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Unveiling Transnistria: the next flashpoint in the Russo-Ukrainian war?

As economic and political tensions increased rapidly with the implementation of fees on  Transnistrian imports via Moldova in January this year, Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR) leader Vadim Krasnoselsky, called for an extraordinary session of the Congress of  Deputies, supported by more than 600 lawmakers and rural officials. 

The meeting, which took place one day before Russian President Vladmir Putin’s yearly state of the nation speech, sought help and general support from the Kremlin. Therefore, the delegates addressed the Russian Federation Council and the State Duma, the upper and lower houses of Russia’s parliament, to “increase measures to protect Transnistria and its 222,000 Russian nationals amid growing pressure from Moldova.” 

The document issued by the Transnistrian congress also calls on the UN chief secretary Antonio Guterres, the Commonwealth of Independent states (CIS), the European  Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to prevent further escalation between Tiraspol and Chisinau by inducing Moldova to come  back to the 1+1 negotiation-format between the two capitals on both sides of the Dniester.  

Even though the Russian president has paid little to no attention to the call for help in his annual state of the nation speech, shifting the focus to Russian preparedness to use  nuclear weapons if Western nations put (NATO) military boots on the ground in Ukraine,  the state Duma of Russia clearly underlined, that it will treat the appeal of representatives of the left-bank region of the Dniester with all respect. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that “protecting the interest of Transnistrian residents is one of Russia’s priorities.” 

Prior to the meeting of the congress, Chisinau rejected the claims of annexation as  “propaganda statements” and that Transnistria benefits from peace, security and  economic integration with the EU. Officials and diplomats from Moldova do not seem to  be concerned that annexation would happen. Viorel Ursu, Moldova’s ambassador to the  United States sees the events as an “example of panic-generating information pressure on Moldova.” 

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Wednesday (28 Feb), that “given Russia’s increasingly aggressive role in Europe, the U.S. is watching  Russia’s actions in Transnistria and the broader situation there very closely.” He added that “the U.S. firmly supports Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within  its internationally recognized borders (including Transnistria).”

Prior to the meeting of Transnistrian officials, rumours concerning an alleged (military) annexation of the PMR by the Russian Federation, that would forcibly include the creation  of a land bridge between both parties and therefore a Russian offensive towards the Oblast Odessa in Ukraine, made headlines in international media reports. 

As I pointed out in my previous article, this claim was related to a personal assumption issued by a non parliamentary Transnistrian opposition figure and has not been officially confirmed by any  of the parties involved. 

Nevertheless, the PMR profited from this scaremongering in the  way that it would generate international attention to the referendum held in Tiraspol. Western media framed the issue as a new potential expansion of Russian neo-imperialist aggression that would plunge the whole region into chaos.  

I believe that the results of the Transnistrian congress are part of a long-term Russian strategy that aims at maintaining Russian influence in the region in the short run and  increasing its (military) presence in medium term. And I must add that I think the short term purpose of the meeting held in Tiraspol also was to remind Russia and the  international community that the PMR still exists and generate more fundings from the Kremlin. 

The history and status of Transnistria as an internationally non-recognized post-Soviet de facto state on the one hand and the patronage state Russia as its closest strategic  partner on the other, makes it self-explanatory evidence, that Transnistrian political elite  are closely working together with Russian authorities, providing the PMR with little to no  autonomous decision-making possibilities when it comes to international affairs. Therefore, every step made by Transnistrian officials are precisely coordinated with the  Kremlin, adding a connotation of Russian strategic thinking to the appeal and statements made by Tiraspol.  

The purpose of addressing international institutions such as the UN, the OSZE or the  European Parliament, thus should be viewed as a strategy aimed to increase international  recognition and support for Transnistria as a key player within the process of regional  conflict resolution.  Russia and the PMR hereby pressure these organizations to a peaceful settlement of the  issue. If that request is not fulfilled and unilateral moves intended to further re-integrate Transnistria into the Moldovan and European sphere of influence by coercion, Russia  would in a next step have a legitimate reason, even though not covered by international law, to take further steps, ensuring that Russian interests in the region are preserved.

With the actual situation and tendencies on the battleground, which point to the probability of a Russian push toward Mykolaiv and Odessa, the scenario of the creation of a land bridge and an annexation of the PMR by military means should not be underestimated on  the medium range. The low probability of enforcement for a diplomatic solution, could serve as a pretext for  a Russian invasion, pointing to the Russian willingness and initiatives to settle the  disputes in a peaceful way before using more aggressive means.  

Image: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images/via Wall Street Journal

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