Western military and civilian officials involved with Moldovan affairs believe that the next few weeks will show whether Russia intends to fulfill or tear up its international obligation to withdraw its arsenals and troops from Moldova by December 2002. Unless the scrapping and withdrawal of ordnance and troops begins in earnest by late May, and proceeds steadily thereafter, it will become a physical impossibility to complete the process by the deadline, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had stipulated and Russia officially accepted three years previously.
For now, it appears that Russia is programmatically creating a situation in which it will soon tell the West that the deadline has become irrelevant, the withdrawal impossible both physically and politically, and that a formula may need to be devised for keeping Russian troops in Moldova. With or without a formula, Moscow clearly hopes to keep most of its troops there indefinitely. For months, the Kremlin has been testing the OSCE and the Western response to its stonewalling tactics. Meanwhile, the tactics have grown bolder and acquired the elements of a farce, in which Russia hides behind Transdniester’s authorities, to let them take the blame for the impasse.
The Kremlin is, in fact, the responsible party. President Vladimir Putin’s close associate, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, oversees Russia’s actions in Moldova as special presidential envoy, reporting directly to Putin. In his discussions with Western and Moldovan diplomats, Trubnikov has all along proposed retaining the Russian troops in Moldova indefinitely as “peacekeepers” and eventually as main “guarantors” of a political settlement of the Transdniester conflict. On at least one occasion, in January of this year, Trubnikov made that proposal public. He has also broached the idea of adding a token non-Russian component to the Russian “guarantor” troops in the future, hoping through this cosmetic method to obtain an international mandate for Russia’s military presence in Moldova. All this shows that Russia has been seeking ways to void the OSCE’s decisions and its own signature on those decisions all along. It also shows Putin’s own confidant leading the move, not hypothetical “anti-Putin elite hardliners.”
Russia stations 2,600 troops and stores an estimated 42,000 tons of ammunition–much of it expired and much of it stored unsafely–in Transdniester. The withdrawal and scrapping process was stopped in December 2001. Transdniester’s authorities “do not permit” the scrapping and withdrawal of the ordnance. They take the position that all Russian military property in Transdniester is owned by “Transdniester’s people,” who allow Russia’s military to use that property locally, but not to scrap it or remove it to Russia, unless compensation is paid.
The Transdniester leadership wants that compensation in the form of write-offs of debt for Russian gas, which Gazprom has supplied since 1992. The leaders acknowledge arrears worth US$700 million–a staggering amount for a region with 700,000 inhabitants and some heavy industry. It is now thus revealed that Russia has in all these years subsidized Transdniester heavily by supplying gas without payment, this being just one form of subsidy.
Transdniester’s leaders now want US$100 million to be written off immediately from the overall arrears for gas, in order for them to “permit” the resumption of the ordnance scrapping and withdrawal process. They claim, moreover, that some of the ordnance officially considered expired and unsafe is neither, and should therefore be sold for profit by its “owner”–Transdniester–to international customers, albeit through Russia’s official arms export agencies. To enforce their “property claims,” Transdniester’s leaders have since December blocked access to the Colbasna ammunition dumps, the largest in Europe outside Russia. The local authorities have installed cement blocks on the rail line while Transdniester’s military command has installed checkpoints to interdict inspection visits.
Meanwhile, the local Russian leadership also interdicts OSCE visits. The American chiefs of the OSCE’s Chisinau mission have repeatedly been turned back from the Transdniester “border” by the local Russian authorities. They have meted out the same treatment to Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin, a Transdniester native, who is barred–since he became president last year–from visiting his mother in a village there.
Throughout all of this, Russia’s top military and political authorities claim that they are powerless to deal with the Transdniester leaders’ excesses. Some Westerners passively go along with this deception, and no one has officially called Russia’s bluff. It should, however, be noted that Transdniester’s political and military leaders are all citizens of the Russian Federation, holding Russian civil service, military and intelligence agency ranks, their salaries disbursed by the same Russian agencies, and answerable to superiors in Moscow, where they regularly pay “working visits” to ministries and other agencies.
It should also be noted that Russia is officially the main “guarantor” of the peace and of an eventual political settlement in Transdniester. If Russia–with its troops in place and various forms of leverage and coercion, gas taps among them–cannot “guarantee” the conduct of its own proxies in Transdniester, what then can it “guarantee”? How can it justify its claim to guaranteeing the political settlement in the future with troops in place?
Russia takes the position that its troops are needed in Transdniester to guard the ordnance stockpiles there, and cannot leave until the ordnance has been disposed of. This logic has, until now at least, been accepted by many of the involved parties. No ordnance disposal, no troop withdrawal. With Russia internationally obligated, though definitely unwilling, to withdraw the troops, enter the Russian-installed Transdniester authorities–equally intent on keeping the Russian troops in place–to block the ordnance withdrawal and disposal. Unable to “guarantee” that process, Russian troops will stay on indefinitely to await a political settlement and to “guarantee” that as well. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking fast on the OSCE’s credibility and that of governments watching–or perhaps looking away from–this Russian farce (Roundup based on recent Moldovan, Russian and international reporting and Monitor interviews; see the Monitor, January 18, 23, February 1, 20, 27).
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