The Russian-Ukrainian War in the Context of the Transnistria Question

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The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine and the recent explosions in Transnistria, a de-facto administration, brought to mind the possibility that the crisis in Ukraine could spread. In order to evaluate this possibility, first of all, the Pidnestrovian Republic of Moldova (PMR), which is a narrow strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine, which is expressed as Transnistria, needs to be defined.

Located between Ukraine and Romania in terms of its geographical location, Moldova became a part of Romania until 1940, and from 1940 it was integrated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and continued its existence as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldova SSR) until the collapse of the USSR. While the Transnistria region came into existence as a part of Ukraine in 1924, it was included in the Moldovan SSR in 1940.  This situation maintained its current form until 1990, and in June 1990, the process took a different shape with the Moldovan government declaring itself as a sovereign state.  Accordingly, also the Transnistria region responded to the current situation by declaring its independence in September 1990, and Transnistria, which has a de facto administration, took a separatist attitude by establishing its political institutions within this framework.  Ultimately, this separatist attitude of the Transnistrian region, which has de facto independence but is not recognized by other countries and the United Nations (UN), has brought conflicts with it.

Although the roots of the conflicts between Moldova and Transnistria have deep traces, it can be stated that some policies implemented during the Cold War accelerated the emergence of the problem.  Accordingly, the rise of the nationalist wave in the last decade of the Cold War period also brought along a series of decisions by the Moldovan administration in this context.  However, in this period when the new cultural decisions of the Moldovan administration, whose purpose was to encourage its culture, were discussed, the existence of ideas of reunification with Romania, which is another discussion topic, disturbed certain segments of the society and triggered separatist desires.

The minor conflicts between the parties as of 1990 escalated in March 1992.  In this process, Moldovan troops struggling to take control of critical places, especially important bridges, failed.  Also, as a result of the Transnistrian troops pushing back the Moldovan troops behind the Dniester River, Moldova had to declare a ceasefire.  Here, it can be stated that the support of the 14th Army of Russia to the Transnistrian troops is an important factor.  As a result of the agreement signed between then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then-Moldova President Mircea Ion Snegur in July 1992, Moldovan administration had to accept Russia’s presence in Transnistria.  Accordingly, it was decided to establish a joint peacekeeping force consisting of the military units of Moldova, Transnistria and Russia, and a Joint Control Commission, which has the authority to control this force, in order to maintain the ceasefire and establish a safe zone.  It was decided that the said Commission should also have authority over the safe zone.  In addition to this, in this agreement, in which the possibility of Moldova to unite with Romania was taken into consideration, the Transnistria region was also given the right to determine its own destiny in case of a possible unification.

Although mediation activities have been carried out in partnership with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Ukraine since 1993, for the resolution of the conflict between Moldova and the separatist Transnistria region, no progress has been achieved at the desired level.  As of 2005, in line with the request of the Chisinau administration, the process takes place in a way that is also expressed as “5+2”.  Accordingly, while Moldova and Transnistria are involved in the negotiations, Russia and Ukraine are in the position of guarantor countries; the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (USA) are in the status of observer countries.  Also in this process, the proposed memorandum texts could not be put into practice for reasons such as the parties’ different interpretations of the terms in the provisions.  Accordingly, for example, the different interpretation of the concept of “common state” in the memorandum of understanding, also known as the Primakov Memorandum, in which the principles regarding the normalization of relations between the parties were determined, led to the inability to obtain results from the process.  Similarly, a federal Moldova was mentioned in the agreement known as the Kozak Memorandum, proposed by Dmitry Kozak, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in November 2003.  This proposal, which did not comply with the current position of Transnistria, which demanded equal status between Transnistria and Moldova, was also not accepted.  The Yushenko Plan, which came to the agenda in 2005, was welcomed by Moldova and it was accepted that the Transnistria region should be an autonomous region with legal status within Moldova.  However, the decision of the Transnistria region to take a referendum in 2006 and then declare its independence brought the end of the process.

Although Russia does not provide official diplomatic support to Transnistria, it does provide military support to the Transnistrian forces of Russian peacekeepers.  In addition, Russia is helping Transnistria not only militarily, but also financially.  It is known that Russia provides over one billion dollars of funds to Transnistria every year with these economic aids, which include the free supply of natural gas and the support of the elderly with pensions.

On the other hand, it is stated that the military power of Moldova is smaller and weaker than the Transnistrian forces.  Therefore, it seems very difficult for the Moldovan administration to gain control over the region under the current conditions.  It is also known that Moldova’s economy has not improved since its declaration of independence to the present day.  Today, Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe with a population of about three million.  Especially in the energy sector, its dependence on Russia to a large extent is one of its important vulnerabilities.  In the last quarter of 2021, the representative of the Russian energy company Gazprom announced that if Moldova does not pay its natural gas debt in full, it will cut off its natural gas and that it is necessary to make a new agreement by the specified date.  The problem here is beyond the fact that Moldova has difficulty in paying due to financial problems or asks for natural gas support from Ukraine.  The defense of the territorial integrity of Moldova, including the Transnistria region, and therefore its claim to sovereignty over the region, also brings with it responsibilities regarding the region.  When the debt of Moldova to Gazprom is examined, it is observed that a significant part of the existing natural gas debt belongs to Transnistria.  In this context, the acceptance of the Transdniets region as a part of its own territory also requires the undertaking of debts from a legal point of view.  In this context, the fact that Moldova has not been able to actually control the region for more than thirty years is the reason why the country administration does not want to take on the obligations of the Transnistria region.

In addition to Moldova’s dependence on Russian natural gas, the fact that a significant portion of the shares of its own natural gas company, Moldovagaz, is also owned by Gazprom makes things even more difficult.  From this point of view, it can be said that although Moldova, which has applied for EU membership, has a pro-EU political orientation, the current dependency of the country prevents it from leaving Russia’s orbit.  Therefore, the existing situation in the region is considered important in preventing the possibility of Russia’s close contact between Moldova and the EU, thereby persuading Moldova to remain in the Russian sphere of influence and at the same time join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEA).

Based on this general framework, the question of what makes Transnistria important for Russia comes to mind.  When we try to reach the answer to this question, we encounter a Russia that wants to keep Moldova under its influence, which was a part of the USSR during the Cold War.  In this sense, the Transnistria region allows Moscow to intimidate the Chisinau administration and limit its pro-Western aspirations.  In other words, the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria is instrumental in putting pressure on a sovereign state to Russia and preventing the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with the EU within Russia’s perceived Russian sphere of influence.  The most general meaning of Moldova’s accession to NATO and the EU for Russia is that the cultural and linguistic ties with Russia will decrease and that Russia will feel threatened through the weakly built satellite states located between its borders and Europe and which it considers as a buffer zone.

In this context, the question of how likely it is for the war to spread, in other words, for Russia to advance towards the region, comes to mind again.  Russian military commander Ustam Minnekaev, in his statement on April 22, 2022, emphasized that one of the duties of the Russian army is to provide full control over the Donbass and southern Ukraine and that the control to be established over the south of Ukraine will provide access to Transnistria, causing the eyes to turn to the Transnistria region.  In this sense, it can be stated that the Ukrainian War and the presence of Russian military units in Transnistria raise concerns that Russia’s next move may be Moldova.  However, current data do not yet give the impression that Russia will follow such a path.

On the other hand, although Transnistria seems to be an ideal site for Russia to launch an attack on Ukraine or Moldova, the ability of the pro-Russian Transnistrian government to fight Ukraine or Moldova in its current state is unlikely.  Therefore, in such a case, the possibility of directing Russian troops to the region comes to the fore, and a possible military shipment of Russia may bring more problems in the course of the war with Ukraine.  It is obvious that the priority for Russia is not to encounter new types of problems at the moment.

In addition, although Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița has declared that unlike Ukraine, Moldova does not want to join NATO and is in a constitutionally neutral status, the possible military shipment of Russia to the region may trigger the addition of international sanctions, as well as may cause its disappearance of relationship with Moldova. Well, it can be stated that if Russia, which is advancing step by step in the east of Ukraine, seizes Donbass, which is the primary target, it does not seem possible to stop.  In the context of Transnistria, it is more likely that the new target would be the south of Ukraine in the likely scenario.  In this sense, although the establishment of a Russian line extending to the Transnistria region is a promise, such a situation will not only provide a land connection to Transnistria, but also cut off Ukraine’s connection with the Black Sea, which was cut off from the Sea of ​​Azov.  However, after this region, the possibility of the war spreading to Moldova is very low.

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Doç. Dr. Fatma Anıl ÖZTOP
Doç. Dr. Fatma Anıl Öztop Kocaeli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü öğretim üyesidir. Doktorasını “Karar Birimlerinin Dış Politika Yapım Sürecinin İşleyişine Etkileri: Türk Dış Politikası Örneği” adlı çalışmasıyla Sakarya Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’ndan, yüksek lisans derecesini Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Tarihi üzerine “Türk-İngiliz İlişkileri (1939-1945)” isimli çalışmasıyla Fırat Üniversitesi’nden, lisans eğitimini ise uluslararası ilişkiler üzerine Sakarya Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden almıştır. Çalışmalarını terörizm, devlet-içi çatışmalar ve dış politika üzerine yoğunlaştıran Dr. Öztop’un Terrorism and Political Violence, Middle Eastern Studies gibi çeşitli dergilerde yayınlanmış makaleleri, kitap bölümleri ve “Terörizm ve Kadın: Fail mi Kurban mı? (2022)”, “Türk Dış Politikası Yapım Sürecinde Karar Birimlerinin Etkileri (2016)” ve “Dış Politika Analizi Üzerine Okumalar (E. Efegil ve R. Kalaycı ile birlikte, 2020)” adlı kitapları mevcuttur. 2011 yılında Fırat Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde Uzman olarak göreve başlayan Öztop, bu görevini 2016 yılına kadar sürdürmüştür. 2016 yılından itibaren Kocaeli Üniversitesi’nde öğretim üyesi olarak çalışmaya devam eden Dr. Öztop, evli ve iki çocuk annesidir.