflicts with the powerful ‘Sheriff’ business empire founded by shady entrepreneurs Viktor Guşan and Ilya Kazmali. Smirnov eventually incurred the ire of both Moscow and Sheriff and was ousted in 2011 by Rîbnița lawyer Evghenii Shevchuk, who unsuccessfully tried to develop his own power base. It was not until 2016 that Guşan and Kazmali fully consolidated control over the breakaway republic’s political life, with the election of Vadim Krasnoselsky as third ‘president’ and the Sheriff-backed ‘Renewal’ party fully in control over the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet (Parliament).
In the absence of any meaningful opposition there are now effectively two factions who share power in Transnistria and who have different views on the breakaway republic’s future. Without doing justice to the complexity of the situation, they can be roughly described as the ‘security elite’ and the ‘business elite’. The security elite, represented by the de facto Minister of Foreign Affairs Ignatiev as well as the omnipresent Transnistrian security services and law enforcement agencies, has the closest and direct ties to the siloviki in the Kremlin and generally loyally implements orders from Moscow. They are in direct contact with Russia’s presence in Tiraspol, including the Federal Security Service (FSB). They responded to Moldova’s bid for EU candidacy status with a snub and a statement reiterating Transnistria’s independence. This faction was also hoping and perhaps even expecting that Russian troops would make it to Moldova’s borders.
The business elite, represented first and foremost by Sheriff, also has some degree of control over the security apparatus and relies on Russia’s support to Transnistria’s economy, in particular the cheap gas that powers their heavy industry. It nonetheless realises that due to the drastic changes in Ukraine, including the closure of the border and the situation in the port of Odesa, its former earning model of illicit trade is now severely curtailed, and without access to European markets many of its legitimate business ventures are doomed. The business community therefore cherishes the registration of Transnistrian businesses in right-bank Moldova that allow it to trade as part of the DCFTA – and even sees economic opportunities in Moldova’s further integration with the EU. This opens up possibilities to use the appeal of Moldova’s candidacy status and the eventual opening of accession negotiations to involve Transnistria and thereby lay the groundwork for future reintegration into Moldova, as will be further discussed in Chapter 5. However, this begs the question of how this process is related to the official OSCE-mediated conflict-settlement process known as the 5+2.
The official conflict-settlement process was already fraught with difficulties long before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. The process may appear doomed and ineffective at first sight, but it has not entirely come to a standstill. It takes place in two separate but linked formats. Negotiators from Chișinău and Tiraspol speak directly to one another in a format known as the ‘1+1’, which has a number of thematic working groups and subgroups facilitated by the OSCE Mission to Moldova. In addition, Tiraspol and Chișinău negotiate with one another in international talks with the OSCE, the Russian Federation and Ukraine as official mediators. In 2005 the European Union and the United States joined as observers, creating the current format known as the ‘5+2’. In the absence of a joint political vision of the eventual resolution of the Transnistrian conflict, the 5+2 focuses primarily on small and technical steps, confidence-building measures and improving the lives of the populations on both sides of the Nistru. Its main deliverable in recent years was the series of agreements known as the ‘Berlin-Plus package’ negotiated in 2016/2017 under the auspices of the German and Austrian chairmanships of the OSCE, although implementation has been painstakingly slow and talks are frequently suspended over substantive or symbolic issues.
Pretty much everyone agrees that in the current geopolitical environment the 5+2 has no chance of delivering meaningful results in the foreseeable future. Two of the mediators, Ukraine and Russia, are effectively at war with one another while the third mediator, the OSCE, is undergoing an existential crisis as it struggles with the broader question of Russia’s role within the organisation. But despite the widely held opinion that the format is ‘dead’, very few see any real alternative on the multilateral horizon.
In fact, none of the seven participants can be eliminated from the process without killing it altogether. Ukraine is an essential partner that should have a say in the final outcome for it to be effective and sustainable. Russia, while delegitimised through its war in Ukraine, is still the key political, economic and security actor in Transnistria – and has significant leverage over both Tiraspol and Chișinău as described above. In response to the security threat emanating from Russia, both Chișinău and Kyiv will continue to want the US involved, despite the occasionally lagging interest in Washington. And finally, in light of Moldova’s new EU candidacy status, the EU has both a greater stake in the resolution of the conflict and more leverage of its own. As a result, some suggest the EU could be ‘upgraded’ from observer to formal mediator – as it is in the Geneva International Discussions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While this would formally acknowledge the EU’s more substantive role, in practice it would make relatively little difference to the process itself. Finally, Moldova’s western neighbour Romania has long expressed an interest in joining the 5+2, but since Romania is already represented within the EU, an upgrade to 6+2 would be more beneficial to Bucharest than to the process itself – especially since Tiraspol would object. In fact, discussions on reformatting the 5+2 are likely to be counterproductive, leading those most involved to express a strong preference to ‘put it in the freezer’ and leave it alone for now.
With the 5+2 deadlocked, the main responsibility to solve both practical and political issues falls to the direct talks between the sides within the 1+1. They have repeatedly shown an ability to solve matters of joint concern in a transactional matter, including by making a deal on subsidised electricity from the MGRES in Kuchurgan to right-bank Moldova in exchange for Chișinău giving an environmental licence to the MMZ in Rîbnița. The problem is that such backroom deals are always at risk of involving shady business interests – and could undermine Moldova’s longer-term efforts to reform. The sides also have a preference to resolve mutually beneficial economic matters over humanitarian ones. This leads to issues such as the return of unaccompanied minors or regulations on adoption of children to fall by the wayside or become hostage to symbolic wrangling over status issues.
If practical issues are sometimes resolved, the overall political issue of future status is avoided. The government in Chișinău, fraught with crises and acutely aware that a compromise regarding Transnistria would be unpopular among its pro-Romanian constituency, is not engaging in any substantive discussions on the region’s future status within Moldova. Even within the ruling party PAS there are different factions that disagree with one another on whether or not a pragmatic or a principled approach should be followed. Like many Moldovans political leaders before her, President Sandu has not yet shown political leadership or articulated an actual vision for the end state of the conflict-settlement process, beyond its peaceful resolution and the withdrawal of Russian troops. In turn, Tiraspol is simply waiting to see how the war in Ukraine will play out before adjusting its strategy. As one well-informed observer noted, the Transnistrian issue will eventually have to be resolved before Moldova can join the European Union – and the time window in which it would have to be done is much shorter than that of Moldova’s EU accession. While both sides are in a wait-and-see mode, the EU could pressure Chișinău to take this time to articulate a vision and a suggestion for a process to resolve the conflict.