The Russian intervention in Crimea showed that Moscow is willing to use its armed forces to achieve its strategic goal of preventing Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries from deepening their integration with the European Union. Previously, the instruments the Kremlin used to achieve this goal were limited to political and economic pressures. In particular, Moldova is worth examining.
It seems, therefore, that in the shadow of the recent events in Ukraine Russia may prepare itself to realise the Crimean scenario in Gagauzia in the south of Moldova, although it will do so probably only when other methods fail. In order to pursue such a scenario, Moscow will seek the destabilisation of the ruling coalition in Chisinau, support separatism in Gagauzia and, ultimately, use its military presence in Transnistria.
The role of Transnistria in the current crisis
On the night of March 1st-2nd, the Transnistrian army as well as Russian forces based in the region were put in a state of heightened military readiness. The troops received their order to permanently stay armed. At the same time, the control on the borders of the unrecognised republic was tightened and it was decided that scout planes would observe the borders. The mobilisation activity must have been spectacular enough to have unsettled many inhabitants of the region who were used to the presence of Russian troops and the trainings of their own army. For the sake of security, some decided to leave Transnistria for Chisinau, among other places.
In the following days, there appeared information about the preparations and arming of volunteer divisions in Transnistria, and on March 9th some Ukrainian sources informed that Russia sent to Transnistria approximately 700 Spetsnaz troops. Although the latter fact seems very unlikely, Russia’s activities clearly aim towards creating a support area in Transnistria from which it could just in case support pro-Russian organisations in the Odessa region. From the beginning of March, in Odessa there regularly occur thousands-strong manifestations of the opponents of the so-called EuroMaidan during which the demonstrators call for the boycott of the government in Kyiv, organisation of a referendum about the autonomy of the region as well as the recognition of the special status of the Russian language. By calling forth new manifestations and trying to occupy administration buildings, these organisations try to provoke the reactions of the supporters of European integration and, at the same time, lead to confrontations that would give Russia a pretext to send to Odessa military units with the purpose of “defending” the ethnic Russians living in the area. Naturally, Transnistria, which is less than 70 kilometres from Odessa, is an ideal excursion point to lead such operations.
What is more, the Russian divisions could take advantage of the aid of the Transnistrian army, which will probably, if needed, make its logistic base available, thanks to which Russia would not need to transport armed vehicles across the Kyiv-controlled Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian authorities take information about a possible Russian intervention from the west seriously. It was under their influence that on March 8th Operation Rubezh, aimed at securing the Ukrainian-Moldovan border on the so-called Transnistrian route and preventing possible attempts of moving troops’ from Transnistria into the Odessa region, was undertaken. One cannot presently say whether Russia will ultimately decide to use the Transnistrian support base to help pro-Russian movements in the Odessa region, but it is practically certain that they are preparing for such a scenario. Although the recent Russian activities in Transnistria are undertaken with Ukraine in mind, it cannot be excluded that in the perspective of a few months divisions located in the region could serve for the realisation of the Crimean scenario in Gagauzia. However, for this Russia would need a pretext. Among other things, destabilization of the political situation in Moldova or the collapse of the government in Chisinau may serve as a convenient execuse.
How to break up the coalition?
For a long time, Russia has tried to cause the collapse of the pro-European coalition governing Moldova and to organise snap elections, which according to available polls would bring to power the pro-Eurasian Customs Union Communist Party. Undoubtedly, Russia is counting that this scenario will be realised until September at the latest, as then Chisinau plans on signing the Association Agreement with the EU. A change of government or at least a long-term destabilisation of the political situation in the country caused by a fall of the government gives probable chances to prevent the signing of this document. It seems that during the past few weeks the main instrument utilised by Russia to achieve this aim is the outbidding of deputies of the ruling coalition and inclining them to leave their ranks. In the middle of February, several deputies from the two main coalition parties publicly declared that they were offered to leave the party in exchange for a handsome sum of money. According to the leaders of the coalition, Vyacheslav Platon – a businessman connected to Russia and the sixth wealthiest person in the country – was responsible for corrupting the deputies. Rumours about trying to buy votes were confirmed by later events.
On March 3rd, Iurie Bolboceanu, a deputy of the coalition Democratic Party of Moldova, announced that he is leaving the grouping. The official reason for his departure was according to the politician the “general situation in the country”, but it seems very probable that Bolboceanu was bought at Platon’s request. On March 7th, the anti-corruption bureau revealed the information that another deputy of the coalition, probably Anatolie Arhire from the Liberal Reformists party, was offered 250,000 US Dollars to leave the party. Although the detained persons that offered the deputy a bribe were not directly connected to Platon, it should be supposed that this time as well the attempted bribes were undertaken from his initiative. Inclining deputies of the coalition to leave it is very dangerous for the stability of the government.
Bolboceanu’s departure itself decreased the number of the deputies of the coalition to 52, while 51 are needed for a parliamentary majority. Thus, if only two deputies left the party, the coalition would lose its parliamentary majority. This could spark pro-Russian environments in Gagauzia as well as all of Moldova. A resulting destabilisation of the political scene could lead to the collapse of the cabinet and the calling of snap elections. This could be a sufficient pretext to introduce into Gagauzia divisions of “volunteers” from Transnistria. To justify their presence, it would probably be repeated that a lack of effective government in Chisinau does not guarantee security for the Russian-speaking population of Gagauzia and it risks Romanian intervention. This latter argument traditionally finds many supporters, especially among the generally anti-Romanian Gagauzians. It is based on the hypothesis that is popular among pro-Russian environments that the strategic aim of Romanian foreign policy is the incorporation of Moldova. In this way, the destabilisation of the political situation in the country could justify the necessity of an intervention.
Is Gagauzia the Moldovan Crimea?
The Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia traditionally has been a deeply pro-Russian region of Moldova. The local authorities regularly bring up the question of its independence from Chisinau, and occasionally there appear voices suggesting the possibility of the secession of the region and the declaration of independence. Separatist ideas are, of course, supported by Russia. Until recently, however, it seemed that the region will not be a realistic obstacle to the European integration of Moldova. Such a premise is based on two prerogatives. First, the Autonomous Territorial Unit is too small, has an insignificant number of inhabitants and very small economic significance for Moldova to put a considerable pressure on Chisinau. Second, real attempts undertaken to separate the region from Moldova are not in the interest of the local political elites. Gagauzian leaders realise that separation from Moldova would condemn them to the fate of Transnistria, in other words marginalisation, international ostracism and, what is most important, complete dependence on Russia. Playing “separatist card” by local authorities thus is only a tool in negotiations related to the scope of autonomy, its financing, etc. with Chisinau. The referendum of February 2nd in which the inhabitants of Gagauzia unequivocally voted in favour of Moldova’s integration with the Eurasian Customs Union and against the European Union should as well be interpreted as such a tool, rather than a manifestation of secessionist aspirations.
However, as the example of Crimea has shown, if Russia decided to use Gagauzia in order to prevent the European integration of Moldova, the interests of local politicians would not have any significance. The appearance of volunteers in the region itself would probably be very well-received by its inhabitants, and after their entry in case of such a need Moscow could undertake the necessary changes in the administrative apparatus of the autonomous region and, with the full support of the local population, put into power politicians more inclined to foster Russian actions. People support for the Russian activities would result not only from the pro-Russian sentiments of the majority of the Gagauz, but also from an authentic fear of Romania, which was intensified by the recent statements of President Traian Băsescu. The head of the Romanian state on the numerous occasions in the past few months announced that Bucharest’s aim in the near future is to unify with Moldova. Furthermore, only a few days ago Russia announced it would remove Gagauzian wines from the embargo on Moldovan-produced alcohol and it suggested a possible lowering of gas prices to Gagauzia. Such undertakings not only intensify tensions between Gagauzia and Chisinau, but they can also be an attempt to consolidate social support of the residents of region for the realization of the Crimean scenario.
The technical aspect of the possible operation in Gagauzia is also interesting. Moving “volunteers” or “self-defence units” from Transnistria to the Autonomous Territorial Unit would not be very complicated. These units could be formed both from undistinguished Russian and maybe Transnistrian troops and part of the local Gagauzian volunteers. Probably both the troops and the necessary equipment or arms could be moved from Transnistria on civilian buses or even cars. The Moldovan police controls only some vehicles on the road from Tiraspol to Comrat, the territory’s capital. Airlifts also come into play, although in this way it would be more difficult to keep it confidential. The further development of the situation could include, for example, the possible organisation of a referendum about joining Russia, however Russia may equally well do nothing more, and simply use the existing situation to put pressure on Chisinau. It is worth emphasising that the Russians would not limit their activities solely to Gagauzia, but they would also try take control over the nearby pro-Russian Taraclia District.
Chisinau and Bucharest’s reaction
Moldova would have probably reacted to such a scenario similarly like Ukraine. Sending troops to fight the “volunteers” seems very unlikely. The Moldovan Army is not only numerically small, underequipped and antiquated, but it is also very demoralised. Several days ago, the minister of defence of Moldova resigned. One of the reasons for this decision was the wave of suicides that swept through the Moldovan armed forces during the past several months, which shows the state of this formation well. However, it is difficult to judge how Romania would act. The appearance of Russian military (even without distinction) in Gagauzia, barely 20-30 kilometres from the border with Romania, would force Bucharest to seriously consider military operations, although undoubtedly the allies from NATO, particularly the United States, would try to cool the enthusiasm on part of the Romanian authorities. The reactions of the remaining EU member states cannot be predicted.
The scenario described above can be realised in several weeks or months, or it may not take place at all. It seems, however, that in the context of the completely unexpected Russian intervention in Crimea and the growth of Russian activity in Transnistria one should also consider this possibility. From the perspective of the Kremlin, it is probably better to solve the problem of the European integration of Moldova on the occasion of the crisis continuing in Ukraine. By being engaged in Crimea, Russia has paid a price in its prestige and probably assumes that the spreading of its activity to Moldova will only further hurt that prestige minimally. Meanwhile, the stakes from the perspective of the Kremlin are very high. If these tactics of Russia succeed, then this will de facto mean a total failure of the Eastern Partnership, force the EU to deeply revise its European Neighbourhood Policy and lead to the necessity of a full redefinition of its entire security policy in the region. For the Kremlin, each of these three results would be a success.
Kamil Całus is an analyst with the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies.