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In February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine unearthed a forgotten conflict at the doorstep of the European Union (EU). Tensions have thus resurged between Moldova and Transnistria, the eastern strip of the national territory. Moldova has been prey to games of influence for three decades, now amplified by high suspicion and the energy crisis in Eastern Europe.
Amidst the fall of the Soviet Union, a large part of the population living in Transnistria, predominantly Slav, refused to be part of the Moldovan state. The separatist sentiment among Slavs grew from the fear of being discriminated against if Moldova was to turn to Romania and the rest of Europe. The separatists took arms to take their independence, encouraged by Russia.
In July 1992, Russia and Moldova signed a ceasefire to end the conflict. The Russian troops, located in Transnistria, were divided in two. One part joined the trilateral peacekeeping force alongside Moldovan and Transnistrian troops operating in a demilitarized zone at the Moldova-Ukraine border. The other part remained to guard an old Soviet ammunition depot in Cobasna.
After this ceasefire, Transnistria’s independence was not recognized by any United Nations member state, not even Russia. Analysts explain that Russia does not recognize Transnistria to keep an influence over Moldovan politics and not precipitate a potential unification of Moldova and Romania.
Eventually, the region fell into limbo, living off of Russian financial support and smuggling in a pro-Western country. Yet, the war in Ukraine has disrupted the status quo established in the last three decades.
A Pro-Russian Territory in a Pro-European Country
For years now, the separatist territory of Transnistria has been taking steps to become closer to Russia. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Transnistrian parliament sent a letter to the Russian parliament requesting the facilitation of their annexation. Although the proposal received support in Russia, the letter went unheeded. The Romanian President Basescu, supported by the Moldovan President Timofti, immediately called on the EU to accelerate Moldova’s accession process to preserve the security and stability of the country. Shortly after, the EU passed a resolution stating that Moldova was welcome to apply for EU membership in compliance with the principles of democracy and respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights.
Shortly after the 2022 large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarusian President Lukashenko appeared to show Russian plans to take control of Transnistria. The Russian war against Ukraine also reignited the 2014 tensions over the Transnistrian annexation. Fearing an attempt of destabilization from Transnistria or Russia, Moldova sought to get closer to its Western allies.
Although the EU-Moldova cooperation focused on “political association and economic integration,” the Russian war against Ukraine has significantly strengthened the partnership. In March 2022, Moldova submitted its application for EU membership and was granted the EU candidate status in June 2022. In addition, Moldova requested the help of NATO to strengthen its defence capabilities. The country also received various forms of assistance from the EU in humanitarian aid, border management, and the fight against hybrid threats.
Economic Crisis and Gas Blackmail To Favour Reintegration
For years, Moldova has been one of the poorest countries in Europe. The ongoing war in neighbouring Ukraine continues to push Moldova further into economic and energy crises. In October 2022, the Russian company Gazprom reduced 30% of its gas deliveries to Moldova and Transnistria. This decision deeply impacted numerous businesses in the separatist region as its economy heavily depended on the industry fueled by cheap Gazprom gas.
Meanwhile, Ukraine stopped its electricity exports to Moldova because of the mass bombing campaign against its energy infrastructures. This autumnal energy crisis resulted in protests in Chisinau, fueled by the pro-Russian party, asking the government to negotiate with Russia on the matter.
The Russian invasion also halted Transnistrian commercial operations through Ukraine — another lucrative economic sector. This gateway to the Black Sea through the Odesa port was important to avoid the Moldovan customs on the trade of cigarettes and alcohol. Shortly after the Russian attack, Ukraine decided to close its border checkpoints. Hence, the exports went through the national customs, enabling the Moldovan government to control commercial flows and strengthen trade cooperation with the separatist region.
In October 2023, Moldova announced that it was diversifying its gas sources, reducing its dependence on Russian energy. Transnistria still receives gas from Gazprom; however, the contract expires in 2024, which may compel the region to renegotiate with the Moldovan government for a new energy supply agreement. Although the Russian war against Ukraine has pushed Moldova, including Transnistria, further into economic and energy crises, it also increased Transnistria’s commercial dependence on Moldova. In the long run, it could suggest the economic reintegration of Transnistria into the country.
The Dangerous Game of Passing the Buck
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Moldova and Transnistria have unwittingly found themselves in the middle of conflict. A series of incidents took place in Transnistria from April to June 2022, which were considered false-flag operations by several observers. These operations allegedly aimed at pulling Moldova into the conflict while pinning the responsibility on Ukraine, Moldova, Transnistria, or the Russian Federation.
In February 2023, the Moldovan government accused Russia of staging a coup d’etat after receiving Ukrainian intelligence regarding alleged action plans to destabilize the country. Once again, the Moldovan Prime Minister called for demilitarizing Transnistria and sanctions against Moldovan oligarchs. Meanwhile, Russia claimed that Ukraine spread disinformation to fuel tensions and denounced an anti-Russia hysteria in Moldova.
In March 2023, it was Transnistria’s turn to blame Ukraine for a failed attempt on the life of Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselski. Ukraine passed the buck, claiming Russia is behind these provocations to sour the relations between Transnistria, Ukraine, and Moldova. In April 2023, the Moldovan government was alarmed by alleged unauthorized movements of Russian troops from the trilateral peacebuilding force at the Transnistria-Ukraine border. Once again, Moldova called for the expulsion of the Russian troops from the Transnistrian territory.
The accusations of disinformation undermine social cohesion within the Moldovan society and contribute to uneased diplomatic relations within the broader region in a climate of high suspicion. This series of false-flag operations and incidents caused tensions in the relations between the parties. It pushes the Moldovan government to the limit of its ability to avoid becoming involved in the war of Russia against Ukraine.
The Transnistrian Ticking Bomb or Resolution?
Many scenarios come to mind when looking at the future of Moldova and Transnistria. Considering the information leak from Belarus on an alleged takeover of Transnistria by Russia, the possibility of a Russian attack is worth examining.
The Russian and Transnistrian military capacity stationed in Transnistria is too limited to succeed in any attempt to attack Moldova. To avoid any confrontation, Russia has conducted unconventional operations to influence the country since the beginning of the war against Ukraine. The Moldovan government was subjected to several denial-of-service attempts on its official websites and phishing campaigns on officials’ accounts, credited to Russia. Moldova is also regularly the target of disinformation operations, demonizing the EU.
Ukraine already offered to intervene in Transnistria, which would enable the country to bail its arsenal out and acquire prisoners for negotiations with Russia. Yet, the proposal remains conditional on the consent of Moldova, which still favours peaceful means.
Russia will likely continue to put pressure on the Moldovan government by fueling popular discontent towards the economic, social, and energy crises. Yet, its poor performance against Ukraine has devalued its coercive power over Transnistria. The region will likely choose to reinforce its ties with the Moldovan government for economic reasons, as Russia falls short in resources to increase its influence there.
More than ever, the Russian war against Ukraine has strained the relations between Moldova and Transnistria. Yet, the territorial conflict has never known so many opportunities for closure — including military and economic ones — over the last 30 years of mediation attempts. This case also shows the limits of Russia’s ability to exert influence abroad. While the outcome remains uncertain, it will set a precedent for other secessionist pro-Russian regions.
Edited by Gabrielle Andrychuk