Security in Uncertain Times: Moldova and the “Transnistrian Knot”

The Transnistrian region has long been a target of Russian propaganda efforts to destabilize Moldova. After the election of the pro-European President, Maia Sandu, the (geo-)political situation in both Transnistria and Moldova has changed significantly. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, however, new security threats have emerged. Russia’s hybrid warfare constrains Moldova’s pro-Western direction, forcing the country to depend on how Ukraine defends itself and how it will also reduce the possibilities of a larger attack and greater destabilization through Moldova via the Transnistrian region.

Russian Influence in Transnistria

The Transnistrian region is characterized by a high number of Russian-speaking citizens and a pro-Kremlin political leadership. The media are under strong control of the authorities and anti-government media are suppressed. Through the media, people are often the target of misinformation and manipulative information with vaguely pro-Russian rhetoric (Cenusa, undated). Transnistria is an indispensable region for Moldova because of its highly developed industry and energy infrastructure. On the other hand, Transnistria is in limited commercial isolation as it has no external sovereignty and is therefore perceived as a quasi-state. Russia provides funding to the region and there is a high level of corruption, money laundering, illegal arms distribution and organized crime (BBC, 2023).

Active military units are deployed throughout the area to control and maintain the pro-Russian stance. There are only a few dozen Russian soldiers in Transnistria, most of the military personnel are indigenous Transnistrians who have been given Russian passports. Moldova does not allow Russian troops to be transported to Chisinau airport and then to Transnistria. Since 2015, Ukraine has also banned the passage of Russian troops through its territory, so there is no way left for Russian troops to enter the Odessa region, which has led to cooperation with the local population. According to Russian General Rustam Minnekaev, in the context of the war in Ukraine, the goal was to connect Transnistria with Russia through the conquered territories in southern Ukraine (Kulakevich, 2023). Fears of the conflict spreading to Moldova intensified after several explosions in April 2022, when the state security ministry in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, was also targeted. At this time, Russia also declared that Russians living in Transnistria were being oppressed and that Ukraine was preparing to intervene in Moldova (The Guardian, 2022). Following these events, President Sandu requested an OSCE observation mission on the border with Transnistria, which was rejected by Russia.

Energy Security and the Pro-Western Turn

One of Moldova’s biggest weaknesses is the energy sector. Most of the industry and energy infrastructure is located in Transnistria, which in itself is a major problem for Moldova.  In December 2022, Moldova started buying natural gas from international markets, beginning to reduce its previously 100% dependence on Russian supplies to zero dependence. In contrast, Russia provides natural gas to the Transnistrian region free of charge, which also consolidates its political influence (Kulakevich, 2023). Previously, an energy collapse in the Transnistrian region would have meant a complete blackout for Moldova. Now Moldova and Ukraine have managed to connect to the energy grid from the European Union countries (specifically Romania), which would not allow a massive blackout. Therefore, restrictions on supplies to Transnistria would more likely mean the economic collapse of Transnistria itself, with Moldova certainly weakened but certainly not existentially threatened. The Moldovan economy is even now struggling with high inflation and energy prices that are unaffordable for many Moldovans (Wolff, 2023). It can be assumed that if the situation is not more favorable by the next elections, the overall outcome will certainly be affected.

            The Prime Minister of Moldova also stated that the existence of an independent Moldova depends only on Ukrainian resistance. If the Kremlin succeeded in spreading the war to Moldova, the small military capacity here would not be able to prevent certain defeat. With the fall of Ukraine, we can expect the fall of Moldova, or a dramatic change of political direction back to Russia (Tocci, 2023). The European Union is also providing certain support to Moldova, maintaining and increasing trade with it, thereby reducing the pro-Kremlin sentiment. Increasing bilateral trade is accompanied by Transnistria, which also trades with Europe alongside Moldova and has free market access. Tellingly, Moldova and Transnistria’s trade is stronger with the European Union than with Russia. In June 2022, Moldova, together with Ukraine, applied to join the European Union, after which they were granted candidate status confirming their aspirations and integration into Western organisations. The Moldovan population is highly polarised on this issue, and EU integration will certainly sever long-established relations with Russia. It is due to Transnistria that negotiations on accession to the EU have not been opened, as the acceding state must have control over its entire territory. Another indicator of pro-Western tendencies in Moldova is the desire to leave the Commonwealth of Independent Nations controlled by Russia and in which Moldova was involved as a result of continued cooperation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Continued efforts to integrate westwards are not acceptable to Russia and it has been accused several times of trying to overthrow the Moldovan government and create a pro-Russian friendly regime. However, these attempts have rather reinforced previous ideas of westward integration (Gavin, 2023). In this regard, the presidential elections in 2024 will be significantly important as they may bring about the retention of a pro-European head of state. Certainly, they will unleash Moscow‘s extensive propaganda efforts and the replacement of Maia Sandu by a pro-Russian candidate.

Regional consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war

The Russo-Ukrainian war has brought a number of security changes to both Transnistria and Moldova while certainly weakening both regions. The closure and surveillance of smuggling routes has denied Russians and illegal trade access to Transnistria, which has affected the local economy and also caused an increase in bilateral trade with the European Union. The greater isolation of Transnistria has raised questions about whether this is the best time to reclaim the breakaway region. Moldova does not want an internal conflict, yet regains Transnistria only through peaceful and voluntary means. The Moldovan leadership wants to focus primarily on the security of the citizens themselves and the entire state in activism against Russian destabilization efforts (Reuters, 2023). There is also an illegal migration phenomenon between Moldova and Transnistria due to fears of conflict. This precarious situation increases instability in the region (Erizanu, 2023). Many Ukrainian refugees have also fled to Moldova since the beginning of the invasion (United Nations, 2023).

            Throughout, Russia seeks to undermine relations with Western structures through disinformation, targeted manipulative information and cyberattacks. A frequent target of misinformation is President, Maia Sandu, and her pro-Western policies. Russian efforts and the reduction of her position will certainly be evident in the forthcoming elections, which will decide the future direction of Moldova. President Sandu is advocating the creation of an anti-propaganda centre that will present Russian disinformation to Moldovans and protect them from it (Necsutu, 2023). Another influential factor on the internal influence in Moldova is the high energy prices caused by the European energy crisis since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Citizens blame the high prices on the political leadership, which again plays into Russia’s hands to maintain influence.

            From a military point of view, there is the possibility of a direct confrontation between troops from Transnistria and Ukrainian soldiers deployed along the Transnistrian border to prevent pro-Russian soldiers from entering Ukrainian territory. The bombings of official buildings in Tiraspol and staged attacks around military bases may be just the point at which a clash will occur. A possible clash is not foreseen at the moment, but if it were to occur, Moldova would be involved in the whole conflict and would be affected by the clash. There is no presumption that Moldova would militarily seek to join the Transnistrian region. There also remains the question of what the Transnistrian leadership would do if it went bankrupt as a result of Moldova’s cessation of electricity purchases. Transnistria is already very isolated from Russia and the economic benefits of relations with the West may be tempting (Russel, 2023). Moldova’s political leadership believes that the frozen conflict in Transnistria could be resolved within a few years thanks to European integration.

Conclusion

Both Transnistria and Moldova are in a very precarious position in the wake of the war in Ukraine. First and foremost, Transnistria and Moldova are targets of disinformation and Russian propaganda, which is trying to maintain its influence here at all costs. It is precisely because of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the current war in Ukraine that Russian contacts with Transnistria have been significantly reduced, which has contributed to strengthening relations and trade with Western structures. Energy security is fragile in both regions. Moldova is still dependent on Transnistria despite buying energy from international markets, but Transnistria’s energy production is entirely dependent on Russia. There are increasingly strong pro-Western tendencies in both regions, especially in Moldova with President Maia Sandu. Russia is trying to undermine the growing pro-Western sentiment precisely through disinformation, cyber-attacks and the promotion of a pro-Russian narrative. There is no prospect of a clash between Moldova and Transnistria, as the Moldovan leadership accepts only a peaceful connection with the breakaway region. The question now is how the situation in Ukraine will develop further and what effect the enforced isolation of Transnistria from direct Russian influence will have. A reorientation towards the West may be very economically advantageous and attractive for Transnistria. If Russia does not have the capacity to fight in Ukraine while preventing this shift, it is possible that the frozen conflict in Transnistria could be resolved. Conversely, if Russia is able to engage militarily in Transnistria, it can be assumed that Moldova will not be able to resist this overwhelming force. One of the most important factors in developments in the region will also be the outcome of the presidential elections in Moldova in 2024.

Written by Ondrej Pragr

Sources

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