Moldova, a neighbouring state to Ukraine, has a breakaway region called Transnistria, where Russians have troops. Recently Moldova asked Russians to leave the region, angering Moscow.

Moldova, a pro-Western state, is caught in another round of tensions with Russia. Moscow’s military presence in Transnistria, a breakaway region, which is located along much of Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, has become a major bone of contention.

With the explosion of the Ukraine conflict in February, Moldovans have repeatedly called on Russians to withdraw their “illegal” military presence in Transnistria, a pro-Russian enclave, which refuses to be part of the eastern European state. 

On Thursday, Moldovans received a forceful response from Moscow. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that if Chisinau conducts “any kind of actions that will raise a threat to” Russian forces in Transnistria, Moscow will see it “as an attack on the Russian Federation.” 

But Moldova, a former Soviet Union republic with a 2.6 million population that seeks to be part of the EU, did not back off in the face of Russian threats. 

“As ever, Chisinau remains fully committed to a peaceful dialogue in the Transnistrian settlement & in calling Russia to withdraw troops stationed illegally on our territory. Any suggestion of a different approach is unfounded,” wrote Daniel Voda, a spokesperson for the Moldovan Foreign Ministry, on Twitter. 

With the “peaceful dialogue”, Voda refers to efforts to bring an end to a post-Soviet conflict between Moldova and Transnistria, which has not been well-known globally until the Russian attack on Ukraine. 

Following the Russian offensive, political analysts began arguing that Moscow might use its military presence in the breakaway region to open a third front from the west against Ukraine. While Russia has not launched an offensive from Transnistria up to date, in recent months tensions between Moldova and Russia have considerably increased, spreading fears of another armed conflict near Ukrainian borders. 

Russia has stationed peacekeeping troops in Transnistria since the early 1990s when an armed conflict saw pro-Russian separatists wrest most of the region from Moldovan control.
Russia has stationed peacekeeping troops in Transnistria since the early 1990s when an armed conflict saw pro-Russian separatists wrest most of the region from Moldovan control. (TRTWorld)

History of tensions

The history of tensions between Russia and Moldova go back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when the latter gained its independence from the communist state. But Transnistria, where Russians are the largest population, wanted to stay with the Soviets, leading to a military confrontation with Moldovan central authorities. 

In 1992, both sides agreed to a ceasefire, establishing a Russian peacekeeping force in the breakaway region. Currently, Russians have around 1,500 troops, a significant military presence compared to the strength of Moldovan armed forces, which is estimated at approximately 3,000 servicemen. 

Three decades after the declaration of the 1992 ceasefire, Moldovans now apparently do not want Russian forces, which are deployed there beyond peacekeeping mission territory, while Moscow insists that its military presence in Transnistria takes its mandate from international law, a point Lavrov made in his recent warning against Chisinau. 

During his statement in regard to the Transnistria conflict, Lavrov also pointed out a previous conflict in South Ossetia, a breakaway state from Georgia in Caucasia as an example for what might happen to Moldova if it went against Russian troops. 

In 2008, there was an armed conflict between Georgian central authorities and the two pro-Moscow breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russians had peacekeeping troops. Eventually, Russia intervened in the conflict, helping both breakaway regions to separate from Georgia. 

In late July, as a sign of escalating tensions, Russia accused Moldova with sabotaging the rotation of its troops in Transnistria, not allowing new weaponry to reach the breakaway region. Moldova denied the Russian accusations. 

“Our country rejects the accusations launched [by Russia], with the explicit mention that cases of non-authorised entry of certain Russian servicemen are related to [Russian] non-compliance with the criteria established in the mechanism,” said a Moldovan official statement. 

Similarities between Moldova and Ukraine

Particularly, since the Russian attack on Ukraine, some analysts have argued that Moscow might also conduct another special operation against Moldova as it is now doing against Kiev, finding similarities between Ukrainian and Moldovan cases. 

“Many Russian officials’ statements on Moldova echo the views they articulated about Ukraine both prior to and since the 2022 invasion. For instance, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, recently suggested that Moldovan authorities are anti-Russian and are attempting to ‘cancel all that is Russian’,” wrote Dumitru Minzarari, a political analyst on Moldova-Russia ties, in late July. 

But similarities between Ukraine and Moldova do not stop there. There are other stark resemblances between the two neighbouring states. Both states were former Soviet republics and the two countries, which have sizable Russian-speaking populations, have faced a separatism problem. 

In Moldova’s east like eastern Ukraine, Moscow has backed pro-Russian Transnistrians against Chisinau. Like Ukraine, Moldova also wants to be integrated in the EU as both states also have connections with NATO, angering Moscow. 

Like eastern Ukraine's political situation, which some described as a ‘frozen conflict’ prior to Russia’s February attack, Transnistria’s status has also remained unresolved, making it one of the unsolved disputes of the post-Cold War era between Russia and former Soviet republics. 

After the Russian attack on Ukraine, Moscow-backed eastern Ukrainian breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared their independence. Transnistria, which is internationally recognised as part of Moldova, has also had its own president, parliament, currency and military since 1992. 

Source: TRT World