The Situation of Transnistria in Moldovan Geopolitics

MDN Editör

Moldova gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but immediately became embroiled in a low-intensity conflict over Transnistria and its separatist forces backed by Russia. More recently, the Transnistrian region has once again been in the spotlight, with its leadership seeking protection from Moscow. 

In early March 1992, just two months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the small former Soviet Republic of Transnistria, located on Moldova’s border with Ukraine, was recognized as a region of Moldova, but the political structure governing the region claimed to have seceded from Moldova after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region has political and economic interests as part of a larger group of ethnic enclaves that, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are largely dependent on Russia for their political survival.

Russian troops have been present in Transnistria for nearly 25 years. The reason for this is the conflict between Moldova and Russian-backed Transnistrian forces that lasted until 1992. As a result of a ceasefire that year, Russia established peacekeeping forces consisting of troops from Transnistria and Moldova. Russia continues to maintain around 1,500-2,000 forces in Transnistria today, far more than the number agreed in the ceasefire. As a result, the Moldovan government and NATO have repeatedly called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces.

Recently, in fact just one day before Putin’s State of the Nation address, the region requested protection in Moscow. 

In July 2020, a pro-European, reformist president, Maia Sandu, and Prime Minister Gavrilita took office. Seeing Russia as the source of the country’s economic and political problems, the government started to move away from Moscow as a solution. Since coming to power in 2020, Moldova’s pro-Western president Maia Sandu has been trying to crack down on illegal economic activities in Transnistria. However, the decline in Transnistria’s role as a smuggling and money laundering hub was not the result of Sandu’s policies, but rather due to the Russia-Ukraine War that started in 2022. The Kiev government closed the country’s border with Transnistria to prevent any acts of sabotage or aggression by the Russian military against the region, which is only 70 kilometers from the port city of Odessa, which naturally led to a significant reduction in smuggling.

At the end of 2023, the European Union decided to open accession negotiations with Moldova.

The Strategy of Transnistria and the “Russian World”

Historically part of the territory of Romania, it was later known as Moldova. It was taken from the Ottoman Empire by Russia in the early 19th century as part of Moscow’s expansion into the Balkans. After the First World War, it was ceded to Romania. It was then annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and again occupied by German-allied Romania before falling to the advancing Red Army in 1944. Since the beginning of his war with Ukraine in 2014, Putin has utilized the symbolism of the Red Army’s victory over Nazism to advance his agenda of asserting Russian influence in the region. 

In Transnistria, Russia is playing a similar role, acting as a protector of Russian-speaking and so-called oppressed groups and a supporter of separatist states such as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Transnistria is a pro-Russian separatist region in eastern Moldova, with a population of approximately 470,000. It declared its independence from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova in 1990, a move that was not recognized internationally. Since 2006, Transnistria has been seeking annexation to Russia. In 2006, it held a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, and in 2006, it held a referendum on reunification with Moldova, which it rejected.

In late February, the Transnistrian regional government adopted a resolution in which it condemned Moldova for its “economic and political blockade” of the region. Tensions then escalated further when the Transnistrian regional government called on Russia, the UN, the OSCE, and the EU to intervene and protect the rights of its own people, comprising some 460,000 Russians and Ukrainians and a significant ethnic Moldovan minority. 

There is an effort to liken the region to Ukraine. In his November 2023 speech on the “Russian World,” Putin referred to individuals residing in the former Soviet Union who feel a “spiritual connection” to the motherland, consider themselves indigenous, are Russian speakers, and bearers of Russian history and culture, regardless of their national affiliation. This also indicates that Russia will continue its annexation of various countries, despite the illegality of such actions within the international system.  It is not uncommon for politicians in Transnistria, the Kremlin-backed breakaway region of Moldova, to seek protection from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, politicians in the region have been requesting that Moscow integrate Transnistria into Russia for some time. 

It is estimated that more than 220,000 Russian citizens reside in the region. For some time, Moscow has pursued a policy of facilitating the acquisition of Russian citizenship. In a recent statement, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reassured the public that Russia would not abandon its citizens residing in the region.

Transnistria, located on Moldova’s border with Ukraine and populated by Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans, has been considered an unrecognized state in the international system since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2006, an internationally unrecognized referendum on “Transnistria’s accession to the Russian Federation” was held, officially supported by 98 percent of Transnistrian voters, but without any concrete results. Another referendum was held in February 2024.

On December 18, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted a decree that facilitates the naturalization of citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova. The decree stipulates that individuals from the aforementioned countries are exempt from the requirement of demonstrating a minimum of five years’ residence in Russia subsequent to the acquisition of a residence permit. Additionally, they are exempt from citizenship examinations, such as knowledge of Russian history and statehood. In this context, it has been asserted that approximately 200,000 Russian passports have been distributed in the region. 

The central government has consistently denied allegations of repression in the region. The argument is that Russia is using its activities in the breakaway region as a means of destabilizing the situation in the country.

 Transnistria has developed its own armed forces, public services, and pension schemes. Russia’s utilization of groups in these former Soviet states enables it to maintain its influence and prevent the region from gravitating towards the West. Moreover, the region houses Europe’s largest ammunition depot, which contains Soviet-era ammunition and equipment. 

The Effects of the Ukrainian War on the Region and Moldova’s Economy

The Moldovan government, which has traditionally been aligned with the West, has demonstrated its support for Kyiv since the Russian invasion. In fact, it has made a formal request to join the European Union just a week after Russian troops entered Ukraine

Since the invasion of Ukraine, relations between Moldova and Russia have deteriorated rapidly. Moldova’s pro-European government has condemned Russia’s actions and sided with the West, maintaining its firm support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia’s actions have the potential to create a new area of tension in the region. It has sought to destabilize Moldova by raising gasoline and gas prices, banning agricultural imports, sponsoring protests, and even allegedly planning a coup. 

The Ukrainian crisis has resulted in a division of opinion among the Transnistrian population, with two distinct camps emerging: those who advocate for an intensification of the conflict and even a formal alliance with Russia in its conflict with Ukraine, and those who seek to avoid direct involvement in the war, citing concerns about the potential for devastation. 

In response, the Moldovan President, who had attended the Davos Summit in 2023, requested that the Western allies reinforce Moldovan air defenses, citing the situation in Ukraine. 

Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, 99% of Moldova’s energy needs were met through a Kremlin-controlled pipeline. In just two years, Moldova has largely ceased purchasing Russian natural gas, continues to criticize Russia’s expansionist policies, and is on track to become a full member of the EU. Nevertheless, Russia continues to supply energy to the Transnistrian region and does not charge for it. 

Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe in terms of GDP, is also struggling with high inflation. Given that Moldova has the second highest inflation rate in Europe, it depends heavily on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure for a significant portion of its electricity. Furthermore, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has resulted in power outages in Moldova. Russia also exerts influence by influencing Moldova’s domestic and foreign policy, including matters pertaining to Transnistria and relations with the EU. 

Moldova is pursuing a strategy of diversifying its energy imports with the objective of reducing its dependence on Russia. It is developing energy cooperation with its neighbors Romania and Ukraine, while simultaneously utilizing EU and US experts to enhance national capacity and standards for participation in the European gas market. 

European leaders are demonstrating their support for pro-European leadership in Chisinau, taking action to mitigate the impact of Moscow’s economic pressure on Moldova. In mid-2023, the EU issued an arrangement providing for the temporary liberalization of trade in Moldovan agricultural products. This decision is also significant as it replaces Russia as the largest market for Moldova’s award-winning wines, one of its most valuable export products.

European Political Community

The primary objective of French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2022 proposal to establish a more extensive political community of democratic states is to facilitate dialogue between countries on the European continent. This is of particular significance for countries such as Moldova and Ukraine, which are striving to extricate themselves from Moscow’s sway. Belarus is deliberately excluded. 

The recent and rapid deterioration of relations with Russia is also causing discontent among the Gagauz, a Turkic but heavily Russified minority living mainly in the south of Moldova. The repercussions of Russia’s efforts to destabilize Moldova are being keenly felt in Gagauzia. The region’s already limited economic resources are being further constrained by rising inflation and energy costs. In the summer of 2022, the drought that devastated the majority of the region’s crops and Russia’s temporary ban on importing Moldovan agricultural products further exacerbated the situation.

Demonstrating the tangible benefits of closer relations with the European Union would encourage Moldova to fulfill the European Commission’s nine criteria for opening accession negotiations, thereby mitigating the potential domestic objections to reforms. The achievement of unanimity among member states is necessary for the advancement of Moldova’s accession. This requires a high level of confidence among member states regarding their capacity to successfully integrate the country and the stability of Moldova against Russian influence operations. Given that Brussels is likely to be preoccupied with the European Parliament elections in 2024 and the subsequent election of the new European Commission and European Council presidents, it is of particular importance to advance key decisions on enlargement this year. 

It is anticipated that Moldova will be admitted as a member by 2030. For the Kremlin, the prospect of Moldova joining the EU is at least as unacceptable as Ukraine’s accession. The most significant aspect of Transnistria for Russia is the integration of the remainder of Moldova into the Russian sphere of influence.

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