After the swift annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation, multiple anxious voices warned that a similar fate is being prepared for Transnistria, the Russia-backed secessionist region of Moldova. As a significant signal, the topic of Transnistria made it into the recent discussion between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama (ITAR-TASS, March 31). It was also addressed in the phone conversation between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (kremlin.ru, March 31).
The most worrisome part of both diplomatic exchanges seemed to be Putin’s emphasis on the idea that Transnistria has been subjected to an external blockade. What was not spoken, but loomed in the air was the feeling that this sounded like a pretext for another one of Russia’s “humanitarian” interventions.
For those closely monitoring the operational characteristics of the Russian military takeover of Crimea, this rings alarm bells. The script used by Russian strategists in Crimea closely resembled the characteristics of the Soviet Union’s so-called active measures against countries outside the Western bloc during the Cold War’s proxy wars.
An understanding of Crimea’s takeover by Russia can also inform an analysis of the unfolding situation in Transnistria. First, Russia invoked a casus belli—the political pretext that justified Moscow’s intervention into Crimea based on its own interpretation of international law. This seems to be a twisted adaptation of the well-known “responsibility to protect” principle of humanitarian intervention, which requests military invasion by a foreign actor aiming to stop human rights violations.
As a second condition, Russia needed a loyal presence in the territory of interest that would invite its “humanitarian” assistance, as a formal sign of political legitimacy. In a recent interview, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told the Russia 24 news channel that “basically all members of the Transnistrian government are citizens of the Russian Federation” (novostipmr.com, March 21). He went on to say that close to 200,000 inhabitants of the secessionist region (roughly one third of its total population) are Russian citizens, and even though the rest are not formally so, they feel Russian in spirit.
Russia also already has a significant military presence in the region. In addition to the 1,200–1,500 Russian soldiers stationed in Transnistria (https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/ogrv-moldova.htm; Kommersant-Vlast, February 21, 2005), Moscow can also de facto rely on the 10,000–15,000 active-duty troops (Author’s estimate based on Moldovan government data), including interior and border guard forces, which are controlled by the local pro-Russian Transnistrian authorities—who are themselves directly supported and financed by Russia. Consequently, Russia has long ago achieved both political and military control over Transnistria. The only thing missing is formal recognition and annexation. However, de facto Russia had already done both things, exploiting and misusing its guarantor status in the negotiations process. And as Rogozin revealed, the region is run by Russian citizens. Furthermore, since December 2013, the Transnistrian authorities have begun implementing Russian legislation—or at least declared their intention to do so (ria.ru, February 12).
As Moldova continues on its path toward European integration, Russia could in fact try to apply a Crimean scenario in Moldova to undermine this process, but not as it is widely speculated. With Transnistria already de facto under Russian control, Moscow could instead attempt to send the Transnistrian military forces—and avoid using Russian troops to maintain deniability—to take control of the autonomous Gagauz region in the southern part of Moldova.
All the favorable conditions for a swift operation, similar to what transpired in Crimea, are already in place. The current Gagauz administration seems sympathetic to Russia, but for now is afraid of the legal consequences of organizing a referendum in violation of Moldovan law (EDM, February 5). Moreover, the Moldovan leadership is plagued by a defunct strategic culture, meaning it is both afraid to use military force and lacks the necessary knowledge for that purpose. This mirrors the Ukrainian situation, where the military forces were prevented by political leaders in Kyiv from firing their weapons, in one form or another (kvedomosti.com, April 2; life.pravda.com.ua, March 26; echo.msk.ru, March 19). Should “little green men”—popular name given in Ukraine to the uniformed, insignia-less forces that took over the Crimean peninsula—cross the Nistru river and enter Gagauzia, the Moldovan military and law enforcement agencies will likely be similarly ordered not to interfere, “in order to avoid provocations.”
Both the Operational Group of Russian Forces stationed in the breakaway region and Transnistria’s own military forces have been conducting exercises during the last few weeks. The Russian forces practiced engaging and destroying an unidentified armed group that attempted to take over the Russian military base (novostipmr.com, March 25). Additionally, the Ukrainian ambassador to Moldova, Sergey Pirozhkov, indicated that he was briefed about the intention of the Russian “peacekeepers” to train in the escort of humanitarian convoys into Transnistria (kommersant.md, April 3).
Meanwhile, despite the secessionist region’s 70-percent budget deficit, the Transnistrian military has also been carrying out its own military games. In particular, they conducted live-fire exercises from T-64 tanks, as well as 120-milimeter and 82-mm mortars. The exercise also involved anti-aircraft gun operators firing against ground targets (novostipmr.com, April 3). A few days earlier, the Transnistrian infantry motorized units conducted combat training exercises in which they engaged conventional enemy armored vehicles and infantry groups (novostipmr, April 1). During the same period, the Transnistrian military light engineer pontoon company exercised the deployment of 40-ton floating bridges to provide for troop river crossings (mopmr.idknet.com, April 2).
The Russian Federation has long exploited the Transnistrian conflict as political leverage to prevent Moldova from moving closer to the West. But as Chisinau expects to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union later this year, the Transnistrian conflict will lose its value as a Russian foreign policy tool to force Moldova’s restraint. Still, if no physical obstacle is put in place to create real costs in the way of a potential military incursion into Gagauzia, the opportunity to obtain similar leverage there may be too irresistible for Russia. The risks of this happening are particularly high, given that it provides plausible deniability for Moscow if Transnistrian—rather than Russian—forces are employed. By obtaining physical control of both Transnistria and Gagauzia, Russia will significantly boost its influence and political pressure over Moldova to accept federalization. Such an outcome would, in fact, mean the abandonment of Chisinau’s European policy course.