Russia’s war in Ukraine has put the spotlight on the “frozen conflict” in Transdniestria, the Moscow-backed breakaway part of Moldova that borders southwestern Ukraine. Russia has raised the prospect of using Transdniestria to open a second front against Ukraine and to pressure Moldova. Such a move would increase the risk of a Russian confrontation with Romania—a NATO member with close ethnic, cultural, and historic ties to Moldova—which would in turn increase Russia’s perception of a threat to its Transdniestrian client. For three decades, the conflict over the breakaway region has remained without military clashes, with Russia’s military presence there serving as a tripwire to deter any Moldovan offensive. However, the war in Ukraine has changed the calculations of all concerned in this corner of Europe.

Background

Transdniestria owes its existence as a quasi-independent entity to the brief war started in 1992 by Moscow-backed separatists who feared that Moldova would become part of Romania after the Soviet Union broke up. The war ended when Russia’s 14th Army, headquartered since the 1950s in what was the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), intervened on behalf of the separatists and defeated the forces of the newly independent Republic of Moldova. The land controlled by the separatists styled itself the “Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic,” commonly known as Transdniestria, with its capital in Tiraspol. Based on the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration, signed by Russia, Moldova, and other former Soviet republics, the international community recognizes Transdniestria as part of Moldova’s sovereign territory and rejects its self-declared independence..

Philip Remler
Philip Remler is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Unlike the post-Soviet frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus, this is not an ethnic one. The population of Moldova is some 80 percent Moldovan and ethnically close to Romanians, but the population of Transdniestria is diverse—about 40 percent Moldovan, 23 percent Russian, and 28 percent Ukrainian. What counts is not ethnicity but families’ attitudes toward Russia or Romania, mostly dating back to the Second World War. In 1924, Josef Stalin carved Transdniestria—on the left bank of the Dniester River—out of Ukraine to form the Moldavian Autonomous SSR as an irredentist rump state facing Romania. Moldova on the right bank of the Dniester was part of Romania between the First and Second World Wars. It was invaded and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then invaded by Germany and Romania in 1941, and finally re-invaded by the Soviet Union in 1944.

This has left a lasting legacy of evenly split “pro-Soviet” and “pro-Romanian” attitudes in Moldova. Today, this is reflected in some polls suggesting that the population is almost evenly divided between blaming Russia or the West for the war in Ukraine. In Transdniestria, the population has long been overwhelmingly pro-Russian. The region seems to envision itself as the last outpost of the Russian Empire of the era of Prince Aleksandr Suvorov, the eighteenth-century generalissimo who founded Tiraspol and whose portrait adorns most government offices. Vadim Krasnoselsky, Transdniestria’s current leader, claims to disdain the Communists for “destroying the Russian empire.”

Unlike in other frozen conflicts, the populations on both sides of the Dniestr interact freely and often. Every day, thousands cross the “border” in both directions to visit family and friends, as well as for business, education, shopping, and international transit.

When the war ended in 1992, elements of Russia’s 14th Army stayed behind, forming two contingents: the Russian part of the trilateral peacekeeping force (alongside Moldovan and Transdniestrian troops) and the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) guarding old Soviet arms depots in Transdniestria, the largest of which is located at Cobasna. Both Russian contingents also serve as a tripwire against the unlikely event of Moldova attempting to use force to repossess Transdniestria. Transdniestria maintains its own armed forces, which are estimated to range between 4,500 and 15,000 personnel.

The presence of Russian peacekeepers is authorized under the cease-fire agreement of 1992. By contrast, Moldova has never accepted the presence of the OGRF, and in 1999 Russia promised to withdraw the group along with the arms depots. President Vladimir Putin halted the withdrawal in 2003, however, after Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin refused to sign a peace deal that would have ended the conflict in exchange for accepting Russian military bases and other rights for Moscow.

Confusion arises because the same personnel switch between the two Russian contingents. When the Western-oriented Maia Sandu became president of Moldova in 2020, she called for the removal of the OGRF. This caused a backlash from Russian commentators, including Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who apparently did not realize the difference between the OGRF and the peacekeepers.

The combined number of OGRF and Russian peacekeeping troops is currently estimated at 1,500. But in reality, while these personnel are in Russian uniforms, there is little else that is Russian about them. Most of them are locals, with a sprinkling of officers from Russia. Aside from these troops serving as a tripwire against Moldovan military action to reintegrate Transdniestria, their paychecks from Moscow make the Russian military a significant contributor to the region’s economy.

The Russian War Scare

On April 22, 2022, when Moscow was forced to redefine its objectives after failing to take Kyiv in the first phase of the war, Major General Rustam Minnekayev, the deputy commander of Russia’s Central Military District, stated that the aim “of the second phase” was to take a contiguous strip of land from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, running along the Azov and Black Sea coast through Kherson and Odesa, and from there to Transdniestria. Over the next few days, a mysterious string of “terrorist incidents”—including against Transdniestria’s Ministry of State Security and the Russian arsenal at Cobasna—appeared to aim at dragging the region into the war.

One purely military consideration is that Russia and Ukraine are using Soviet-era munitions of the types stored at Cobasna at an alarming rate and the depot could theoretically be of value to either side. But no one really knows how much weaponry Cobasna still houses and how much of that is usable. In the early 1990s, the Soviet/Russian commanders of such depots regularly sold munitions to both sides in budding conflicts. The most useful weaponry was presumably the first to be returned to Russia when withdrawals were taking place in 2000–2003. As to what remained afterward, a diplomat who inspected Cobasna a decade ago observed that some of the munitions appeared to be stored properly while others were heaped into pits dug into the ground and covered with corrugated tin, “like potatoes at a Soviet collective farm.”

Notwithstanding his nostalgia for the Russian Empire, Krasnoselsky has showed no enthusiasm for Russia’s war. After the “terrorist incidents,” he raised the terrorist threat level and put Transdniestria’s security services on alert. He gave a televised address in which he claimed, evidently paying lip service to his Russian patrons, that the “terrorist” incidents had apparently originated from Ukraine. But he assured his audience that Transdniestria chose to remain neutral, that it had no plans to attack its neighbors, and that attempts to drag it into the war would fail. Significantly, Sandu showed understanding and solidarity from Chişinău, declining to take an aggressive stance on Transdniestria and stating her support for “peaceful dialogue and diplomatic solutions.” 

It’s the Economy…

Economic factors caused Moldovan and Transdniestrian interests to converge. The relationship between Tiraspol and Chişinău, as it has developed over the last thirty years, is unique among frozen conflicts. It allows Transdniestria to live in the best of all worlds—a legal gray area. Its companies export to the EU by registering in Chişinău, and they benefit from trade preferences since the EU considers the region to be part of Moldova and does not want to do anything that would suggest otherwise. The value of Transdniestria’s exports to the EU—mostly electricity, steel, and textiles—is now estimated to be four times greater than exports to Russia.

The facilities that produce these goods rely on Russian natural gas. Transdniestria and Moldova get their gas from a Soviet-era pipeline to the Balkans, with both getting transit royalties from their segments of the pipeline. Transdniestria also derives a hefty income by selling its offtakes to industrial, commercial, and household consumers. In practice, Transdniestria gets its gas almost for free, paying for part of what it takes with its share of the royalties, and Russia’s Gazprom adds the value of the rest to the debt it is owed by Moldova’s state gas company. According to some estimates, this accounts for $7 billion out of the approximately $8 billion debt Gazprom claims Moldovagaz owes it.

Moldova cannot complain about shouldering Transdniestria’s gas debt because to do so would imply that it has lost sovereignty over the region. In effect, therefore, Russia gives Transdniestria all the gas it needs to fuel its export industry and the EU gives that industry the market for its exports—a truly “multivectoral” arrangement.

The war in Ukraine has threatened this situation on both sides. Were Transdniestria to engage in hostilities against Ukraine, its EU export markets would disappear overnight. The war has accelerated Sandu’s campaign for Moldova to join the EU, helping the country win candidate status on June 23 alongside Ukraine. Were hostilities to break out inside the internationally recognized territory of Moldova, which includes Transdniestria, that campaign would be jeopardized.

The Romanian Connection

Moldova’s newly acquired EU candidate status has rekindled old speculation in Moscow about its potential unification with Romania. On June 25, former president Dmitri Medvedev, who is now deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, suggested that Moldova might try to fast-track its membership in the EU by uniting with Romania, a member since 2007. Russian media have been flooded with speculation about Bucharest’s alleged designs—in cahoots with Chişinău and backed by NATO’s increased presence in Romania—to send troops to Moldova and occupy Transdniestria.

The result of any such action would be catastrophic for Moldova and Transdniestria, and would bring Russia and Romania to the brink of a direct military confrontation. After thirty years without incident, it seems improbable that the leaders in Chişinău would contemplate new hostilities, further destabilizing the situation. It is equally improbable that Romania would move to unite with Moldova and seize Transdniestria. But such scenarios are part of the fever dreams of Russian nationalist bloggers in the far reaches of the internet, who use as evidence the decades-long political rhetoric of Moldova’s “unionist” parties, which regularly attract the support of roughly 10 percent of the electorate.

At the moment, Transdniestria and Moldova share an interest in staying out of the war. For Tiraspol, this may mean defying Russia, always an uncomfortable course of action, but the alternative looks like military and economic suicide. Chişinău has few choices other than to try to keep tensions with Tiraspol low, to quietly support its efforts to stay out of the war, and to plead with politicians in Bucharest not to inflame the situation further. Politics makes strange bedfellows. In this instance, war does too.