The next conflict in the former Soviet Union may be brewing in Transdniestria, the unrecognized breakaway region of Moldova.
The small force (approximately 1,500 strong) of Russian “peacekeepers” and other Russian troops protecting the region since the 1990s is now in a strategically desperate position, cut off from Russia by a hostile Ukraine and hopelessly outnumbered by the Ukrainian army. Since the summer of 2022, Moldova has blocked the rotation of new Russian peacekeepers to Transdniestria. The Moldovan Prime Minister, Dorin Recean, has called for the Russian force to be expelled.
For either Ukrainian or Moldovan forces to move against the Russian garrison could trigger a major escalation by Russia elsewhere. However, an economic blockade of the region would also be enough to rapidly bring it to its knees. The dangers of the Trandniestrian issue have been highlighted by bomb attacks in its capital, Tiraspol, and by Russian allegations that Ukraine is planning military action against Transdniestria, and by allegations by the Ukrainian and Moldovan governments of a Russian plot to initiate a coup by pro-Russian elements in Moldova itself.
Like so many post-imperial disputes, the background to the Transdniestrian issue is extraordinarily complicated. Geographically, what is now Trandniestria is the portion of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova lying east of the Dnieper river. It is a narrow strip of 1,600 square miles of land, some 250 miles long but barely 25 miles wide at its broadest point. Its 475,000 people are approximately 29 percent Russian, 28 percent Roman-speaking Moldovan and 23 percent Ukrainian, with the remainder including Bulgarians and others who settled there under the Russian empire.
In the early modern period, the region was largely populated by Turkic nomads owing allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan. In 1812, the Russian empire conquered the Romanian-speaking territory of what is now Moldova from the Ottomans, and turned it into the province of Bessarabia. What is now Transdniestria however was divided between the neighboring, mainly Ukrainian-speaking provinces of Kherson and Podolia. When the Russian Empire collapsed in the first world war, Bessarabia was seized by Romania, but what is now Transdniestria fell under Soviet rule and was turned into part of a “Moldavian autonomous region” within Ukraine.
In 1940, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin regained Moldova and joined most of the Moldavian autonomous region to it to create the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, with a large Romanian-speaking Moldovan majority. Transdniestria however remained ethnically distinct, and also differed socio-economically from the rest of Moldova. It was more heavily industrialized, and this in turn attracted labor migration from Russia and Ukraine. As elsewhere in the industrialized regions of the Soviet Union, a majority of the population spoke Russian.
When the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1990-91, Transdniestria saw the growth of agitation for separation from Moldova, and a return to the separate status that had existed prior to 1940. As with the Russian-speaking population of Crimea, they pointed out that they had never been asked which Soviet republic they wished to belong to.
To judge by my own visits to the region as a British journalist in the 1990s and other surveys, many local residents feared not only ethnic discrimination by Moldovans, but that Moldova might vote to join Romania, at which point the Russian-speaking population of Trandniestria would become a tiny and powerless minority. These fears were assiduously played upon by the KGB in an effort to block Moldovan independence.
The result was a brief conflict in the first half of 1992 between Moldova and the Transdniestrian separatists (backed by elements of the former Soviet army) that resulted in around 700 dead, and was brought to an end by the intervention of Russian peacekeepers. Since then, a truce has held with very little violence and considerable trade between and through Moldova and Transdniestria.
Transdniestria has not been officially recognised by any other state (including Russia), but has survived from a mixture of semi-legal trade and Russian subsidies (including free gas which continues to flow through Ukraine, paradoxically enough). Russia has used the issue as a way of blocking Moldovan moves towards membership of the European Union and NATO.
Moldovan governments have themselves swung between pro-Russian and pro-Western parties; in part perhaps because Moldovans are divided in their feelings about neighboring Romania, where they suspect that a great many people feel privately that Moldova really ought to be part of Romania again.
At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces tried to drive across southern Ukraine, which if successful would have allowed them to link up with Transdniestria. However, they suffered a crushing defeat around the town of Voznesensk. In early November 2022 Russia retreated from the city of Kherson, its only bridgehead west of the Dnieper (Dnipro) river.
Barring a total (and highly improbable) collapse of the Ukrainian army, it now looks impossible for Russia to reinforce Transdniestria.
This would seem on the face of it to make it unlikely that Russia would wish to precipitate a new crisis over a region that it cannot defend. Nor, despite Ukrainian warnings, is the small Russian force in Transdniestria any longer in any position to threaten Ukraine from the west. It has not made any move to do so up to now, even at the start of the war when Russian forces in the south appeared to be making rapid advances.
On the other hand, elements in both Moldova and Ukraine might conceivably see a chance to resolve the Transdniestrian issue by force, thereby both imposing a humiliating defeat on Russia and opening the way for Moldova to move towards membership of NATO.
If such ambitions do exist, they should not be encouraged by Washington. Apart from the risk of Russian escalation elsewhere, the resolution of ethnic disputes by force is not something that the West should support. Moldovan or Ukrainian victory in Transdniestria would also set an example that Georgians might find it impossible not to imitate when it comes to their own separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are also backed by Russia and unrecognized by the rest of the world.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are however in a very different position strategically from Transdniestria. They lie on Russia’s border, and can easily be reinforced from Russia. The last time that Georgia tried to reconquer South Ossetia by force, in August 2008, the result was military disaster for Georgia. The Russian army could easily have captured the Georgian capital Tbilisi and overthrown the Georgian government, but Putin was persuaded to call a halt by the personal intervention of the then French President, Nicholas Sarkozy. Given the drastic deterioration of Franco-Russian relations over the past year, it is highly unlikely that an intervention by President Emmanuel Macron would have the same effect today.
The United States would then be faced with a most unpleasant and dangerous choice, between standing by and watching a partner be crushed, or sending U.S. troops to fight Russia in Georgia — something that the Biden administration has been determined to avoid in Ukraine, and has so far avoided.
This being so, Washington should advise against any military moves against Transdniestria, and should also ask the United Nations to initiate negotiations for a diplomatic solution to the Transdniestrian dispute. Russian peacekeepers should be replaced with a force of neutral UN peacekeepers. This is something that Russia has resisted in the past, but might now be persuaded to accept, given the extreme vulnerability of its own peacekeepers in the region.Moldova and Transdniestria should be encouraged to form a confederation, in which Transdniestria would enjoy full autonomy.
The price of the Russian peacekeepers leaving would be a treaty of neutrality, modeled on the one by which Soviet and Western forces left Austria in 1955. Membership of NATO (and the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation) would be barred, but the way would then be open for such a confederation to move towards membership of the European Union — a very considerable incentive for all the people of the region.