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Embroiling Transnistria in the Russia-Ukraine War

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Is Transnistria pro-Russia? What are Russia’s intentions in involving the region in the ongoing conflict?

Is Transnistria pro-Russia? What are Russia’s intentions in involving the region in the ongoing conflict?

The story so far: As the Russia-Ukraine War completes over two months, Transnistria, the tiny breakaway region of Moldova, risks being dragged into the conflict.

Where is Transnistria?

The de facto state lies between Moldova to its west and Ukraine towards its east. Often described as a “remnant of the Soviet Union”, Transnistria declared independence like Moldova did soon after the break-up of the Soviet Union. When Moldovan troops attempted to take over the territory in 1990-1992, Transnistria was able to resist them because of Russian soldiers based in Transnistria. Since then, it has remained free of Moldovan control. However, most countries continue to see Transnistria as part of Moldova.

What is the political make-up of Transnistria?

Transnistria is not recognised as independent even by Russia and its economy is dependent on Russia for subsidies and free gas. Most Transnistrians have dual citizenship of Russia and Transnistria or triple citizenship of Moldova, Transnistria, and Russia. Unlike the rest of Moldova, which speaks Romanian, the majority of people in Transnistria speak Russian and use the cyrillic script like Russians. It has its own government (which is pro-Russian), Parliament, armed force, constitution, flag, anthem, etc. In a referendum held in 2006, over 97% of Transnistrians voted for future integration with Russia and after the annexation of Crimea, the government asked if it could to be absorbed into Russia. Russia, however, was not keen on this. But Transnistria is host to over 1,500 Russian “peacekeepers” and is home to a large Russian ammunition depot at Cobasna.

Why is it in the news now?

Transnistria risks being drawn into the Russia-Ukraine war because of reports of a series of explosions in its territory. First, there was an attack by men using rocket propelled grenades on its security headquarters, followed by an attack on a radio centre which broadcasts Russian news. There were also reports that a village which is host to one of the largest ammunition depots in Europe was hit by shots. No one has taken responsibility for these attacks in which there were no deaths. However, Ukrainian officials termed them as a deliberate provocation by Russia to intervene in Transnistria and Moldova while Russian officials blamed Ukraine for the attacks. After the explosions, Transnistria’s President Vadim Krasnoselsky called for a 15-day red alert, with anti-terrorist security measures put in place. Men of fighting age have been banned from leaving its territory. This is being read as a sign that Transnistria will be drawn into the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

There are fears in the West and in Ukraine that Transnistria could be used as a staging ground in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and that Russia might use Transnistria to cut off the southwestern corner of Ukraine, leading to direct Russian intervention inside Moldova.

These fears were compounded by a Russian General, Rustam Minnekayev, asserting that Russian speaking people in Transnistria and Moldova are being oppressed, reminding observers ominously of Russia justifying its invasion of Ukraine by claiming to be acting on behalf of Russian speakers in the Donbass region oppressed by Ukraine. Added to this was his statement that Moscow intends to take over southern Ukraine, including the port city of Odesa, which would allow it access to Transnistria. This would create a land-bridge for Russia from southern Ukraine all the way to Transnistria.

Clearly, Transnistria’s strategic location is important to the next phase of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The region is not too distant from the Black Sea port of Odesa and also shares a relatively long border with Ukraine. If Transnistria comes under Russian control, it will enable Russia to create a Russian-controlled corridor along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. If Russia succeeds in linking Odesa with Transnistria, the rest of Ukraine would become completely landlocked and the country would naturally be weakened. Moldova, on its part, fears that Russia will use Transnistria to launch an attack on it as Russia has long wanted Moldova to be in its sphere of influence.

What lies ahead?

There is little Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, can do in this situation. It is constitutionally neutral and has a very small military force. It is not a member of NATO. So, there is little chance of NATO coming to its rescue, particularly since NATO cannot give membership to countries which have border disputes with other countries.

Similarly, it is not a member of the European Union though it is pro-Europe. In March this year, Moldova had signed an official request to join the EU. However, this will take time and the country right now cannot comply with the EU’s conditions for membership.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on what Russia intends to do next in Transnistria as part of its war with Ukraine, which has already dragged on longer than expected.

Uma Purushothaman is Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) at the Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala

THE GIST

Transnistria risks being drawn into the Russia-Ukraine war because of reports of a series of explosions in its territory.

Transnistria’s strategic location is important to the next phase of Russia’s war on Ukraine. If Transnistria comes under Russian control, it will enable Russia to create a Russian-controlled corridor along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. If Russia succeeds in linking the Black Sea port of Odesa with Transnistria, the rest of Ukraine would become completely landlocked.

Transnistria is not recognised as independent even by Russia. Most Transnistrians have dual citizenship of Russia and Transnistria or triple citizenship of Moldova, Transnistria, and Russia.



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