Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Moldova

A Russian-dominated breakaway region of another former Soviet Republic, just up the river from the Black Sea and a short hop from Crimea, has formally requested the Russian Federation follow up on its Crimea annexation by doing the same there.

Although many Western observers initially thought the continuing buildup of Russian troops near Eastern Ukraine was intended for a possible invasion of Eastern Ukraine, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said today that he is worried it may in fact be the Russian Army positioning itself for another intervention on the other side of Ukraine and Crimea, in the Transdniestria region of Moldova.

A month ago I would have said that was nonsense — and it still feels strategically and logistically less likely than the Crimea takeover — but a month ago, few were expecting such a brazen seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to expand upon my “Beginner’s Guide to the Post-Soviet ‘Near Abroad'” prepare some research on Transdniestria and Moldova.
The landlocked Eastern European country of Moldova is wedged between southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania. The predominant language is Moldovan, which is effectively the same language as Romanian and since 1989 has used the Roman alphabet instead of the Cyrillic alphabet (previously enforced by Moscow). The country has been independent since 1991 when the Soviet Union ended, but it changed hands and was carved up many times in the past 500 years. At various points, parts of the country were ruled by the Ottomans, the Romanians, the Lithuanians, the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union.

The borders have also changed quite a few times in that time and Moldova has struggled to find its geographical place in the region. Part of the country had long been a Russian Empire border zone (on the edge of Ukraine) and was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union right after World War I, when the Russian Empire collapsed and was replaced by the communist government. The rest of the country was part of Romania during the interwar years. After World War II, the parts of what are now Moldova today were fused together into a Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the smaller of the USSR’s member republics.

So, as you can imagine, by the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, things were pretty confusing and jumbled. There wasn’t a clearly defined national identity because there wasn’t even a clearly defined historical area or legacy of self-rule. It was possible that Moldova might even try to rejoin Romania, which has the most in common with the bulk of the country and had previously controlled it several times. After late 1989, when Romania’s totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been executed, it seemed to Moldovan nationalists like a good escape route from Soviet/Russian domination, which had not yet ended.

This plan, unfortunately, didn’t sit well with the longstanding Russian population from the other side of the Dniester River, the zone that had not been part of Romania during the interwar years (having been almost immediately brought into the Soviet Union by 1924). This was a place that had been a militarized frontier of the Russian Empire since 1793 and had suffered greatly under Axis-Romanian occupation during World War II — experiencing forced Romanianization and the murders of over 100,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews in Axis concentration camps built in the region.

This geographical area, the narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, effectively Moldova’s Russianized East Bank (and a few communities on the Moldovan side of the river), is known in English as the Trans-Dniester region or Transdniestria/Transnistria and other variants adapted from the Romanian point-of-reference to “the area across the Dniester.”

The bulk of the rest of Moldova, the Dniester’s West Bank, is the non-Russian-speaking area referred to as “Bessarabia” — which has changed hands far more often than Transdniestria. By the early 1990s, Transdniestria’s Russian population, despite now being separated from the Russian Soviet Federal Republic by the entirety of a newly independent Ukraine, still saw itself as the Western-most outpost of historical Russia, and felt very threatened by the pro-Romanian nationalism of the Moldovan independence movement that had broken the country away from the Soviet Union.

They promptly declared independence from Moldova as the USSR was breaking up and — after some initial skirmishes in the first politically chaotic months — the new Moldovan military tried to invade the Transdniestria region.

Below: The current flag of the breakaway region.

Complicating matters was the giant, heavily armed elephant in the room: The fact that the Soviet Union’s 14th Army had been stationed in eastern Moldova (Transdniestria) at the time of independence and was assigned to Russia, rather than Moldova, when the former Soviet states were divvying up the old USSR’s Army and Navy.

(Remember, as we’ve just been reading about in recent weeks, that this was not wholly unusual, given that Russia’s Navy continued to station its Black Sea Fleet in nearby Sevastopol, Crimea to present day, even after dividing the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Russia and Ukraine in 1991/1992. And as previously discussed on this site, the Russian-assigned ex-Soviet Army in Tajikistan actually got stuck there on a former Soviet base until the civil war outside ended.)

Rather than scrambling home to Russia in a rather chaotic manner, as other Russian ex-Soviet forces in non-bordering countries such as Armenia had done (see previous link), the former Soviet 14th Army remained behind in Moldova’s Transdniestria region, as events began spiraling out of control on the ground.

At this point in the narrative, I’ll turn to an account I’ve referenced before on this site and on the radio show, Alexander Sokolov’s very valuable mid-1990s article “Russian Peace-Keeping Forces in the Post-Soviet Area”:

In the spring of 1992, the conflict in Transdnestr flared up. In this region a tension was emerging, dating back to 1989, between the Government of Moldova (which was first a party and government leadership of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic and later, after 1991, became the Government of the independent Moldovan Republic) and the local Russian-speaking population of the Transdnestr region, which declared the creation of its own Transdnestr Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (which also later became the Transdnestr Moldovan Republic). The separatist mood in Transdnestr was sympathetically supported by the locally-stationed Soviet 14th Army. A number of unfortunate political moves by both sides led to the escalation of tensions and to armed clashes beginning in the autumn of 1990, which developed into open war in March 1992.

Under intense pressure from nationalist circles, the Russian leadership became actively involved in the events taking place in Moldova. The opposition demanded military assistance for the Russian-speaking population of Transdnestr. Volunteers, including groups of Cossacks, headed for the region to support the separatists.
On 2 April 1992 the units that remained in the [ex-Soviet] 14th Army were transferred to the jurisdiction of Russia. This happened on the day after a failed attempt by the Moldovan police to enter Benderi, one of the cities controlled by Transdnestrian authorities. The military garrison in Benderi launched an appeal to give the 14th Army based in the region the status of peace-keeping forces.
The nationalist Moldovan leadership also attempted to solve the problem by military means. On 19 June 1992, regular units of the Moldovan army entered Benderi. A large number of civilians perished during the military confrontation. Units of the Transdnestr separatists, using equipment from the 14th Army, halted the advance of the government forces. A war for position had started in the region.

Russian forces supported the separatists. General Alexander Lebed, the commander of the 14th Army, threatened to march on Kishenev and Russian artillery started to bombard the Moldovan forces. The open participation of the 14th Army brought the Moldovan forces to the verge of military defeat.

Only after that came the agreement between Moldova and Russia entitled ‘Principles of the Peaceful Settlement of the Armed Conflict in Transdnestr’, signed on 23 June 1992. According to this agreement trilateral peace-keeping forces were established, which included representatives of the warring sides and Russia.

The peace-keeping forces included twelve battalions, six of which were Russian. The Russian part of the peace-keeping forces was sent to Transdnestr and drawn from military formations in the Volga region inside Russia.

A security zone was established – 220 km long and 10-20 km wide – on both sides of the river Dnestr. The leadership of the peace-keeping forces was given to the United Controlling Commission for the Settlement of the Armed Conflict in Transdnestr Region, which included six representatives of the warring parties and Russia. The actions of the Russian peace-keepers included the minimal standards set for measures of separation. The forces separated the warring parties, controlled weapon depots and organized checkpoints.
Additionally, the peace-keeping forces proceeded to confiscate illegally kept firearms and ammunition. They also cleared mines from dams, gardens and fields.

During their activity, the representatives of the different components of the peace-keeping forces conducted some tasks jointly and some separately. Joint checkpoints were established on the roads involving representatives of one of the warring sides and Russia. The protection of the dam on the Dnestr from explosions was conducted exclusively by Russian forces. According to the account of one officer who participated in the protection of the hydroelectric power station, there were several attempts to blow it up by both sides. In some cases, when the intentions of the groups advancing on the power station by night were obvious, the peace-keepers opened fire without warning from a special ambush.

To this day, mediators have been unable to resolve the situation permanently. Russian peacekeeping forces were eventually reduced significantly to divert manpower to the First Chechen War of the mid-1990s as well as to other hot conflicts in the Russian Federation itself and nearby. Much of the ex-Soviet 14th Army remained in place as a pseudo-army of the breakaway region and there are still over 1,000 Russian Federation peacekeeping troops present, including some former elements of the now disbanded 14th Army.

Negotiations since the early 1990s have resulted in a number of successful interim agreements, but the de facto situation is that Transdniestria has been independent from Moldova by military force and Russian support since the early 1990s, thought it has not been recognized by any countries. One bright spot in the situation is that people are able to travel pretty freely in and out of Transdniestria, both westward into the rest of Moldova and eastward into Ukraine, and there are stable transportation links between the areas.

Many of the 555,000 residents of Transdniestria, beyond their internationally unrecognized citizenship statuses, hold multiple citizenships as Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Russians. 150,000 fall in the latter category, which could easily prompt Russian intervention under the Crimea playbook. Additionally, given the existing presence of Russian peacekeeping troops and Russian-speaking paramilitaries, it would be relatively easy to sneak in more “mystery troops” as seen in Crimea — apart from the problem of Russia having to get them over Ukrainian or Moldovan territory/airspace.

Transdniestria is partially dependent on Russian support but not entirely dominated politically by Moscow, at least until the recent request for annexation. Seizing the area would also be a fresh way for Russia to stick it to the Western Ukrainian leadership, which has typically in the past sided with Moldova on negotiations and governance matters regarding Transdniestria.

The United States and NATO have generally also sided with Moldova on the need to re-merge Transdniestria peacefully back into the rest of the country. Keep an eye out in the coming days for John McCain to follow up on his “We are all Ukrainains now” blather with more kneejerk anti-Russian bleating about how we are all Moldovans now. He was already beating the “Moldova-is-next” drum on Fox News as early as last week, ahead of NATO’s European Supreme Allied Commander’s comments today. And back in 2011 (see photo below), McCain visited Moldova to complain loudly about Russian military presence in Transdniestria, even though it’s much less contentious and dangerous there than in the breakaway areas of the Georgia Republic to which he compared it (as he does everything, often).

I hope all of this has been in some way helpful and informative. I also sincerely hope Russia doesn’t try to annex Transdniestria.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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