Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Why a strip of land in Moldova revived fears of a war defection in Ukraine?

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Over the weekend, pro-Russian separatists claimed Ukrainian drones dropped explosives at an airport in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova bordering Ukraine. Western analysts have sow a lot of doubt about those drone claimsbut they came two weeks later a series of explosions were reported in the region† No one was injured in either case but they were a reminder of the risks if the war in Ukraine went beyond its borders.

The explosions also shook the status quo of a decades-long “frozen” conflict. During the fall of the Soviet Union, Transnistria, supported by Moscow, fought to break away from Moldova. A ceasefire in 1992 ended the fighting, but Transnistria still maintains its de facto independence, although its status is not formally recognized by the international community – not even Russia.

No one has claimed responsibility for the recent explosions in Transnistria, which targeted an empty state security ministry in the capital Tiraspol, along with a radio tower broadcasting a Russian-language channel and a local military unit.

The lack of attribution meant many accusations. Transnistrian officials blamed Ukrainian “nationalists” for committing a terrorist attack. Ukrainian officials accused Russian security forces of a “false flag” operation to create a pretext for intervention. Moldova’s foreign minister said the attacks “pretexts to put pressure on the security situation in the Transnistria region† Maia Sandu, the pro-European president of Moldova, said rival factions in Transnistria were responsible?

Experts said whoever carried out the attack probably did it more for messages than for deliberate damage. But it has managed to arouse fears that tensions may flare up again and that Transnistria, or Moldova, could plunge into wider conflict. There were also other hints. On April 22, the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekayev, indicated that Russia’s efforts to control southern Ukraine could build a bridge to Transnistria, where, Minnekaev claimedthere is “oppression of the Russian-speaking population”.

Ukraine also has Worried that Russia would use Transnistria as a possible stopping point to launch attacks in southern Ukraine, including near the port city of Odessa, or use it as another front to expand the war.

Moldova, a small, poor country with a small armyis in a precarious moment: seeking more support from the EU and the West, while keep its neutrality and try not to provoke Russia. And Transnistria itself may have a pretty complicated calculation: While it was largely dependent on Russia, it expanded trade with the European Union to its own economic advantage, and that would all disappear if taken over by Russia.

For Russia, despite its claims to a land bridge, the goal has always been to use Transnistria as a lever to destabilize Moldova and the region. The area itself is not the Kremlin’s target. At the moment it is still Ukraine. And the Kremlin is still fighting to control the territory in eastern and southern Ukraine — meaning the on-site reality is mitigating some of those risks of escalation. “The only thing that saves [Transnistria] of being taken over is geography—the fact that Ukraine stands between them and the Russians,” said Stuart Kaufman, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.

What is Transnistria?

Transnistria has always had closer linguistic and cultural ties to Moscow than the rest of Moldova, whose western part has closer ties to Romania. The Soviet Union also heavily industrialized Transnistria, making it economically important during the Soviet era and making Moldova as a whole more dependent on the region.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, said Michael Eric Lambert, an analyst and expert on the region, that identity also meant that Transnistria didn’t want to go along with the rest of Moldova and either want to become independent or part of Russia.

Transnistrian separatists, with Russian support, fought a civil war that killed about 1,000 people, until a 1992 ceasefire that effectively gave Transnistria de facto independence. Russian armed forces were permanently stationed in the region, including several hundred peacekeepers as part of the ceasefire and the so-called Operational Group of Russian Armed Forces, about 1,500 troops guarding a huge ammunition stock† Transnistria also has about 10,000 of its own soldiersaccording to the Los Angeles Time

If you are Moldova, this situation has always been a little disturbing, and that was exactly the point of Transnistria for Russia. “Russia is exerting political pressure on Moldova to keep it within its sphere of influence and to prevent it from participating in Western European structures such as the European Union,” said Agnieszka Miarka, a professor of political science at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. Moldova is officially neutral and said it will stay that waybut if Moldova ever changed its mind, having pro-Russian troops on its territory would also make NATO membership impossible.

Transnistria’s de facto government is pro-Russia, and as experts said, the region has a shared history, language and culture with Russia. (At the same time, the territory has about 400,000 large Ukrainian and Moldavian or Romanian-speaking minorities.) The area was traditionally dependent on the Kremlin for things like energy and pensions — though Moscow hasn’t been as generous lately as it once was.

But Transnistria’s economic ties have begun to shift in recent years, as a result of Moldova’s trade deal with the EU. utilities, about 70 percent of Transnistria’s exports go to the European Union. That has created a dichotomy, with the region’s political sympathies still aligned with Russia, but its economic interests more closely tied to Moldova and the European Union. And that can be a reason to counter the possibility of an overflow conflict.

How likely is it that the conflict in Ukraine will spill over into Moldova?

The de facto government of Transnistria has neither condemned nor supported the Russian invasion.

As experts said, while Transnistria won’t cut its Russian ties, it doesn’t want to do everything it can to invite Moscow to march on its doorstep. There is the economic factor; Transnistria would be cut off from the Western economy on which it increasingly depends, relying instead on a sanctions-crushed Russia. There are also more logical reasons. ‘Would you like the war to come to your house? I don’t think so,” said Tatsiana Kulakevich, a professor of global studies at the University of South Florida.

Transnistria is therefore a bit low. “’We support Russia. Russia is our ally. Russia, Russia,” Kulakevich said of the region’s likely thinking. “But Russia must reach us first.”

That is, Moscow should actually creating the land bridge that at least one Russian general claimed the Kremlin wanted to make. And experts really doubt Russia can do that now, since the Russian army is stuck in eastern Ukraineand while it has made progress in the east and south, these fighting exhausts Russian troopsat.

Ever since Russia does not border Moldova, it would not be able to easily supply or bring troops into Transnistria, making it an unlikely front to launch an attack on Ukraine. “I don’t think the Russians are able to do anything militarily with the troops they have in Transnistria because they can’t provide them,” Kaufman said.

Still, some analysts said that only threatening Transnistria can serve a purpose, most notably by forcing Ukraine to move troops into the area to defend places like Odessa, and away from other active fronts. It also allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to “act as if he is winning more than he is losing,” as Lambert put it.

And as experts have noted, the threat is keeping Ukraine and Moldova on their toes. Moldova applied for EU membership in March, although the country still has a long way to go before it reaches it. The EU has also said it will ramp up military aid — in addition to financial support, the West provides for the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have entered Moldova. But Moldova has also carefully reiterated its neutrality, and remains dependent on Russia for its energy† and officials downplayed the risks of a spillover;

As experts said, it makes little sense for Russia to expand the Ukraine conflict, given that it has already had to reconsider its war goals. At this point, the chances of a true spillover still seem slim. But Putin has made unexplained military movements during the conflict in Ukraine, and wars, once they have started, are inherently unpredictable. “There is a risk of escalation,” Lambert said. “It’s a reality.”

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