Moscow Using Transnistria and Gagauzia to Pressure Moldova, Ukraine, and the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 32

(Source: Emerging Europe)

Executive Summary:

  • Moscow has long exploited its influence in Transnistria and Gagauzia to pressure Moldova not to turn away from Russia and join Western institutions such as the European Union.
  • The Kremlin is once again using these restive Moldovan regions by raising the specter that Moscow might recognize or even annex Transnistria and establish a land bridge with southwestern Ukraine.
  • Russian propaganda in  Transnistria and Gagauzia seeks to highlight the West’s inability to respond effectively—a signal intended for other countries in the region. 

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow has repeatedly used its influence in the breakaway Transnistria Republic and restive Gagauz autonomy in Moldova. This is a ploy to put pressure on Chisinau not to turn away from the Russian Federation and seek to join Western institutions such as the European Union (Window on Eurasia, March 8, 2022; see EDM, March 21, 2023, May 9, 2023). That effort has complicated life in Chisinau but has not dissuaded the Moldovan government from continuing its attempt to break with Moscow and join the West (see EDM, June 23, 2022). The Kremlin has raised the stakes and is playing on frustrations in both of these regions to pressure Chisinau and signal its intentions to occupy southwestern Ukraine and establish a land bridge to its client statelet in Transnistria and its loyalists among the Christian Turkic Gagauz. Perhaps most notably in the eyes of the Kremlin, it is doing so to highlight the West’s inability to counter Russian moves and demonstrate to other countries in the region a real change in the regional balance of power. Russian President Vladimir Putin may not succeed in achieving either of these goals, but his pursuit of them now is consistent with his strategy of constantly raising the stakes in the hope that others will back down. 

Several developments over the past few days suggest that the Kremlin leader is doing precisely that in Moldova. On February 28, the government of the unrecognized breakaway Pridnistrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR), the official name of Transnistria, assembled a congress of officials to adopt a resolution calling on Russia to come to its defense against what the meeting described as a blockade of the region by Moldova and Ukraine (President of the Prednistrovian Moldovan Republic, February 28). As this congress was only the seventh of its type since 1991, and earlier meetings of this kind featured calls for Moscow to recognize the PMR as an independent country or even to absorb it into the Russian Federation, many had expected this week’s meeting to do the same (RTVI, February 22;  Institute for the Study of War, February 22; Verstka, February 26). 

The PMR Congress asked for direct intervention from Russia in this perceived struggle. Putin, however, did not make this issue a centerpiece of his address to the Russian parliament today, February 29, as some had expected (Radio Sputnik, February 28; CNBC, February 29;, February 29). That allowed Chisinau officials to dismiss the meeting as a propaganda trick designed to distract attention within the PMR to deteriorating conditions there while attracting more attention but little else from Moscow (, February 22; Moldpres, February 28). Whether the PMR succeeded in the former is uncertain. Still, it did in the latter, providing the Russian Foreign Ministry and other officials with an opportunity to declare that supporting the ethnic Russians in the PMR was and would remain a major “priority” (, February 28;, February 28; Izvestiya, February 28). Moreover, Russian commentators took the occasion to suggest that Moscow will do more to aid the PMR, that this assistance could take the form of extending Russian control over southwestern Ukraine up to the borders of Transnistria, and that doing so would underscore Moscow’s growing strength in the region and the West’s inability to do much in response (, February 29). 

These commentators, similar to some analysts in the West, say bluntly that “Russia will be able to save the PMR only by occupying Odesa” in Ukraine (Institute for the Study of War, February 22;, February 29). Russian forces have not been able to do so, but moving in that direction would be consistent with the views of these Moscow writers. They predict that the Russian side wants to deprive Ukraine of its Black Sea littoral and ports and thus reduce it to a small, landlocked country that the Kremlin would find far easier to control. For that reason, such Moscow commentaries should be a wake-up call to Western capitals.  Kyiv observers have pointed out that Russia has not and will not be able to do that, adding that they currently see no evidence that Moscow is massing its forces to make such a drive possible (Ukrainska Pravda, February 22).

The Kremlin’s immediate targets in this campaign remain Moldova and its government’s drive to the West. That is suggested by Chisinau’s tough line regarding Russian intentions in the PMR and, more importantly, by recent events in the other Moldovan “hot spot,” Gagauzia. Moscow has traditionally used Gagauzia and the PMR in tandem to pressure Chisinau. While it could use Gagauzia and the PMR to destroy Moldova altogether, what is now taking place in Gagauzia suggests that Moscow is simply continuing its longstanding approach toward the country.

In the Gagauz autonomy, activists of its dominant pro-Moscow party, banned by Chisinau, say that they will follow the PMR’s example and convene a congress to appeal for help to defend their region against Chisinau (Nesavisimaya, February 25). They say that they will appeal not only to Russia but also to Türkiye. Moscow will undoubtedly welcome such an appeal to itself. The Kremlin, however, is sure to be nervous about the appeal to Türkiye, given that the Gagauz are perhaps the most similar Turkic group to the Anatolian Turks beyond the border of the Turkish republic. This might pull Ankara into what Moscow sees as Russia’s backyard (see EDM, August 5, 2021). That may keep Moscow from moving more quickly in the Moldovan direction but will not change its fundamental goals over time.

To the extent that is correct, ever-more observers in the West must recognize that Russia is an existential threat not only to Ukraine but to Moldova as well. The West will need to do far more than it has to defend Moldova against Russian subversion both directly and by its PMR and Gagauz proxies (see EDM, October 13, 2023).