With Russian troops on their way out from two bases in Georgia, the international politics of CFE Treaty ratification focuses increasingly on Moldova. The OSCE’s Permanent Council-Forum for Security Cooperation special joint meeting on May 23, with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s participation, reflected this development. As Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down threaten to scuttle the treaty unless Western countries ratify it, Moldova may come under growing pressures from now on.
The continuing presence of Russian forces in Moldova remains the single biggest obstacle to Russia’s push for ratification of the 1999-adapted CFE treaty. Russia can now be expected to grow bolder in demanding ratification of the CFE Treaty even as Russia keeps its troops on Moldova’s territory. Russian diplomats also rely on some European counterparts to agree that Russia’s military presence in Moldova should not hinder the broader goal of bringing the CFE Treaty into force as part of the European arms-control agenda. For some Europeans, that kind of sentiment can more easily lead to concessions to Russia when only Moldova is involved, once the Russian troops are out of Batumi and Akhalkalaki in Georgia (albeit retaining the Gudauta base there).
Russian arguments and rhetorical devices include:
1) Russia undertook no “obligation” or “commitment” in 1999 regarding its forces in Moldova (although the 1999 documents show that it did);
2) Russian forces are stationed “in Transnistria” (implying a separate status for Transnistria, outside Moldova);
3) Russia is willing to remove its massive arms and ammunition stockpiles “from Transnistria,” but Tiraspol’s authorities presumably “do not permit” this;
4) Russian troops must stay on to guard those dangerous stockpiles; and
5) Russian troops there “keep the peace” and would not withdraw until a political settlement is in place (which Russia in the meantime stonewalls).
Western officials sometimes call vaguely for withdrawal of “Russian ammunition” (omitting troops); or troop withdrawal “from Transnistria” (implying some change of status; particularly counterproductive when phrased as “from Georgia and Transnistria); or withdrawal linked to political settlement of the conflict (the 1999 Istanbul agreement actually eliminated such a linkage, which Moscow had previously introduced). Such remarks sometimes reflect imprecision of language, sometimes political signals. In either case, Russia can well interpret such remarks as an encouragement to keep the troops in Moldova while pressing for CFE treaty ratification regardless.
Moscow hopes to exploit the weak position of Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this regard. That ministry, along with a few other European chancelleries, is prepared to exempt Russian “peacekeeping” troops from the obligation to withdraw. As Ottfried Nassauer, head of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security, sums up that position, “Germany accepts that parts of Russia’s troops in Moldova and Georgia can be regarded as peacekeepers on the basis of agreements with Russia. Consequently, Russia has basically fulfilled its [Istanbul 1999] pledges” (Der Tagesspiegel, April 30).
Furthermore, Germany informally leads a group of four or five West European countries that want to see a political settlement of the Transnistria conflict before the Russian troops withdraw from Moldova. However, this approach only reinforces the intransigence of Tiraspol’s authorities, who stonewall the negotiations in their capacity as “party to the conflict” with Moldova (whereas Russia is the real party to the conflict with Moldova). Negotiations in the shadow of Russian troops could lead either nowhere (which has been the case for 15 years) or to terms of settlement distorted in Russia favor (as almost happened several times in recent years). Moreover, Berlin’s position gives Russia an incentive to block a political settlement indefinitely, citing the settlement’s absence as an excuse for keeping Russian troops in place.
In the OSCE’s May 23 special meeting, Moldova’s delegation responded to Lavrov in more explicit and forthright terms, compared with the collective statements of the EU (with which Moldova aligned itself as a partner country) and NATO. It said, “The Moldovan authorities firmly insist on the complete and unconditional fulfillment of commitments undertaken at Istanbul concerning the early and complete withdrawal of Russia’s troops and armaments from the territory of Moldova.”
In Chisinau’s view, “complete” means no exemption for Russian “peacekeeping” troops; “unconditional” means not linked to a political settlement or to Tiraspol’s consent; and “early” means not sequenced with some other, hypothetical developments on the ground. The United States comes close to supporting this position, as in Ambassador Julie Finley’s response to Lavrov in the May 23 Permanent Council session at the OSCE.
Moldova calls for an international mission of civilian and military observers to replace the Russian “peacekeeping” troops and open the way to the country’s reunification. Chisinau has not wavered in this two-fold goal since adopting it in 2004-2005. However, Chisinau has recently miscalculated by seeking Moscow’s consent to those goals in return for far-reaching Moldovan political concessions to Tiraspol and Moscow. Furthermore, Chisinau negotiated with Moscow bilaterally, under the pressure of Russia’s year-long economic embargo, venturing outside the 5+2 international format from a position of unprecedented weakness (see EDM, April 13).
While its May 23 statement at the OSCE indicates that Chisinau has (again) dropped its illusions about Moscow, a somewhat different message emerges from President Vladimir Voronin’s long interview with RIA-Novosti, published that same day. There, Voronin invests his full hopes in Putin personally while blaming Russian officialdom and other factors for not letting Putin deliver a good settlement in Transnistria.
Russia will likely act on two fronts in parallel: Pressuring or cajoling Moldova to consent to the stationing of Russian troops while suggesting to West Europeans that Moldova is worth sacrificing for the sake of arms control and relations with Russia. If Moldova succumbs and accepts the stationing of Russian troops under some formula, many European countries would be ready to ratify the adapted CFE Treaty and bring the three Baltic states under its purview. Developments could take a different course, however, if a preponderance of European countries along with the United States consistently demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova’s territory, internationally certified closure of the Gudauta base in Georgia, and the identification and removal of unaccounted-for treaty-limited equipment accumulated in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and Armenian-controlled territory of Azerbaijan.
(Interfax, Itar-Tass, May 23; OSCE Permanent Council session documents, May 23)