Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 104

International talks were held on May 24 in Brussels on the possible transformation of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Moldova into an international mission. The talks were held in a 3+2 framework — that is, Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE as “mediators” and the United States and European Union as “observers” to the political settlement negotiations — but without Moldovan and Tiraspol representatives. That formal distinction between “mediators” and “observers” notwithstanding, the United States and EU acted as full-fledged participants and indeed held the initiative in these talks.

The major, positive significance of these talks resides in the fact that they were held at all, for the first time with this agenda, which involves a thorough international overhaul of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Moldova. In consenting to discuss this issue, Moscow may seek to influence the outcome of the Conference to Review the Operation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) (May 30-June 2 in Vienna) and demonstrate flexibility ahead of the G-8 summit in July in St. Petersburg, where Russia’s involvement in the secessionist conflicts will be an issue. Georgia is also calling for replacement of Russian “peacekeeping” operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Russian side hopes against heavy odds to trigger the process of the 1999-adapted CFE treaty ratification while keeping Russian troops in Moldova as “peacekeepers” in breach of treaty obligations; and it wishes to avoid or minimize criticism of Russia’s conduct in Moldova and the South Caucasus at the G-8 summit. Thus, accepting — or at least feigning to accept — negotiations on transforming its “peacekeeping” operation looks like a defensive move necessitated by those two upcoming events. Nevertheless, the issue has now been placed on the negotiating table; and it would be difficult for Moscow to take it off the table afterward, or for the EU to backtrack in any major way from the preliminary terms that were discussed on May 24 in Brussels.

The participants considered turning the Russian “peacekeeping” contingent into an international one that would involve more or less the following proportions: at least 40% of the personnel to be contributed by EU member countries, no more than one-third by Russia, and 20% by Poland and Ukraine through elements from their joint peacekeeping battalion. The operation’s command would belong to the EU. Regarding the type of mission, two possible versions were discussed: one predominantly military with some civilian components, the other predominantly civilian involving mainly police elements with small military backup. Discussions on an international mandate focused on the OSCE, but other options remain under consideration as well. Such a mandate would be granted for six months at a time, renewable after each six-month term.

Those proportions, however tentative, constitute a distinct improvement on the EU’s informal suggestions in recent months for Russia to provide 50% of the personnel and for the command to alternate between Russia and the EU at three- or six-month intervals. Those suggestions, while a step forward from the existing situation, would still have privileged Russia to the detriment, in one way or another, of all other sides: Moldova, Ukraine, the EU itself, and incoming EU member country Romania.

Inclusion of elements from the joint Polish-Ukrainian peacekeeping battalion would add an indirect NATO link to what is envisaged as an EU-led mission. That joint battalion has operated in NATO-led peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and elsewhere. However, the concept of a predominantly civilian mission almost certainly has greater merit in the case of Moldova, where both the physical terrain to be monitored and the political issues involved in the conflict are clearly more manageable, compared to the Balkan conflicts.

For its part, Chisinau calls for an international mission of military and civilian observers — as distinct from a predominantly military operation — to replace the Russian “peacekeeping” contingent. Moldova would more than welcome any EU-led operation; but, if such an operation is predominantly military, Chisinau proposes turning into a predominantly civilian operation after a transitional period of two six-month terms. As regards a mandate-granting international authority, the OSCE’s ten-year track record in Moldova has deprived the organization of all credibility there. Chisinau clearly prefers some other mandate-granting authority and hopes that Washington would play a major political role in the shaping and implementation of such a mandate, even if the United States itself is not represented in the transformed peacekeeping mission.

Moscow maintains that changing the “peacekeeping” format in Moldova should come after a political settlement is reached between Chisinau and Tiraspol. Such a sequence could prolong Russia’s military presence indefinitely, inasmuch as Tiraspol stonewalls the negotiations at Moscow’s behest, while Moscow plays the dual role of party to the conflict through its Tiraspol proxies and “mediator” between Tiraspol and Chisinau. This game, seemingly legitimized by the OSCE, has continued from 1997 to date. If the EU seeks a political settlement consistent with its values and interests on its new border, it needs to insist on a transformed peacekeeping operation as a prerequisite to a political settlement. Some EU officials were considering already in 2003 the possibility of transforming the Russian operation first and negotiating the political settlement afterward. Such sequencing is now firmly placed on the negotiating table; and its implementation would be key to an EU success.