Original by Boris Rozhin published by alternatio.org; translation by J.Hawk
The strategic stalemate on the Donbass which takes the form of endless positional warfare under the Minsk Agreements label, and the growing state of Ukraine’s disintegration are forcing the Kiev regime to engage in foreign policy theatrics in order to distract Ukrainian population’s attention away from the civil war, the failed socio-economic policies, and the inability to fulfill the promises Poroshenko & Co gave in 2014. The Transnistria sector is seen as yet another front in the “struggle against Russia” and occupies an important place in the real, rather than declarative, foreign policy of Ukraine.
The matter of the Transnistrian Moldavian Republic (PMR) is, in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, tightly bound to the idea of NATO’s eastward expansion. After admitting most of the former Warsaw Pact member-states, its agenda shifted toward drawing former Soviet republics. This effort was pursued not only in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Georgia, but also in Moldova. Naturally, this eastward movement caused concern in the Kremlin which was officially expressed on many occasions but was not taken into account by the West since it did not feel it necessary to keep the promises given to Gorbachev not to move NATO eastward. NATO expansion and drawing former Soviet republics into the orbit of an actively anti-Russian organization naturally led to tensions between Russia and its neighbors. It demonstrated itself in the degradation of relations between Russia and the Baltic pseudo-states, Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia, and the subsequent “Olympics War”, the mini-Maidan in Moldavia which led to the removal from power of the local communist party opportunists and, finally, the coup d’etat in Ukraine.
In the Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova cases, there are is the matter of unresolved territorial disputes which prevent them to be directly drawn into NATO structures. As a 2015 Stratfor report noted, Russia is preventing NATO absorption of the former Soviet republics through directing frozen conflicts. Hence the insistent Euroatlantic elite efforts to force Russia to refuse to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, stop its support of LDPR, return Crimea to Ukraine, withdraw forces from Transnistria, and agree to a Moldovan unification in the spirit of GDR being swallowed up by the FRG. The issue at hand is, unsurprisingly enough, the struggle for the spheres of influence between Russia and NATO on the former Soviet territory. The rhetoric concerning the benefits from “Eurointegration” or the Customs Union is merely a manifestation of that struggle.
Ukraine considers the Transnistria situation as one of the instruments of exerting political and economic pressure on Russia, since that from a strategic point of view PMR and the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) deployed there is in a veritable enclave that’s difficult to supply even in peacetime (given all the possible bureaucratic and political obstacles) and has limited offensive capablities.
The OGRF includes two separate motorized rifle battalions (the 82nd Szeged Red Banner Separate MR Battalion and the 113rd Lower Dnestr, Order of Kutuzov, Order of Aleksandr Nevskiy Separate MR Battalion ) based in Tiraspol, and a number of other units. The OGRF is 2-2.5 thousand combat troops strong (with several hundred support personnel) and includes 130-170 light armored vehicles (mainly old models).
It is a sufficiently convenient target to organize military and political provocations, particularly when they can be coordinated with official Kishinev.
After the coup in Ukraine and the start of civil war, the Kiev regime at first viewed the OGRF as a potential launch-pad for Russian troops to invade Ukraine by seizing the Odessa region. The actual strength of the OGRF, equivalent to three infantry battalions with light armor, some of whom are engaged in strictly guard duties, made its offensive potential very problematic, particularly since some of the contract soldiers are former inhabitants from PMR, whose army never intended to get involved in the Ukraine civil war. By comparison: the Russian grouping in Crimea during the Crimean Spring consisted of 16 thousand troops, had no serious problems with logistics, and could be quickly reinforced if necessary, and the control over the Perekop ensured Crimea could be easily held in the event Kiev threw its army to rescue the collapsing UAF force grouping. OGRF simply has no such ability, and even something as simple as controlling the Odessa region is beyond its abilities.
Naturally, that was no obstacle to playing the “Russian aggression from PMR” card, which found its reflection in the Odessa Massacre of May 2014 when, attempting to conceal the causes of mass murder of Odessans, there was an effort to shift all blame to “Russian agents”, including those who operated under the guise of PMR citizens. As it later turned out, the murdered people were mostly Odessans, not “Russian agents from PMR”, but this was not a situation where Kiev was interested in objectivity.
From the Russian perspective, the future of Transnistria at that time was being viewed through the prism of the Big Novorossia project, which should have included Ukraine’s South-East, which in the event of successful emergence of Odessa People’s Republic, would have made it possible to create an overland corridor to Transnistria through the territory of Odessa, Nikolayev, and Kherson regions. The rejection of more active scenarios concerning the South-East, and the freezing of the Big Novorossia project, left PMR in a state of strategic limbo, with the problem of isolation of the Russian contingent and the allied unrecognized state only deepening as the war in Ukraine escalated. It’s hardly likely that we’ll soon see as attractive a set of conditions for resolving the problem of Transnistria’s strategi isolation as existed in 2014.
Once open resistance to the coup was suppressed in the Odessa region, and SBU prevented the emergence of an underground, Kiev began to view PMR not as a source of problems for Odessa, but as a venue to show political activeness against the backdrop of Donbass escalation.
After the coming to power in Odessa of Kolomoysky proteges, the border regime with PMR was tightened in order to establish a transport and economic blockade that would be a bargaining chip with Russia which was forced to support Transnistria and its forces there. In order to demonstrate force, Ukraine’s National Guard and Armed Forces started to hold exercises in Odessa region, in the spirit of “repelling aggression from PMR in order to sustain a separatist uprising.” All of these activities were accompanied by combative Kiev statements, which found full support among Moldovan authorities.
By 2014-15 Moldova had a stridently pro-Western president and government. The country was fighting against communist symbols, Russian influence, Russian language (just as Ukraine and the Baltics) and looking for ways to expel Russian troops from PMR. Here Moldova had complete understanding in Brussels, which counted and counts on Kishinev and Kiev to squeeze Russia out of Transnistria in order to gradually absorb that country into NATO, which is something that Russian military presence clearly stands in the way of. There is no question of the country playing an independent role: it’s only a question of whose troops are going to be stationed in Moldavia, Russian or NATO ones. Tiraspol is tilting toward Russia, Kishinev after Voronin’s removal is now openly for Brussels.
It is during this era that the most aggressive Ukrainian plans aimed at PMR were created. The stabilization of the front on the Donbass after UAF defeats at Ilovaysk and Debaltsevo made it possible to greatly increase force levels in the Odessa region, and the replacement of Kolomoysky’s people with Saakashvili’s also drew parallels with the latter’s efforts to push Russia by force out of another unrecognized state.
This period also saw the most active contacts between Kiev and Kishinev, the strengthening of the transport blockade, the stepped up psychological warfare around PMR. Odessa region holds air defense exercises, NGU holds exercises close to Transnistria borders. Moldova simultaneously steps up its own propaganda against Russia’s presence in PMR, with active part played by Ukraine MOD’s info-war units.
It was a reflection of a complex strategy aimed at Russian positions in Transnistria which was based on either “peaceful” forcing out of the OGRF or laid the foundation for a military operation in the event of a major escalation of fighting in Ukraine that could have served as cover for military provocations against PMR, followed by Ukrainian and Moldovan army operations against Transnistrian forces and the OGRF.
Already in 2015 on the border with Transnistria, in addition to Border Troops and irregular detachments, Ukraine kept at least one brigade and NGU units equivalent to two battalions. By comparison, in early 2017 UAF had two brigades on the border with Ukraine, plus NGU and border troops. In 2015-16, Ukraine could send about 8-10 thousand troops with 200-250 AFVs, including tanks, and MRLs.
But even here there was a problem. OGRF does not exist in a vacuum, but rather relies on the potential of the PMR army which is 20 thousand strong (plus 50-60 thousand mobilizable reserves), 20-25 tanks, several dozen AFVs, and about 60-70 MRLs. Thus when attacking Transnistria, Ukraine wouldn’t be able to establish even a slim numerical superiority. That’s the reason for the efforts to contact Kishinev, in order to push that pro-Western regime to adopt more active measures so that in the event of escalation the Moldovan army could also be sent into action under the banner of “restoring the country’s territorial integrity.” Moreover, the beginning of the attack on Transnistria could be used as an excuse to deploy NATO contingents in Romania “to protect peaceful civilians and protect Moldova’s territorial integrity.” This operation (in the spirit of Operation Storm against Krajina Serbs, which is what Russian peacekeepers stand in the way of) would be facilitated by low operational depth of PMR forces and the OGRF, since Transnistria can easily be cut into several parts by meeting blows from the territory of Moldova and Ukraine.
The second global problem are the military and political aspects of Russia’s possible direct military response in the event of Ukraine’s attack on PMR and OGRF. Kiev with reason assumes that Russia would react as in the case of of Georgia’s attack on peacekeepers in South Ossetia and respond by launching a direct assault on Ukraine. It might involve forces deployed on Ukraine’s borders in Rostov and Belgorod regions, as well as the Crimean group of Russian forces which, due to their superiority in the sectors where the main blows would fall, would defeat opposing UAF forces. This led to a variety of informational and intelligence operations aimed at sounding out Russia’s readiness to send forces into Ukraine should fighting escalate on the Donbass, the Perekop, or PMR, since the question of war against PMR was and is viewed in the context of fighting on the Donbass and on the border with Crimea. One should keep in mind that most scenarios of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine would, one way or another, influence the ability to launch operations on PMR’s borders.
These plans were not being kept particularly secret, and a number of treats were issued toward Russia and Tiraspol during 2015-16. The response was not long in coming. Russia, which spent many years observing the growth of Western influence in Moldova with indifference, started to actively support local pro-Russian and leftist forces which were a natural counterweight to the EU’s proteges or the lobbyists for unifying Moldavia with “Greater Romania”.
The growing struggle among pro-Western parties, massive corruption, crude anti-communism and Russophobia, actually turned out to Russia’s benefit since the pro-Western forces that took power plunged Moldavia into a permanent political crisis that has already lasted for several years, which considerably complicated the plans of Brussels which was used to calmly digesting one former Warsaw Pact member and fragment of Yugoslavia after another.
The changes of prime ministers, the stolen billion of credits, the intrigues surrounding the oligarch Plakhotnyuk, the constant demonstrations in the capital, the gradual separation of Gagauzia–all of that made the situation so unstable that Kishinev couldn’t be drawn into an open escalation with PMR. Electoral victories by Igor Dodon and Renato Usatyy reflected the weariness of a sizable portion of Moldavia’s society caused by the failed economic and social policies pursued by local eurointegrators. The peak expression of this displeasure was the election of Dodon to the post of president. This naturally made it far more difficult to draw Moldova into a war against PMR, since the advantageous set of circumstances has passed and the situation has returned to the traditional state of frozen conflict that has existed since early 1990s.
But the game is far from over. In Moldavia, the prime minister has more power than the president, which means the country is under a de-facto dual executive power: on the one hand there are the Westerners who control the parliament and government, and on the other hand the formally pro-Russian president and quite numerous pro-Russian forces. Hence the contradictions of the contemporary Moldavian policy, in which the local “democrats” keep speaking of a “European choice” and the necessity of joining NATO, while the president and his supporters are against opening NATO office in Moldavia and placing NATO troops on its territory. Naturally, this situation is highly unstable, and both sides may attempt to increase their influence in Moldova. EU and NATO will seek to neutralize the effects of Dodon’s election and as a minimum to limit his ability to influence the country’s foreign policy. Russia, on the other hand, will promote the emergence of a government in Moldova which would adopt Dodon’s political views, which would facilitate the long term preservation of PMR status-quo.
Dodon’s high-level reception in Moscow reflects the Kremlin’s interest in building on the achieved successes. The public reconciliation gestures made by the leaders of PMR and Moldova are also aimed at maintaining the stability of the existing situation, therefore Tiraspol’s statements on its desire to hold a referendum on joining Russia were met in Moscow without enthusiasm since it would run counter to the current policy of status quo and moreover is practically difficult to accomplish without first addressing the Ukrainian question.
One also has to keep in mind that Dodon’s “pro-Russian” aspect is quite relative. He is, first and foremost, a Moldavian politician who was brought to the surface by pro-Russian sentiments of a sizable part of Moldavia’s society. One should not make the same mistake here that was made in relation of the “pro-Russian” Yanukovych. A good reception in Moscow did not prevent Dodon from supporting creating joint border crossings with Ukraine that would de-facto intensify PMR’s blockade. When assessing the “pro-Russianness” of any CIS politician one should look at deeds, not words.
Ukraine, for its part, is continuing to its efforts to destabilize the situation for own benefit. The recent strengthening of blockade measures on PMR borders is intended to worsen the economic and logistical situation in Transnistria and also reflects Kiev’s desire to maintain an aggressive policy toward PMR as part of an overall NATO effort to push OGRF out of PMR peacefully or by force, and then to destroy PMR. Therefore, in spite of all the problems of positional war on the Donbass, two UAF brigades are still in the Odessa region, and Kiev argues Transnistria should be declared an “aggressor”, thus reflecting the rhetoric emanating from radical pro-Western circles in Moldova.
Thus in spite of Kiev’s ambitious plans for PMR having remained unrealized, one can conclude they have not abandoned them and only the fear of a Russian military response and the unstable situation in Moldova itself are preventing Kiev from pursuing more aggressive policies toward PMR. Kiev, moreover, will likely continue to maintain a significant military presence on PMR borders (military provocations cannot be ruled out), and to make Transnistria’s and OGRF’s economic, logistical, and other problems worse, while hoping that the pendulum of Moldavia’s politics will once again swing toward Brussels and the activization of efforts on NATO’s southern flank will facilitate the elimination of the “Russian enclave.”
Russia, in turn, will attempt to preserve the current state of frozen conflict between Moldova and PMR, maintain the favorable tendencies in Moldavia’s domestic politics, increase the fighting power of own forces along the borders with Ukraine (including for the indirect defense of Transnistria), while continuing to thwart NATO’s eastward expansion both by symmetrical responses to NATO’s deployment of troops along Russia’s borders and asymmetrical political, information, and intelligence measures.
But in the long term, the resolution of the Transnistria problem directly depends of who prevails in the war in Ukraine, because the current Kiev regime will never abandon an anti-Russian, Russophobic policies which imply the destruction of PMR. One also should not maintain any illusions concerning NATO voluntarily abandoning its strategy of moving its infrastructure closer to Russia (including on the territory of Moldova). That’s the price of contemporary loss of political sovereignty: if you want to maintain an independent foreign policy in contemporary world where international law has all but vanished, you must be prepared to play high-stakes games which are not limited to the territory of any one country. Therefore even a tiny unrecognized country like Transnistria is playing an important role in this complex multi-faceted struggle which is changing the accustomed-to world order in real time.