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Could Transnistria become the next victim of Russian aggression?

Ongoing tensions over Ukraine have the potential to greatly impact other flashpoints in the region. This is most clear with regards to pro-Russian Transnistria, which lies less than 100 kilometres from Odesa.

February 21, 2022 - Katarzyna Rybarczyk - Articles and Commentary

Flags of Transnistria and Russia. Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

With over 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and frequent military exercises in the region, tensions between Russia and Ukraine are rising. Moscow has denied that it has any plans to invade its neighbour but NATO and its allies are mobilising and preparing for the worst-case scenario. 

Putin once said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”. He has repeatedly tried to reassert Russian control in what are now sovereign states throughout the two decades of his presidency.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and still has troops there to this day. Moscow has also been closely working with the president of Belarus and has significantly strengthened its influence there. Lastly, there is Ukraine, where in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and started an ongoing conflict in the Donbas region.

While there is no certainty as to what Putin will do next, invading Ukraine in the near future would be in line with his ambitions to rebuild the Russian empire and bring back the prestige the country once held. 

At the same time, it is important to think about what actions could follow such an operation. An overlooked threat associated with the invasion is that it would also allow Russian forces to link up with pro-Russian Transnistria, an unrecognised breakaway state in the territory of Moldova. That, in turn, would enable Putin to continue the expansion well beyond Ukraine’s border. 

Russia has significant influence in Moldova

Much like the other former Soviet republics, Moldova seceded from the USSR in the early 1990s. This new autonomy was supposed to open up a world of possibilities, such as the prospect of joining the European Union. Despite this, Moldova has struggled with completing its post-Soviet transition and liberating itself from Russian influence.

Statue of Lenin in front of the assembly house of Transnistria Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

Being a part of the Soviet Union became so ingrained in the identity of some Moldovans that the country’s population is still divided between those who support the West and those who stand by Russia.

The establishment of the separatist Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (Transnistria) in 1990 was directly related to this divide. Located in the country’s east between the River Dniester and the border with Ukraine, Transnistria has its own currency and capital and uses Russian as its official language. Ever since its creation, the breakaway state has been developing political and economic ties with Russia.

Through this pro-Russian region in the territory of Moldova, Putin can, to a certain degree, influence policies in the country and slow down its integration with western bodies such as the European Union.

Transnistria is Russia’s sphere of influence in Moldova. The region is currently stuck in a state of frozen conflict but remains at Putin’s disposal should he need its support to achieve political or military gains.

Transnistria wants to be a part of Russia

A Russian annexation of Transnistria at some point in the future is not an unlikely scenario. After all, the separatist state’s authorities and population appear very interested in the idea.

In 2006, a referendum was held in Transnistria to determine whether people there wanted to renounce their autonomy and integrate with Moldova or seek independence and possibly join Russia in the future. The results revealed a staggering vote to keep the region’s status and pursue unification with Russia.

“We have more in common with Russia than Moldova,” Vlad, an owner of a hotel in Tiraspol, told me. He added that “Most people have Russian passports and many go to Russia to study and work.”

Soviet T-34 tank in Tiraspol. Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

Transnistria had been waiting for the right moment to try to make unification a reality. On the same day that Russia seized Crimea, Mikhail Burla, a former leader of the Transnistrian parliament, sent a letter to Russia demanding that it consider the possibility of annexing Transnistria as well.

At the time, the situation was similar to what we are seeing now. Ukraine was under attack from Russia and concerns were raised about Transnistria becoming the next flashpoint. Despite this, much to Transnistria’s dismay, Russia refused to act on this request.

Instead, Russia decided to keep offering financial assistance to the breakaway state, making it even more dependent on Russian aid. 

The economic model in Transnistria built during Soviet times is not efficient. Financial subsidies from Russia are subsequently essential for the separatist republic to function.

Moreover, as people living in Transnistria told me, the majority of the Transnistrian population works in agriculture so can only earn an income during warm summer months. In winter, they are at the mercy of relatives working in Russia who send money over to Transnistria.

How likely is the annexation of Transnistria?

When Transnistria asked to be annexed by Russia in 2014, fulfilling the republic’s demand was not in Russia’s interest. Governing Transnistria from Russia would have been extremely difficult and could have brought Putin more troubles than benefits.

Moreover, as opposed to Ukraine, Moldova is “of relatively small strategic importance to Russia”. In addition to not having a geopolitical position as important as that of Ukraine, Moldova does not have resources that Russia would find valuable.

The emblem of the Moldovan Soviet Republic displayed on the main square in Tiraspol. Photo: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

However, there is now a risk that if Putin invaded Ukraine and was successful in doing so, he could feel tempted to reach out to Transnistria and keep expanding his empire.

Before that could happen, however, he would have to establish firm control over Odesa and the areas around it. This could be a lengthy process, as he would be acting against the will of most Ukrainians and the international community.

Consequently, the most likely scenario is that Russia will not pursue any hard power moves and instead keep building and enhancing its soft power in Transnistria. These actions will continue to block Moldova’s chances of joining the EU and increasing cooperation with NATO.

Although not in official control of the territory, Russia has all the leverage it needs in Transnistria. Still, it is important not to overlook Russian power in this specific area, as the breakaway state remains ready to support Putin with his expansion ambitions should he ever decide to enter Moldova.

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm operating globally and providing legal aid to forcibly displaced persons. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing communities living in low and middle-income countries.

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