Why Russia is dragging the Moldovan region of Transnistria into war
Niamh Cavanagh and Laura Feldman – April 28, 2022
LONDON — Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister Nicu Popescu said in a Thursday briefing with journalists that the country is facing a “very dangerous new moment” after a series of explosions in the Ministry of State Security building in Transnistria on Monday. Since then, all of the country’s institutions have been on high alert, Popescu added.
On Tuesday, two explosions damaged Soviet-era radio masts in the village of Maiac. Before the attacks, a senior Kremlin commander said, according to Russian state media, that the Russian Armed Forces planned to “make passage” into southern Ukraine to reach the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova.
Where is Transnistria?
Transnistria is a 248-mile narrow strip of land in Moldova that borders Ukraine and has a population of 470,000. The region is more or less equally divided between Ukrainians, Russians and Moldovans, a former Moldovan ambassador to the U.S told the French outlet L’Illustré. Russians, however, occupy the “highest positions in the administration and form the military and economic elite,” the ambassador said. Transnistria has its own capital and uses its own currency; Russian is its official language. Cobasna, a village in the region, houses a former Soviet (now Russian) ammunition depot that is the largest in Eastern Europe. According to Moldova’s ambassador to the United Nations, the depot contains more than 20,000 metric tons of Russian ammunition.
What is the region’s relationship with Russia?
Although Transnistria is internationally recognized as part of Moldova, it has been controlled by pro-Russian separatist authorities since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Russian forces have been stationed there since 1992, after a ceasefire was signed between Moldova and Transnistria, following a short border war in which up to 700 people were killed.
The Kremlin props up Transnistria’s economy by supplying free gas to local industries and by paying the elderly the “Putin pension,” a total of $8 a month. In return, Russia keeps soldiers stationed there permanently, in what the Kremlin describes as “peacekeeping.” Russian state media, which is widely available in the region, has also played a significant role in bolstering pro-Russian sentiment.
In Moldova, as in other countries, Russia has used its energy supply to exploit dependencies and exert pressure on the country to adopt policies favorable to the Kremlin, Dorina Baltag, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, told Yahoo News. “Last year, in October 2021, the Moldovan government was forced to declare a state of emergency, after a gas contract with Russian gas enterprise Gazprom had expired, and a new contract offered by Gazprom included a threefold price increase, which the Moldovan government was not able to pay,” Baltag said. “The contract with Russia, a good deal which the Moldovan government managed to reach, exposes the Moldovans’ biggest vulnerability. So, for Moldova, energy security is most likely the main ingredient for national security.”
What has happened in Transnistria since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24?
According to L’Illustré, foreign journalists have been banned from the territory since Russia’s invasion began. Six weeks into the war, authorities in the region reported an attack on a military unit just hours after two radio masts were blown up. Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, blamed the attacks on the separatist groups and said her government would resist “attempts to drag Moldova into actions that may endanger peace within the country.” No injuries were reported, but separatist authorities raised the terrorist threat level in the region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of attempting to destabilize Moldova, sarcastically comparing the reasoning for the attacks to what the Kremlin has claimed to be the reason for invading Ukraine. “Allegedly there, in Moldova, the rights of Russian speakers are violated,” Zelensky said in an address to the nation last Friday. “Although, to be honest, the territory in which Russia should take care of the rights of Russian speakers is Russia itself: Where there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of choice. Where there is simply no right to dissent. Where poverty thrives and where human life is worthless.”
Is the war about to spread to Moldova?
Baltag said that Moldova’s vulnerability is Transnistria, and that the situation depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. “The war in Ukraine brings up two of the main challenges that Moldova has to deal with: the dependency of Russian gas, and the Transnistrian breakaway region, supported by the Russian Federation,” she said.