There is a growing perception that, in their efforts to undermine the US-built international rule-based system, Russia and China pursue quite different strategies. While Russia usually plays the role of the loud disruptor, China seems to prefer the role of a silent replacer, all the while exploiting Russia’s unceremonious behavior as a spearhead for its strategy.
However, in at least one small conflict in Europe, Russia has shown its own ability to “walk softly.” This is the Russia-supported proxy conflict in the Transnistria region of the Republic of Moldova, which, at its beginning, showed striking similarities to the Russia-led “hybrid” invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas. The developments, described below, are important to understand, as they reflect a common, textbook approach Russia uses toward violent conflicts in the post-Soviet space that it instigated and continues to maintain. Its approach can be summarized with one phrase: if the old types of war aimed to conquer territory in order to gain control over the citizens, Russia’s new-type warfare aims to conquer the citizens in order to achieve control over the territory.
On January 30, Moldovan President Igor Dodon met in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. During the meeting, Putin pointed out that “we, in Russia, obviously, are not indifferent to how the Moldovan parliament will be formed,” referring to the forthcoming (February 24) elections (Gazeta.ru, January 30, 2019). President Putin added that elections will determine whether Dodon’s initiatives on “developing Russian-Moldovan relations” will find support.
However, besides its already well-known election interference, aimed at bringing local proxies to power in Moldova, Russia also explores some less obvious avenues of leverage. Notably, the Kremlin is rebuilding parallel pressure mechanisms on Moldova through the secessionist region of Transnistria, which it has controlled over the last 25 years. On January 22, Russia opened in Moscow’s centrally located Arbat neighborhood the “Official Representation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in the Russian Federation” (Noi.md, January 23, 2019). A few days earlier, on January 18, the Russian ambassador to Moldova, Oleg Vasnetzov, was silently summoned to the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration to offer explanations regarding the preliminary media coverage of this event (Mfa.gov.md, January 23, 2019).
Vasnetzov misled the Moldovan government, claiming the “representation” was just a non-governmental organization (NGO) created to offer legal assistance to the breakaway region’s inhabitants. This, to a large extent, resembles the Kremlin’s earlier denial of the Russian military presence in Crimea and then Donbas. Such smokescreens allow Moscow to buy time and exploit the resulting Western inaction at it advances its aggressive goals.
The Russian diplomats’ explanation was contradicted by the Russian state-owned Sputnik Moldova propaganda news service. Sputnik duly reported that Transnistria opened in Moscow its “official representation,” which allegedly has diplomatic status in Russia. The outpost is reportedly subordinated to the “foreign office of the region” (Sputnik.md, January 21, 2019). This language perfectly echoes statements from media outlets in Russian-backed Transnistria. They clarified that, while formally, on paper, the “diplomatic representation” of Transnistria was disguised by Russia as a social-cultural NGO, it is de facto to be used as an official representation of separatist Transnistria in Russia, and was even allowed by the Russian authorities to display the proper “official” sign at the entrance (Novostipmr.com, January 22, 2019).
Several high-level Russian officials attended the Transnistrian Moscow office’s opening. Notably, Sergey Gubarev, the Russian foreign ministry’s ambassador-at-large and Russian envoy to the negotiation process on the Transnistrian settlement, was present. The former chair of the Russia State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, Aleksey Pushkov (currently a member of the Federation Council, the Russian parliament’s upper house) was also among the attendees.
It bears pointing out that renting office space in central Moscow is particularly expensive. Breakaway Transnistria is highly unlikely to be able to pay for these premises, so the funds must be coming from the Russian government. In fact, the Transnistrian budget for 2019 was approved with a deficit of over 37 percent ($103 million by modest estimates—Vestifinance.ru, December 27, 2018). The budgetary hole is annually covered by Moscow.
During the opening ceremony, Pushkov stated, “We [Russians and Transnistrians] are one people: our two territories, a big, very big Russian, and yours, not so big, but also Russian…” He also revealed that most supporters of secessionist Transnistria come from among the Russian “siloviki”—the military and security agencies (Sputnik.md, January 23, 2019). In turn, the breakaway region’s de facto head, Vadim Krasnoselsky, stressed that the key tasks of the “representation” include military cooperation and political coordination, along with cultural, humanitarian, economic and informational cooperation (Novostipmr.com, January 22, 2019).
Russia seems confident that Moldovan authorities will not raise any more noise about the “Transnistrian representation” incident, given forthcoming elections. In fact, officials felt pressured to reveal their January 18 discussion with the Russian ambassador only after the issue received some public traction.
The Moldovan authorities hope Russia will not create obstacles to vote in the upcoming elections for the inhabitants of Transnistria who hold Moldovan passports. For this purpose, they opened 47 polling stations at the administrative border with the secessionist region (Moldova.org, January 20, 2019). It is expected the voters from Transnistria may play a swing role, voting for the pro-Russian President Dodon.
While generally portraying Dodon as an opponent, the incumbent authorities are believed to have some level of control over Dodon and the Socialist Party (PSRM) that supports him (Tvrmoldova.md, January 23, 2018). The incumbent Democrat Party (DPM) is, apparently, more concerned about the extra-parliamentary opposition that united in the electoral bloc ACUM. Constant demonization in the national media and even physical attacks against ACUM candidates (Stiri.md, January 27, 2019) tend to support this idea. By helping PSRM win the votes of Moldovan citizens from the Russia-controlled Transnistrian region, which Moscow can easily manipulate, the incumbent Democratic Party could increase its chances of retaining power after the February elections.
In exploiting this situation, Russia is able to operationalize a “plan B” with regard to post-elections Moldova. If the status quo persists, it is likely that the Transnistrian “representation” office will be closed. It could be instrumentalized to better coordinate Russia’s manipulation of the 5+2 negotiations, conducted under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But if the ACUM bloc comes to power, the “representation” will likely be used to capitalize on Moscow’s experience of coordinating military and economic assistance to its proxies in Ukraine’s Donbas. This could include organizing anti-Western and anti-ACUM protests in Moldova, recruiting “volunteers” for “hybrid”-style scenarios in Moldova, and providing a platform for coordination among Russian governmental, civilian and military agencies, together with the secessionist authorities of Transnistria.