Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma has announced that Ukraine is able and willing to send a peacekeeping unit to the Transdniester conflict theater. Kuchma was speaking at a news conference following a telephone call from Moldovan president Petru Lucinschi, who confirmed that both he and Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov desire the deployment of Ukrainian peacekeeping troops. Kuchma said that Ukraine is initiating talks with Russia with a view to sending a company-size unit to Transdniester’s Dubasari district, in order to guard the vital bridges over the Dniester there. Dubasari district’s population is mostly Ukrainian, Kuchma stated. He implied that sending that unit would constitute an initial step in a Ukrainian peacekeeping operation in Transdniester. The Ukrainian peacekeepers would add to, not replace, the existing Russian contingent. (Ukrainian agencies, November 24)
Russia has since 1992 exercised a "peacekeeping" monopoly in Transdniester. Originally comprised of six battalions from Russia’s interior (not from the 14th Army headquartered in Tiraspol), that contingent has gradually shrunk to two battalions because of financial constraints. The question of deploying Ukrainian peacekeeping troops became topical after Ukraine took on a mediating role, alongside Russia and the OSCE, in the Chisinau-Tiraspol political negotiations. However, Russia’s Foreign Ministry would accept only Ukrainian military observers, not troops.
Official Chisinau favors a Ukrainian military presence as a counterweight to the Russian presence. Tiraspol for its part regards a Ukrainian deployment as reinsurance in case Russia’s ex-14th Army ultimately withdraws from the region. Dubasari district is the most crucial one in the conflict theater: it is the site of the main bridges connecting the two banks of the Dniester, and it also contains the sole area held by Moldovan government troops on the Tiraspol-controlled left bank. The confrontation line bisects the district.
Dubasari district’s population is 83 percent Moldovan, according to the last census (1989). Kuchma’s comment regarding the district’s population may have been aimed at facilitating internal political acceptance of the decision to send Ukrainian troops there. Ukrainians are the second-largest ethnic element in all Transdniester, ahead of Russians. Those Ukrainians are not part of a diaspora, since they are directly contiguous to the main body of the Ukrainian nation. Transdniester formed an autonomous Moldovan republic within Ukraine in the inter-war period. Kyiv has in the last few years gradually and unobtrusively competed with Russia for political influence in Transdniester. In the long run, Kyiv’s security interests are incompatible with the perpetuation of a Russian exclave and military outpost on Ukraine’s southwestern border. Moscow’s reaction to Kuchma’s proposal might provide an indication of Russia’s own long-term intentions regarding Transdniester and Moldova as a whole.
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