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Transnistria Could Be the Next Greatest Threat to Ukraine

Two days ahead of the Russian presidential election, incumbent President Vladimir Putin was asked in a national address about the potential use of nuclear weapons in the Russia-Ukraine War. He replied that he currently doesn’t see the point, but that “weapons exist in order to use them.” The war is quickly ratcheting up, and with one-fifth of Ukrainian territory currently under Russian control and international support wavering, any advantage for Russia could be devastating for Ukraine. The little Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria could provide the tipping point that Putin is looking for. 

Transnistria, officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a small strip of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, making up just 1,350 square miles. A former Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), the state is formally designated part of Moldova but enjoys de facto autonomy. Though Transnistria’s independence remains unrecognized by every member of the United Nations (U.N.), it maintains its own national bank, currency, flag, and national anthem. The only of the post-Soviet states to retain the hammer-and-sickle icon on their flag, it remains a symbol of both its historical pro-Russian sentiment and current national identity as Russian. 

Most recently, Transnistria’s ruling body has drawn greater international scrutiny by officially seeking Russian economic and political backing. It’s a move that many close members of the government warn is part of an eventual effort to officially declare independence from Moldova and seek Russian annexation. If trends hold true, the coming actions of the Transnistrian and Russian governments may pose the next greatest threat to a Ukrainian victory against Russian aggression. 

Though not always in the international spotlight, the local political scene in Transnistria has been this volatile for decades. Under the control of the Russian Empire since the mid-18th century, Transnistria was absorbed into the Russian bloc of the USSR when it was first formed in 1922. It was only in 1940 that Transnistria was transferred to the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. Most modern-day Transnistrians maintain that they are not truly Moldovan, as their inclusion into the country was one of political and geographical convenience rather than ethnic or ideological compatibility.

The then-Moldavian SSR declared independence from the USSR in 1990. Transnistrian authorities were so staunchly opposed to the move that they themselves declared independence from Moldova within the same year. When Moldova received official recognition from the U.N. in 1992, Russian-backed separatists in Transnistria grew more emboldened, launching a five-month civil war that claimed an estimated 1,000 lives. In failing to obtain full sovereignty, Transnistria officially became an autonomous region within Moldova while maintaining a strong separatist element. According to a 2006 referendum, 97.2% of Transnistrian citizens are in favor of “free accession to the Russian Federation,” and just a year ago, Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselsky reaffirmed the region’s commitment to those ends. 

Tensions between the Moldovan authorities and the autonomous power of Transnistria have been quietly simmering since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In June of 2022, Moldova was granted candidate status to the European Union, thereby moving away from Russia’s sphere of influence and into that of the West. This development has proven to be a turning point for Moldovan-Transnistrian relations. 

Ukraine, for its part, has cracked down on illegal trade from companies previously operating under Transnistrian registration. A 2006 international agreement between Moldova and Ukraine has forced those companies trading with Ukraine to obtain registration processed by Moldova, as opposed to Transnistria. The agreement has given Moldova unprecedented power over Transnistria’s economic operations. Russia and Transnistria, in a joint statement, declared these actions an “economic blockade.” In response, Russia and Transnistria attempted to build a blockade between Ukrainian and Moldovan trade, but with such limited resources, the attempt didn’t last two weeks. However, all of this preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

More recently, President Zelenskyy’s recent closure of the Ukraine-Transnistria border and high import taxes from Moldova have simultaneously contributed to a significant economic downturn. This economic strife, in addition to Moldova’s candidate status in the EU and preexisting separatist sentiment, has lit a fire under the movement for independence and eventual Russian annexation. On February 28 of this year, President Krasnoselsky called a rare special meeting of the Supreme Council. The Council passed a resolution wherein the Transnistrian government blamed the current economic crisis on the combined actions of Moldova and Ukraine and sought the economic and political support of the Russian Federation. According to Ghenadie Ciorba, a well-known Transnistrian opposition figure, the request “on behalf of [Transnistrian] citizens to accept Transnistria into the Russian Federation” is coming soon. 

As prime real estate between Ukraine and Moldova, Russian control of Transnistria could easily prove to be a danger to the sovereignty of both countries. The region could provide Russia with two key strategic positions: first, yet another front from which to attack Ukraine, and second, a possible front from which to extend their invasion into Moldova. 

Currently, 1,300 Russian troops are already stationed in Transnistria. According to Politico, should the region fall under Russian control, those troops automatically become “a potential occupation force.” With the loss of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka to Russia just last month and international military aid stalling, the chances of a Ukrainian win in the war are steadily dwindling. Any actions providing an advantage to Russia pose a significant threat to Ukrainian and Moldovan sovereignty. 

At the time of publishing, neither Russia nor Moldova have responded to the recent actions of the Transnistrian government. Individual Moldovan government officials have dismissed the Supreme Council’s resolution as separatist propaganda and denied any risk of escalation. 

In the meantime, Transnistrian civilians are becoming the targets of shelling campaigns from unknown assailants. A series of bombings across Transnistria were reported in 2022. Though no government or organization has taken credit, the strongest possibility, as described by The Washington Post, may be a widespread Russian effort to destabilize the region. In that case, the perpetrators have achieved their exact goals. 

While the national security concerns for Ukraine and Moldova are obvious, some analysts argue that Russia doesn’t have the military capabilities to annex Transnistria in the first place. They may not possess the troops and equipment necessary to supply another front to the war. The truth is that Russia’s silence is not telling. Those watching the war closely can do nothing but wait and see what happens next. 

Such a small region of the world has the strong potential to provide the decisive moment in the Russia-Ukraine War, with all the national and international repercussions that holds. This is just the beginning. 

Featured Image: WIRED

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