Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 9

Moscow pushes hard for basing rights in Moldova

by Vladimir Socor

With very little international notice and at no political costto itself thus far, Moscow continues to demand on an open-endedpresence of its troops in Moldova. The country’s strategic locationat the intersection of Central and Southeastern Europe, on thethreshold of the Balkans and in the rear of Ukraine, makes itan attractive prize as a site for forward deployment of Russianmobile forces. The area that is Moldova today, formerly Bessarabia,has historically served as a staging ground for Russian and Sovietarmies poised to march into the Balkans or into Central Europe. The new, post-communist Russia, while formally recognizing Moldova’sindependence, seeks to perpetuate its military presence in thecountry against the latter’s unassisted resistance. As Moldovais noncontiguous to Russia–between them lie nearly 1,000 kilometersof Ukrainian territory–Moscow analysts are beginning to envisagethe formation in Moldova of a second Kaliningrad region, a militaryexclave leap-frogging Russia’s immediate neighbors and enablingMoscow to project power and influence further afield.

On June 28, Russian President Boris Yeltsin received his Moldovancounterpart Mircea Snegur in the Kremlin for what had been billeda s a discussion on the Russian 14th Army’s withdrawal from Moldova,mandated by the 1994 intergovernmental agreement on removing theArmy’s arsenals and withdrawing the troops within three years. Instead, the Russian side imposed on the discussion its own focus,shifting it toward the terms of continued stationing of its troopsin Moldova and the political and economic integration of the twocountries. Yeltsin and his officials conducted the discussionas if the withdrawal agreement did not count. While this hasbeen Moscow’s attitude ever since the agreement’s signing, theJune 28 meeting marked a conspicuous step back because Moscowintroduced additional linkages to the troop withdrawal issue,openly reinterpreted the 1994 agreement as if it allowed for open-endedtroop stationing and basing rights, and did so under the authorityof Yeltsin himself.

Yeltsin Stonewalls

The Russian president yet again let down those Moldovan policymakers who despite the existing experience persisted in drawinga sharp distinction between Yeltsin’s and the military’s approachto Moldova and to "near abroad" issues in general. Rather than reaffirming the validity of the 1994 agreement, Yeltsindeclared that "the times period of the troops’ stationing(in Moldova) may at any time be revised" and that he "doesnot rule out creating a military base with the units of the (former)14th Army;" and he asked for a more effective resolutionof "concrete problems concerning the stay of Russian troopson Moldovan territory." Yeltsin was moreover cited by Russianmedia (June 28 and 29) as drawing a parallel between the statusbeing sought for Russian troops in Moldova and the one obtainedfor Russian troops in Georgia–i.e. basing rights at a numberof locations in the country and missions including "peacekeeping"and guarding the host country’s "external border." Yeltsin and other Russian officials also continued to link anyfuture withdrawal to the political settlement of the Dniesterconflict under Russian mediation–a recipe for continued procrastination.

The Russian side moreover broadened the meeting’s agenda withadditional demands unrelated to troop withdrawal but with whichit seeks to link that issue one way or another. Yeltsin askedfor "a closer cooperation with the CIS" by Moldova,creation of joint enterprises in Moldova to offset its trade debtto Russia through property transfers, and "joint measuresto ensure unfailing observance of human rights" (evidentlyalso in Moldova). The Russian president also called for ratificationof a recent protocol providing inter alia for Russian-Moldovanmilitary consultations on regional security issues–a protocolwhich Moscow wants attached to the Russian-Moldovan state treatyas a price for its ratification by Russia.

Significance of the New Linkages

Is this piling up of linkages intended to extract the maximumattainable price in exchange for military withdrawal? Or is itmeant to drive that price to a prohibitive level that would pressureMoldova into putting up with the Russian troop presence so asto escape an increasingly onerous set of demands? The most likelyanswer would seem to be that Moscow wants to keep both optionsopen and may opt for either, depending on the international context,primarily the level of interest and pressure that the West isinclined to bring to this situation. That level has thus farbeen minimal and accounts in part for Russia’s increasingly overteffort to coerce a strategically located European country intogiving up its independence in all but name and hosting Russiantroops on its territory.

It may also explain Moscow’s current move toward the second ofthe two options outlined above. During the consultations preparatoryto the Yeltsin-Snegur meeting, Russia’s Foreign Ministry introducedyet another new linkage which the Ministry’s representatives thensubmitted during the presidential meeting. They argued that Moscowcould not withdraw its troops from Moldova as long as the questionof NATO’s eastward enlargement has not been disposed of and theconflicts in former Yugoslavia have not been settled. Since thesepreconditions are by definition unfulfillable, references to themsuggest that Moscow has come to view its military presence inMoldova hot as a bargaining asset to be exchanged for concessionson other issues, but as a goal in its own right and for the longterm.

Basing concept Outlined

On a visit to Chisinau and Tiraspol on June 26 and 27 to preparethe presidential meeting of the 28th Russia’s Defense MinisterPavel Grachev turned a deaf ear to Snegur’s calls for the implementationof the 1994 troop withdrawal agreement. And he renewed proposalsfor basing rights and a peacekeeping mandate to Russia’s 14thArmy, restructured as an operational group as of July 1. Grachevalso called for enhanced Russian-Moldovan military ties and forcooperation among the two countries regarding their participationin NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Both in these talksand in public statements in the two cities, as well as in a briefingfor the 14th Army’s officers, Grachev outlined a basing conceptfor the Operational Group now taking shape. The concept callsfor stationing in and around Tiraspol at this stage a 3,500-strongbrigade of mechanized infantry of high mobility, backed by anaviation unit of an as yet unspecified nature. The OperationalGroup would receive reinforcements from Russia, rather than drawingon Transdniestr Russians for fresh manpower as has been the caseuntil now. The Operational Group would take over the "peacekeeping"mandate exercised since 1992 by another Russian force, initiallycomprised of six battalions but now down to two, and which hasalways been unrelated to the 14th Army.

The concept outlined by Grachev should be seen as an interim onefor several reasons. First, it provides for resuming manpowerreinforcements from Russia, which the 14th Army has not receivedsince Moldova became independent and which partly explains theArmy’s numerical attrition; now it might begin growing back toits authorized strength. Second, Transdniestr and particularlythe area round Tiraspol possess a vast military infrastructurereportedly capable of accommodating four army-size units. Third,Moscow is asking Chisinau (suavely at this stage) to join theCIS treaty on "joint protection of CIS external borders". That would entail the arrival of additional Russian troop contingentsand their basing in western Moldova, rather than its eastern partwhere the Russian troops are presently stationed. The basingconcept outlined by Grachev therefore looks like only a part ofa projected larger edifice. Chisinau has resisted the demandfor joint border protection, but its ability to continue resistingdoing so (on this or indeed any issue) would be severely weakenedby an institutionalized Russian troop presence in Transdniestr,as Moscow now seems to envisage and which would open the doorfor deployment in the rest of Moldova.

Treaty Reinterpretation

The troop withdrawal agreement, negotiated over the course ofmore than two years and signed by Prime Ministers Viktor Chernomyrdinand Andrei Sangheli on October 21, 1994, looks more than everlike a dead letter after the Yeltsin-Snegur meeting. The Agreementis in fact a package consisting of a main political document andseveral accompanying documents of a legal, military, and technicalnature concerning the transitional three-year period, the dispositionof the army’s immobile property, and the evacuation of its movableassets and personnel. On the morrow of the signing, the Russianarmed forces daily Krasnaya Zvezda wrote that the document wouldhelp "tranquilize international public opinion" and"fend off the usual allegations about a ‘Russian imperialism.’"Indeed, Russian diplomacy has since protested its innocence onthe Moldova issue by pointing to that document.

In practice, however, the agreement was rendered inoperative throughreinterpretation of two of its clauses by the Russian side beforethe ink had dried on the signatures. The first reinterpretationconcerns "synchronization" of the withdrawal to thepolitical settlement of the Dniestr conflict (which none otherthan the 14th Army triggered in 1991 and waged to easy triumphin 1992.) While the agreement speaks of synchronizing the twoprocesses "within the three year period" which is providedfor the removal of arsenals and troops, Moscow insists on an open-endedtime as needed to settle the conflict. Chisinau is offering Tiraspola far-reaching devolution of powers amounting to federalization,under a plan worked out by the OSCE’s mission in Moldova in 1993and approved by OSCE’s central bodies. But Tiraspol insists onfull and separate statehood for Transdniestr and is being sustainedin its intransigence by the same Russian army which is at issue,as well as by political and military circles in Moscow, virtuallyguaranteeing the absence of a political settlement. The viciouscircle sometimes termed "synchronization" seems (and,some might say, was) made to order for perpetuating Russia’s militarypresence in the region.

The second reinterpreted clause concerns ratification. Duringthe negotiations the Moldovan side sought to exclude any parliamentaryratification requirement because Chisinau knew that the documentcould not pass the Duma’s hardline majority. Moscow negotiatorsdid not insist, agreeing to sign the document as an executiveagreement among prime ministers rather than presidents, and thusnot legally subject to parliamentary ratification. The relevantclause speaks of ratification through "internal state procedures,"meaning procedures within the executive branch, as the Russianside assured credulous Moldovan negotiators. Almost immediatelyupon the signing, however, the Russian government claimed thatit must after all submit the agreement to the Duma for ratification;and later on it added that ratification by the Federation Councilwas equally required.

Ever since late 1994 Moscow has taken the position that the withdrawalagreement lacks force until ratified by parliament, and that thethree year withdrawal schedule only begins to flow after the parliamentaryratification. Moreover, since the document regulates the statusof "Russian troops temporarily stationed in Moldova,"Russian military and political officials now claim that the agreementbestows legitimacy on the troops’ stationing and that Chisinauhas forfeited the grounds for remonstrating. Chisinau disputesthese interpretations but is powerless to change them. Meanwhilethe executive branch in Moscow seeks to de facto nullify the documentby pressuring Moldova into formalizing the stationing of Russiantroops in the country.

Preparing for the June 28 meeting with Yeltsin, Snegur’s delegationcame up with several possible options for ratification by "internalstate procedures" within the executive branches as alternativesto Duma ratification. But these proposals were not seriously consideredby Yeltsin and his officials at the Kremlin meeting.

Hiding behind the Duma

Setting the stage on his side for the meeting with Snegur, Yeltsinforwarded on June 22 to the Duma for ratification the October1994 package of Russian-Moldovan agreements. Long overdue andpurely formal, the gesture appeared designed to demonstrate thevulnerability of Chisinau’s position and its dependence on Yeltsin’sand the Russian executive’s goodwill. The Duma has just demonstratedits attitude through three lopsided votes in as many months infavor of keeping the Russian troops in Moldova.

On April 26 the Duma adopted a resolution on "The inadmissibilityof Withdrawing the 14th Army from Transdniestr." On May24 the Duma passed in the first reading, and on June 21 in thefinal reading, a bill imposing a moratorium on the 14th Army’srestructuring and on withdrawal before a political settlementof the Transdniestr problem. The bill moreover provides for fundingthe 14th Army’s funding from a special budget line as of 1996and for augmenting its manpower with conscripts from Russia–somethingthat the Defense Ministry now also envisages doing (see above)and that has not been done since Moldova became an independentcountry. The bill attempts to frame the issue in terms of securingthe 14th Army’s vast arms and ammunition stockpiles against pilferage;but its core provisions are evidently designed to consolidateRussia’s military presence in Moldova. Although initiated byultranationalists and communist deputies, the documents passedoverwhelmingly. They failed to acknowledge the 1994 intergovernmentalagreements and referred to the Russian troops as being stationedin "Transdniestr" rather than in Moldova.

Although the resolution is not legally binding and the bill requiresapproval by the Federal Council and the president before becominglaw, the two documents do reflect the Duma’s attitude on thismatter.

As regards the Federal Council, the harbinger of its attitudemay have been provided by its Vice-Chairman Valerian Viktorov,who is considered a relative moderate and is responsible for parliamentaryrelations with Moldova. On June 21 Viktorov urged Chisinau togrant the Russian troops basing rights (Segodnya, June22). It was on the day after the Duma’s third vote that Yeltsinchose to forward the 1994 agreements for legislative action, evidentlynot without realizing that the legislature would be highly likelyto reject or at best ignore the documents.

14th Army Becomes Operational Group

On June 14 Yeltsin accepted the resignation of his critic andGrachev’s rival, Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, from the command ofthe 14th Army, and discharged him from the military. The measurecleared the way for implementing the Defense Ministry’s plan todownsize the army’s command staff and restructure the 8,000-strongarmy into an operation group, effective July 1. The restructuringplan appeared from the outset designed to deprive the insubordinateand politically embarrassing Lebed of his command; but it alsofollows the restructuring pattern observed in Georgia where Russiantroops have obtained basing rights. Moreover, as seen above,the reorganization does not limit the operational group’s manpowerlevel; indeed it provides for its augmentation with reinforcementsfrom Russia. Moscow has announced the concept despite unambiguousopposition from Chisinau.

The new commander Mj. Gen. Valery Yevnevich, has lost no timetelling the Moldovan press during his presentation visit in Chisinauthat he plans to bring reinforcements from Russia, allegedly toenhance the security of arms and ammunition stockpiles (KishinevskieNovasti, June 24). This stated intention defies Moldova’sopposition to any reinforcement of Russian troops in the country.

The 14th Army, now operational group, is the heir to a vast arsenalof hardware, firearms, and particularly ammunition and explosives– much of it obsolete and poorly maintained — which Moldovawants evacuated and destroyed lest it falls into unauthorizedhands. The defense ministry in Moscow appears to share thatconcern. It declares itself prepared to evacuate parts of thatarsenal, destroy in place other parts, and ensure security forthe remainder. Those operations, when they commence, are notto be construed as signifying a withdrawal of the force itself. The stockpiles vastly exceed the needs of a full-strength army,let alone an operational group; and parts of them are unusableand dangerous. Their evacuation or destruction would meet a commoninterest of Moldova and the Russian command. The latter has inany event announced (see above) its intent to renew both equipmentand manpower. In sum, the army’s restructuring to operationalgroup and intent to rid itself of large parts of its arsenalsdo not appear to have a bearing on the issue of its withdrawal.

Moldova on the Defensive

At his meeting in Moscow with Yeltsin, Snegur continued to resistthe demands for basing rights and for conferring a peacekeepingmandate on the 14th Army or the new operational group. But Moldova’seconomic dependence on Russia and vulnerability to Russian conflictmanagement in Transdniestr limit its ability to maintain thisresistance indefinitely in the absence of international support. Appealing for such support, Moldovan officials point out — ashave the parliament’s Vice Chairman Nicolae Andronic and foreignrelations chairman Dumitru Diacov in recent interviews — thatthe 14th Army reorganization does not presuppose a change in Moscow’sposition on the troop issue and may confuse international opinion. They and other Moldovan officials are urging a more active Westerninvolvement in this issue and are expressing concern over thefact that Western countries and international organizations arenot backing up with actions their infrequent calls for Russiantroops to withdraw from Moldova. The Moldovan officials pointout that this "could not boost Zhirinovsky since, even withoutZhirinovsky in power, Russia seeks to keep troops in other countries."

Meanwhile Yeltsin and Snegur have agreed to meet again to discussthese same issues before the end of the year, The stage seemsset for continuing impasse.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.