The Next Front Of The Ukraine War
Tensions have increased in recent days in and around the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria, a place few in Europe have heard of but which could easily become a new flashpoint for the war in Ukraine. Explosions that have occurred in the pro-Russia territory this week have raised concerns that the war across the border in Ukraine could soon be extended there. After the explosions, Transnistria’s President Vadim Krasnoselsky called for a 15-day red alert, with anti-terrorist security measures put in place. Men of fighting age have been banned from leaving its territory. This is being read as a sign that Transnistria will be drawn into the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The de facto state Transnistria lies between Moldova to its west and Ukraine towards its east. Often described as a “remnant of the Soviet Union”. The “problem” of Transnistria dates back to 1940 when Stalin grabbed Bessarabia province from Romania, as booty under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany. To help assimilate its Romanian-speaking population, Moscow created a new “Moldova Soviet Socialist Republic” by merging the conquered region with a sliver of western Ukraine on the eastern side of the Dnestra river. This instantly rebalanced the demographics of the new Soviet republic, allowing “politically reliable” Russian-speakers to dominate Moldovan institutions for decades after. All of this may have been just an internal Soviet affair until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Moldova, Ukraine and other Soviet Republics found themselves as independent countries. A brief separatist uprising by the Russian-speaking Transnistrian region in 1992 ended with the Russian army effectively enforcing the separatist’s claims to autonomy. Transnistria has since become one of the “frozen conflicts” of the former Soviet Union, along with other Moscow-backed separatist regions such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine.
Transnistria is not recognised as independent even by Russia and its economy is dependent on Russia for subsidies and free gas. Most Transnistrians have dual citizenship of Russia and Transnistria or triple citizenship of Moldova, Transnistria, and Russia. Unlike the rest of Moldova, which speaks Romanian, the majority of people in Transnistria speak Russian and use the cyrillic script like Russians. It has its own government (which is pro-Russian), Parliament, armed force, constitution, flag, anthem, etc. In a referendum held in 2006, over 97% of Transnistrians voted for future integration with Russia and after the annexation of Crimea, the government asked if it could to be absorbed into Russia. Russia, however, was not keen on this. But Transnistria is host to over 1,500 Russian “peacekeepers” and is home to a large Russian ammunition depot at Cobasna.
Clearly, Transnistria’s strategic location is important to the next phase of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The region is not too distant from the Black Sea port of Odesa and also shares a relatively long border with Ukraine. If Transnistria comes under Russian control, it will enable Russia to create a Russian-controlled corridor along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. If Russia succeeds in linking Odesa with Transnistria, the rest of Ukraine would become completely landlocked and the country would naturally be weakened. Moldova, on its part, fears that Russia will use Transnistria to launch an attack on it as Russia has long wanted Moldova to be in its sphere of influence.
Since the bombings, the United States has ramped up support for Moldova, and the Moldovan government has joined EU sanctions against Russia and offered humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. In turn, Ukraine has offered to help the Moldovan government retake control of Transnistria, if requested. If the situation in Moldova deteriorates, NATO states, possibly led by Romania, could come under increasing pressure to arm and train the small Moldovan army. If Putin really plays his cards badly, a more capable Moldova with the assistance of Ukraine may be tempted to destroy the Russian forces in Transnistria and regain control of its territory, while Moscow looks on helplessly.