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Is Russia planning to invade Moldova? Meduza turns to political scientist Dionis Cenusa for insight
On April 22, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the army's main task in the second stage of the “special military operation” in Ukraine would be to “establish complete control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine” — all the way to Transnistria, where “oppression of the Russian-speaking population has also been observed.” Three days later, Transnistria was hit by a series of explosions. The same day, the Ukrainian Armed Forces' General Staff announced that Russian troops stationed on Transnistrian territory had been put on full combat alert. To get a clearer picture of what’s happening in Transnistria, Meduza spoke with Dionis Cenusa, a visiting fellow at the Eastern Europe Studies Center in Lithuania.
On April 22, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the goal of the war’s next stage would be to gain control not only of the Donbas but of southern Ukraine, which would provide a clear path to Transnistria. Three days after the announcement, a series of explosions occurred in Transnistria. What’s going on? Who's responsible for the explosions, and why is Russia so interested in Transnistria?
The explosions were an attempt to destabilize the region, but it’s unclear who’s responsible for them. The interest seems to come from within the region, because Ukraine and Russia have been passing the blame back and forth.
What was happening in Transnistria in the days before the explosions and the Russian Defense Ministry’s statement? Were things tense? Has Russia been mobilizing its forces there?
There’s no clear data about any mobilization effort going on there. Ukrainian authorities, however, say otherwise. It’s vital that the Moldovan and Ukrainian intelligence services start communicating directly, because they don’t seem to be working together at the moment. When either side makes a public statement, it usually contradicts the other side.
What are the different possible scenarios?
It’s tough to predict what’s going to happen, but how the situation develops will depend on several factors. The first is what territorial advances Russia makes towards Odesa and how well Ukraine manages to resist. The second is whether Chișinău and Tiraspol [the capital of the unrecognized state of Transnistria] will be able to establish at least a marginally functional dialogue in order to prevent escalation. A lack of communication or a misunderstanding is a recipe for mistakes in the decision-making process. And the third is whether the international players manage not to lose sight of Moldova and the region around Transnistria.
If the Russian army invades Transnistria, will that officially be considered an attack on Moldova?
Moldova already views the Russian troops that have been deployed [in Transnistria] since the 1990s as “occupying forces.” So if new troops appear on Moldovan territory, including in Transnistria, there’s no doubt Moldova will see that as another instance of aggression and, consequently, as a new occupation attempt.
The conflict in Transnistria began in the late 1980s. As nationalist and pro-Romanian sentiment grew in the Moldovan SSR, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian SSR was proclaimed on part of its territory, with Tiraspol as the capital (initially unrecognized by both Chișinău and Moscow). After the USSR collapsed, the unrecognized state continued to exist as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (more commonly known as Transnistria).
In 1992, the conflict grew violent. The armed confrontation lasted several months, killing more than a thousand people. A truce was eventually brokered by Russia, after which Russian peacekeeping forces were brought into the region. Since then, the conflict has remained “frozen”; attempts made by either party to settle it have amounted to nothing. Transnistria is a de facto independent state, but not a single UN member state recognizes it.
What function do Russian troops serve on Transnistrian territory, and why have the UN and Moldova demanded their removal? Does the Transnistrian army itself have any military capability?
Russian troops are included both in the Operational Group of Russian Forces (or OGRF; it is responsible for guarding military warehouses as well as for maintaining the combat capability of the Transnistrian army) and in the Joint Control Commission, which also includes Moldovan and Transnistrian troops. While the Moldovan side has requested that Russians troops be withdrawn, the decision ultimately depends on Moscow’s political leadership. Russia doesn’t want to lose its influence in Moldova, so it has refused to remove its armed forces until a final solution is found that strengthens Russia’s position at the expense of Moldova's territorial integrity.
Can Russia seriously count on the ammunition depot and the airfield in the village of Kolbasna near Tiraspol for reinforcements?
The military stockpiles in Kolbasna are unstable because they’re old, and the airfield isn’t in good enough shape for Russia to rely on it for a full-scale operation. That doesn’t mean they can’t be used for smaller military operations if necessary.
What are the prospects for Transnistria if Russia invades? Is it true that most Transnistrians support Russia? Where does the support come from?
The population in the region leans pro-Russian and will likely fight alongside Russia. Disinformation and Soviet and Russian propaganda, applied over the course of three decades, have left a deep impression on people’s collective consciousness.
How are the sanctions against Russia affecting Transnistria?
The sanctions are affecting Russian companies and citizens who are economically active in the region or who work there because they fall under the sanctions’ purview. Moldova hasn’t joined the sanctions, but its banks and regulators continue to observe them in order to avoid “secondary sanctions.”
People sometimes make a comparison between the unrecognized “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine and Transnistria. How are they similar and how are they different?
The Transnistrian region has managed to create a semblance of a state but hasn’t received international recognition and is unable to survive without subsidies from Russia and various under shady arrangements. In the last few years, it’s even managed to integrate part of its economy in the European market, but only by acting as part of Moldova. The region has a certain degree of autonomy from Moscow, which can’t be said about the LNR or the DNR. That’s why the region has demonstrated a certain level of neutrality with regard to Ukraine, which it depends on, in contrast to the LNR and the DNR, which are fighting on Moscow’s side and have been directly controlled by Moscow since 2014.
What has the relationship between Russia and Moldova looked like in the last few years? How has the relationship between Moldova and Transnistria changed since Moldova’s pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, was replaced by Maia Sandu, who supports Europe?
Relations between Moldova and Russia have been complicated because their strategic interests are radically different, as are their geopolitical orientations. Moldova’s ruling party [Action and Solidarity] and President Sandu aren’t necessarily anti-Russian, but Russia’s foreign policy towards Moldova can largely be viewed as an effort to use Moldova and create a favorable political space for pro-Russian forces, rather than to solve existing problems. Moldovan society is polarized, and its fragmentation is closely linked to geopolitical factors. Russia knows this and uses it in its own strategic interests in the country, going against the pro-European agenda of the ruling party and other like-minded actors.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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