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Transnistria: An unrecognised republic is turning into a European time bomb

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In Transnistria, there is an increase in conflict of different governmental branches, as well as the conflict between the president and the business community. No other modern conflict, including the Ukrainian and Syrian ones is a bigger threat to Russia in terms of clashing with NATO in such a blunt and straight forward way.

Transnistria: An unrecognised republic is turning into a European time bomb

Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Comrade Korolyov exclusively for SouthFront

All attention of the Russian political elites, expert community and media is concentrated on Ukraine and Syria. There was next to no attention drawn to the fact that Kiev and Kishenyov suddenly increased the strictness of goods transfer through the borders with Transnistiria. Partially, this is understandable: there are no shots fired there yet, and the scale seems to be incomparable to what is happening in Ukraine or Syria.

Consequences of the blockade

Meanwhile, the intensification of the situation in Transnistria can lead to much more serious threats to Russian national security than Ukrainian and Syrian problems combined. This is so, because there is an Operational Group of Russian Troops stationed on the territory of the unrecognised republic. In it, there is a separate motorised infantry battalion (of peacekeepers, about 400 people), two battalions from Army unit 13962 – 1500 people (security of armoury/ammunition storage facilities and vehicle parking space), a helicopter squad and logistics facilities. Here, near township Kolbasna, one of the biggest weapons storage facilities in Europe is located, it was left here from the times the USSR ruled these lands. It was here, the ammunition from the Soviet Army units that were leaving DDR, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, was stored. There are over 100 tanks, 50 infantry support vehicles, 100 APCs and 200 AA missile launchers, AT missile complexes, “Grad” artillery rocket launchers, a huge amount of artillery guns and mortars, airborne infantry support cars, over 35 thousand cars and automobile chassis, 500 units of engineering tech, 130 train cars with engineering equipment and 1300 tonnes of explosives, 30 thousand assault rifles, machine guns and other personal weaponry here. The amount of ammunition (artillery rounds, aviation bombs, mines, grenades, rounds) exceeds 21 500 tonnes (430 train cars), but over 50% of these are outdated.

We cannot leave this region without our attention and care because over 150 thousand people out of nearly half a million strong Transnistria population have a Russian citizenship. To provide their security is an obligation of the Russian state that is written in the Russian constitution. If an explosion occurs because of a diversion or unqualified personal handling dangerous materials, the results and consequences of the explosion will be comparable to atomic bombardment of Hiroshima or Nagasaki and it will be Russian Federation that will be held accountable for this tragedy.

In this setting Ukraine and Moldavia are taking steps to sharply decrease the transit of cargo from Transnistria and back. Meanwhile, Transnistria does not share a border with any other country and does not have access to the ocean. Therefore the actions of Moldavian and Ukrainian governments can lead to a blockade of the region. We can even argue about legitimacy of such actions. The one thing is important: Transnistria is faced with economic disaster shall this blockade indeed happen. The Operational Group of Russian Troops will be isolated from Russia as well.

Transnistria has no maritime connection with Russia. Railways – through Ukraine – is easily stopped at any moment convenient to the neo Neo-Nazi Ukrainian government. Via air – through Ukraine – is already stopped, via roads – de-facto stopped as well. In case of further restrictions on transit through Transnistrian borders Russia may be faced with a dilemma: surrender the region, therefore accepting its defeat, or “crush through” the blockade with all means available including military means, if all else fails.

The first option will mean an accelerated integration of Transnistria into Moldavia with a possible inclusion of the latter into NATO and further increase of military threats to Russia, sharp decline in presidential authority in the eyes of the Russian people (and all ruling elite), creation of appropriate settings for destabilisation of socio-political situation in Russia (which can bring about a social explosion).

A military operation to create a corridor from the Black Sea shores to Transnistria will occur either in Ukraine or Moldavia. In both cases it will be over quickly – neither Kiev nor Kishinev have any means to repel a Russian naval invasion. The corridor will be created. However NATO’s military involvement is almost inevitable in this case, this means a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO. There will not be enough time to create a powerful joint military group in limited Transnistrian territory, let alone provide supplies and other logistics services for it. This means NATO troops will have absolute domination in forces. As a result Russia will either have to accept a military defeat in a small conflict with NATO, which is catastrophic for internal affairs in the country, or to increase the scale of conflict, spreading it to neighbouring territories. The answer is obvious: a military conflict in Transnistria will most likely increase in size, slowly turning into a global conflict between NATO and Russia. However, Russian military potential is still smaller than that of the West. This means, the war turning nuclear is a very real possibility.
Because of this, we need to look at the situation in Transnistria itself.

Course onto nationalisation

According to highest echelons of power in the unrecognised republic (that can be trusted), Transnistria is faced with an internal conflict. The main breaking line is between the executive government with the president Evgeniy Shevchuk in charge, and jurisdictional, i.e. the republic’s Highest Council. The tensions reach the level of open war in the media of the republic’s leader and business-community, especially major organisations, that are forming the bigger part of Transnistria’s budget through taxes and that provide employment for a major part of republic’s people.
According to existing data, the conflict started to intensify since 2012, when with the global crisis as the background, the socio-economic situation in the country started to get worse. The Ukrainian conflict has contributed massively to this (as we know, it resulted in radically pro-western forces gaining power and a civil war). The president and Transnistrian government took emergency measures to increase the budget’s income. The tax load was increased more than by a quarter – from 27 to 34%. Another unpopular step was a 1.7 times increase of tariffs on gas for the industries. The Transnistrian industry is notable for its high energy consumption, this is what lead to full or partial shutting down of metallurgy plant in Rybnitsa, Moldavian hydropower plant, Rybnitskiy cement plant. The lowering of tax payouts into the budget was the consequence of these events as well as decrease in employment, almost two-fold decrease in financial reserves and loss of markets for the industries. The president and the government of the republic tried to come up with laws that are aimed at nationalising the privately owned industries in case they shut down. A source, close to republic’s government, that wished to remain anonymous, is saying that the executive branch has offered the owners of the working privately owned facilities to make individual secret agreements that will sort out tax payments and that include a section saying that if part of the shares will be transferred into the state’s ownership, the facility will get a lowered gas tariff. Overall, we can say that for non-governmentally owned industries there is a massive drop in financial conditions. The gas tariffs for government officials are 4 times higher than the same tariffs in Russia. Governmentally-owned industries of Transnistria pay a significantly lesser amount of money. We can say, that there is a covert nationalisation of economical objects happening in the republic, first and foremost of the bigger ones. As a result, serious foreign businesses are leaving, including Russian businesses. As an example, Alisher Usmanov has left the Moldiavian metallurgy factory shareholders list.

The situation is developing exponentially. According to 2014 data, the investments in Transnistrian economy have decreased by 11% and according to the first half of 2015 – they fell by almost 40%.

The mentioned source’s opinion, the intensifying of the conflict in the republic was also caused by an offer to cancel the criminal “time lengths” (a time when a crime can be wiped off the record) which is not what most countries in the world did. This initiative was proposed by the president Evgeniy Shevchuk. But these laws and some others weren’t welcomed by the republic’s Highest Council. To return the favour, the president is not signing some of the laws proposed by the Council. There is information that over 50 such laws are awaiting their time currently (with going over the time limitations that are written by the law). The Transnistrian Television and Radio company, that was created by presidential initiative, and that integrated almost all state-owned electronic medias, has massively limited the access to the media for the opposition from the Council.

The leader of the republic’s business community – “Sheriff” private holding, and the executive government have entered the phase of open conflict. The holding’s owners have presented an oen letter that accused the elites in breaking the law and purposefully strangling the business. As a response to that, the president addressed the people of the republic and essentially challenged the entire major business in the republic: “some oligarchs have the nerve to blackmail the government: “if you won’t give us cheap energy, we will fire thousands”. If you, so called businessmen, will continue to blackmail the government, to scare the people, then you will deal with the republican law enforcement agencies”.

Many in Russia will praise Shevchuk for standing up to the oligarchs, but the consequence of all these collisions, the Transnistrian economy collapsed. The GDP of the country, in the first half of 2015 has decreased by 19%. And that is including the fact that the republic’s external gas contributions from Russia comprise 60% of the GDP. The industrial production has overall decreased by 16%, and the main export industry – metallurgy – has decreased over 50%. The main sufferers of the situation are the workers in governmentally owned facilities and institutions as well as the elderly, whose income decreased by 30%. The natural reaction was of course a sharp growth of social tension. We need to include the fact that over half of Transnistrian population are living on governmental pensions (the elderly), and every second economically-active person – is working in governmental institutions and facilities.

The intensifying of the conflict in the republic’s political elites, combined with the conflict between the business and the government will undoubtedly contribute to the growing of problems, and this will be used by external forces. All the negative factors can influence the fragile socio-political system of Transnistrian Moldavian Republic to the point of a social explosion with a further probable destruction of the republic’s sovereignty. This will create a massive list of problems and threats for Russia.

Our actions

First and foremost, the probability that Moldavian government, in the case of social instability in the republic, will do everything in their power to regain control of this region, is very high. This will mean that they will have a ticket into NATO. And for Russia, this will mean not only the creation of the biggest NATO base on post-Soviet space, but also a military conflict between the Operational Group of the Russian Troops with Moldavian military. Considering this, it is unlikely that the Ukrainian government will stand aside (or at least the terrorists from “Right Sector” won’t). This will mean a serious increase in the probability of a military conflict between Russian Federation and NATO countries.

But even if Kishinev won’t enter the Transnistrian conflict, there are the following threats still in existence:

  1. Capturing of arms and ammunition on the Kolbasna storage facility by paramilitary forces that will undoubtedly appear as the open conflict with the governmental forces start (that is, including the influence from external forces.) This can lead to those paramilitary forces entering a military conflict with the Russian troops stationed there and further accusations of Russia interfering with Moldavian internal affairs. NATO’s involvement is likely.
  2. To evacuate the Russian troops and the storage facility into Russia about 2500-3000 train cars are required, i.e. about 50-60 cargo trains. It is unlikely Ukraine will let them pass through its territory. And Moldavia will probably not agree to transit Russian military cargo to the Black Sea through its lands.
  3. A humanitarian disaster that is inevitable if the crisis in Transnistria escalates, will demand immediate measures from Russia. It can’t be forgotten that the investments of Russian commercial structures need to be protected, which also means involvement of the Russian military in the conflict.

All of this means that the Russian government needs to take immediate steps to stabilise the situation in Transnistria. First and foremost, using diplomatic and economic measures we need to recreate a restrictions-free transit of humanitarian cargo into the republic, i.e. to provide the means for its preservation even if the international setting will worsen. Intergovernmental connections between Russia and Transnistria is in no way a lesser priority. At last, the most important step to sooth the situation in the republic will be a set of complex measures to extinguish the conflict in political and economic elites of the republic. Russia alone possesses unique set of capabilities to influence the situation in Transnistria, which include informal means.

The stabilisation of the situation will of course demand certain expenses. Perhaps, some economists will call them “substantial”. However, taking all the necessary steps and precautions will allow us to prevent enormous losses from a military conflict between Russia and NATO, as well as the deaths of Russian citizens.

Konstantin Sivkov

Member of the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences, PhD in military science

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