Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Cristina Lesnic held an ad hoc videoconference, on July 14, with Richard Tibbels, the European Union’s representative in the 5+2 talks on the Transnistrian settlement process (Radio Chisinau, July 15). In their conversation, the Moldovan official shared Chisinau’s rising concerns regarding the illegal installation of 37 checkpoints in the Security Zone, manned by “border guards” of the Moscow-backed separatist Transnistrian regime. Lesnic emphasized that these checkpoints violated the existing agreements on the conflict resolution process, backed by the EU, and they could not be viewed as “sanitary [i.e., meant to stop the spread of COVID-19],” as invoked by the Transnistrian representatives.
The Moldovan authorities apparently are unable or unwilling to take any effective measures to discourage or impose costs on such violations, which are becoming routine. Following a phone conversation between Moldova’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon and the separatist leader in Tiraspol, Vadim Krasnoselski, the latter declared that “the sanitary checkpoints” will not be removed due to the epidemiological situation (Radio Chisinau, July 13). Critics of President Dodon and the government he controls increasingly question the authorities’ genuine willingness to protect Moldova’s interests against Russia. The growing exasperation among many Moldovans has already resulted in the mobilization of veterans of the 1992 war with Russia over the Transnistrian region. The veterans’ group has declared that if the new checkpoints are not removed soon, they will block the main roads connecting Moldova with the Transnistrian region, which has effectively been under Russian military control for the past three decades (TVR Moldova, July 14). The Moldovan veterans claim their actions will block the ongoing passage of trucks loaded with contraband products, metal and cement, which are part of criminal enrichment schemes benefiting people in power on the both sides of the Dniester River.
A series of recent developments has collectively served to confirm many of the most serious above-mentioned criticisms regarding the authorities’ failures to defend Moldovan sovereignty. For instance, at the Kremlin’s request (and despite Moscow then being one of the major global hotspots of the coronavirus pandemic), President Dodon attended the June 24 military parade on Red Square and brought with him a 75-man Moldovan honor guard unit (Zgd.md, June 14). The last time Moldovan soldiers ceremonially marched in the middle of the Russian capital was in 2010.
In another instance, the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration (MFAEI) posted a communique on its webpage criticizing the actions of the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) stationed in and de facto controlling Moldova’s Transnistrian region. The source of the complaint stemmed from the fact that the OGRF had reportedly recruited another several children from the breakaway region into the Russian defense ministry’s youth organization Yunarmiya (“Young Army”), which has been growing in number in Transnistria (Mil.ru, June 16). In the same communique, the MFAEI reconfirmed Chisinau’s demand for the unconditional withdrawal of Russian military units and ammunition from Moldovan territory (Diez.md, June 15). But without explanation, the whole communique disappeared shortly thereafter from the foreign ministry’s website (Mfa.gov.md, June 15; TVR Moldova, June 16).
This self-censoring of the Moldovan diplomatic institution seems to be the result of Russian pressure, applied via Moldova’s own presidential administration. Indeed, not long after the MFAEI’s statement calling for the withdrawal of the OGRF from Transnistria, the Russian ambassador to Chisinau, Oleg Vasnetsov, assured Russian media that there are “conscious politicians” in the Moldovan capital—meaning President Dodon—who understand well that Russia cannot simply pull its 1,500 military forces from Moldova, because “they create conditions for peaceful negotiations” (TASS, July 8). Such indirect Russian control over the Moldovan leadership threatens to transform this small East European country into a satellite-state. But in fact, the Kremlin’s actual influence extends beyond Moldova’s political leaders and institutions: as illustrated by the Yunarmiya recruitment drive, Moscow has taken a long-term perspective and is focusing on the ideological indoctrination of Moldova’s younger generations.
In the Transnistrian region, the Russian Ministry of Defense has recruited over 1,600 children, ranging from the age of 10 to 18, into its youth-focused militarized organization since 2017 (Law-civilsociety.com, March 30, 2018). Over 75,000 minors were recruited this way by the Russian military throughout the territories under the responsibility of the Western Military District command (Vpk.name, August 20, 2018), which also oversees Moldova’s Transnistrian region. To join Yunarmiya, children take an oath and then undergo routine military training, including at summer camps, that consists of “patriotic” education, physical training, small arms training and instruction in other military disciplines (Novostipmr.com, July 19, 2019).
In addition to this, the separatist regime in Transnistria—a de facto proxy for the Russian government—has been recruiting both right- and left-bank Moldovan minors into two militarized boarding schools funded by the separatist ministry of interior and ministry of defense, respectively. The former institution annually recruits some 300 minors in total and the latter, personally opened by then–deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin in 2017, accepts 200 youths every year (Moldova.org, April 8, 2018). Military training and “patriotic” indoctrination are the key elements of the curriculum at both academies. Notably, some 20 children from Moldova’s Gagauz region are reportedly being trained yearly at the militarized boarding school financed by the separatist defense ministry. Considering that the Transnistrian regime is itself heavily funded by the Russian government, these costs are ultimately borne by the Russian military, which also provides the school’s instructors.
It is hardly coincidental that the creation of the Yunarmiya, on October 29, 2015, overlapped with the huge problems that the Russian defense ministry confronted when scores of Russian soldiers refused to go fight in Ukraine and Syria (Reuters, May 10, 2015). The “young army” organization is, thus, likely the Russian state’s solution—every year creating a crop of ideologically indoctrinated and Western-hostile potential troops for Moscow’s military operations in the coming years. Despite the fact that the recruitment of children below the age of 15 into military activities is prohibited under international humanitarian law (Un.org, accessed July 15), neither the Moldovan government nor its international partners have so far looked closely into this alarming issue.