The small unrecognised country is located along Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, making Transnistria a crucial location for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Not many have heard about a tiny country called Transnistria, which is a pro-Russian breakaway state from Moldova in Eastern Europe. Its total area is 4,163 square kilometres and hosts a population of 350,000, according to Moldovan estimates.
But it carries crucial importance for the world’s second biggest army, Russia, if the country’s President Vladimir Putin decides for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Transnistria is located along much of Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine. Moldova, a landlocked Eastern European state between Ukraine and Romania, is located south of Ukraine. In Transnistria, Russia has around 1,500 troops, which is a significant presence considering the breakaway state’s military has around 5,000 soldiers.
Russia has amassed mass troops on the Crimean Peninsula, a southern Ukrainian region with a Black Sea coast, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014. Moscow also deployed a significant number of troops in Belarus, a pro-Russian state located north of Ukraine. Eastern borders of Ukraine have been already compromised with heavy Russian military presence.
As a result, while it’s a tiny state, Transnistria, located southwest of Ukraine with a 400km-long border line with Kiev, can help Russia put a nearly full military siege over Ukraine from south, north and east.
In the case of a full Russian invasion, Moscow can use its military presence in the breakaway state to join its forces between the Crimean Peninsula and Transnistria, cutting Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea coast and effectively rendering it landlocked.
Remarkably, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Transnistrian parliament’s president asked to join Moscow. In many places across the breakaway region, Russian flags flutter alongside Transnistrian flags.
Earlier this month, Russians also undertook military drills in Transnistria, showing the world how it can use its presence in the breakaway state in relation to the Ukrainian crisis. Russian troops in the unrecognised country also guard an ammunition depot - the largest in Eastern Europe.
But it’s not just politics, economically, Transnistria is dependent on Russia for everything from its gas supply to financial aid.
The population also holds an interesting balance between Russians and Ukrainians. While Russians stand for 29 percent of the breakaway state, Ukrainians represent nearly 23 percent of the Transnistrian population. Moldavians also account for nearly 29 percent of the breakaway state’s population.
The breakaway state has only been recognised by several unrecognised regions like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which are also pro-Russian breakaway states from Georgia, a pro-Western state with serious problems with Moscow.
Living the past
Transnistria continues to maintain Soviet-era communist symbols like the statues of Vladimir Lenin, one of the founders of Soviet communism, and a flag with the hammer and sickle. In that sense, the country looks like a place from the past and a great place to visit for those interested in experiencing communist nostalgia.
Even Russia, the predecessor state of the Soviets, removed Lenin statues across the country as it also changed its hammer and sickle flag after the collapse of communism in 1991. There is no other country which still uses a hammer and sickle in its flag.
The unrecognised state emerged during the dissolution of the Soviets in the 1990s. Being part of Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, Transnistrians did not want to leave the Soviets even if Moldova chose to depart from the communist union.
As a result, they established the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, which would later be known as Transnistria. When Moldova became an independent state in 1991, Transnistria insisted on staying separate from the eastern European country, leading to a military conflict between the two sides.
In 1992, a ceasefire was declared, but since then, the region’s status has remained unresolved, making it one of the frozen conflicts of the post-Cold War era. Transnistria has its own president, parliament, currency and military.
“It makes us sad that our independence isn’t officially recognised, but we feel independent,” Vera Galchenko, a public servant, told BBC in 2020.