The pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria (known in Russian as the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’) lies on Ukraine’s southern border, between Ukraine and the small ex-Soviet Republic of Moldova. The product of a war in the early 1990s, Transnistria remains unrecognized by any UN member-country – including Russia – but is a de facto independent state with its own armed forces, president, parliament and cabinet of ministers. The district had perhaps over 600,000 inhabitants at the time of the USSR’s break-up, and while that number has decreased drastically, its population split roughly equally between ethnic Romanians (Moldovans), Russians and Ukrainians.
A ceasefire was signed in July 1992 between the ex-Soviet Republic of Moldova and the self-declared PMR, leaving Transnistria with de facto independence from Moldova. The Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRV) – successor to the Russian (once Soviet) 14th Army once based in the Soviet Odessa Military District – remains in the enclave, now consisting of around 1,350 troops. An ‘official’ international peacekeeping force of Russian, Transnistrian and Moldovan troops serves as window-dressing for world consumption: peace is enforced on the Kremlin’s terms.
In terms of its political culture, Transnistria exists in a no-man’s land of extreme reverence for both the Soviet past and Russian imperial glory. Joseph Stalin is revered as a great man, while Russian Orthodox priests perform elaborate baptismal and other ceremonies in renovated churches. Statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin co-exist with those of the legendary Russian generalissimo and Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Alexander Suvorov, who defeated the Turks and suppressed Poland in the late 18th century. Much as in Russia, patriotic nationalism with a heavy religious flavor melds with the images of the prison of nations.
This peace has become especially precarious in the period since a popular upheaval overthrew former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomentation of armed separatism in eastern Ukraine has led to the worst relations between Moscow and Kyiv in nearly a century. Part of this has entailed Ukraine’s attempts to address potential border threats, including Transnistria. In addition to the military danger, Transnistria represents a source of unregulated cross-border trade, including arms and other contraband. When a territory is unrecognized by the international community, all its economic activity is deemed illegal, and all its international commerce as smuggling. Yet the old maxim of ‘no smoke without fire’ clearly applies to Transnistria: reports of trade that would be considered illegal even in Russia are too frequent to ignore. But Transnistria is not toothless, and the heightened economic isolation of the territory – a heavily armed sliver of land with no coastline – has given rise to a potential powder keg for the region.
In June, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Region. In his short time as governor, Mr. Saakashvili has carried out several bold policy moves, including a purge of the regional administration. But, importantly, Saakashvili has also vowed to strengthen Ukrainian defenses along the border with Transnistria in an effort to prevent both smuggling and possible military incursions. Odessa Region borders Transnistria along most of the latter’s length. At the same time, during his political career Mikheil Saakashvili has proven remarkably consistent in one aspect of his behavior: loudly and insultingly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some observers have suggested that Saakachvili’s incessant public insults motivated Putin to launch the 2008 invasion of Georgia that resulted in two separatist territories – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – gaining full recognition from the Kremlin.
Saakashvili’s geopolitical sense is borne of experience. He also evidently has a map in his head of the region in which he is currently holding public office. Reportedly, he wanted to be the governor of Odessa precisely because he perceived genuine threats to the region’s security. But he is also a volatile and controversial figure. As such, the question inexorably arises: will he once more provoke Putin into large-scale military action – this time from Transnistria?
The following report from the Russian website Lenta.Ru states that the Transnistrian authorities have started an official call-up to military service of all males aged 18-27. It is unclear whether this is consequent to an order from the Kremlin, and indeed Moscow may have already decided that resource-poor Transnistria is not worth the trouble. [See Transnistria: A Bridge Too Far for Russia?] In that case, the Transnistrian call to service may be an act of desperation by the local authorities themselves: with their backs to the wall, they may feel they have nothing left to lose. The implications are startling…
Lenta.Ru ~ 20 July 2015
The authorities of the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) have announced the mobilization of men aged 18 to 27 years. The corresponding decree of President Yevgeny Shevchuk, dated July 16, was made available on the portal of the PMR chief.
‘Called into the armed forces, border guards and internal troops are citizens (…) registered or obliged to register in military records and not serving in the reserves,’ says the document.
The decree applies to persons who have ‘lost their right to deferment of the call to military service, and also those subject to the call to military service and those being prosecuted for violation of the rules of military registration.’
Reports of worsening relations between Kyiv and Tiraspol have appeared periodically since the beginning of the year – in particular in connection with Ukrainian troops conducting regular exercises on the border with Transnistria, said the head of the PMR in an April interview with the newspaper Kommersant. [Note: In the interview, from April 2015, Shevchuk claims that Transnistria is ‘not preparing to go to war with anyone.’ ~ Ed.]
In May 2015, the head of the State Border Service of Ukraine Viktor Nazarenko stated on the air on ‘Channel 5’ that a series of military threats emanated from the direction of Transnistrian.
Later, the head of the Odessa Regional State Administration Mikhail Saakashvili announced his intention to strengthen the border with the Transnistrian republic.
On June 11th, Kyiv sharply exacerbated the situation when President Poroshenko signed a number of laws denouncing agreements with Russia in the military sphere. The opportunity for the transit of Russian troops via the territory of Ukraine was unilaterally blocked: the potential for the movement of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to Transnistria and back was put in doubt.
On July 19th, the Ukrainian extremist organization ‘Right Sector,’ which is banned in Russia, announced the installation of checkpoints in the Odessa region on the border with Transnistria to combat smuggling. [Note: Russian media typically refers to the Right Sector as ‘extremist’ and ‘neo-nazi.’ ~ Ed.]
The Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRV) – successor to the 14th Combined Army – currently remains in Transnistria. The OGRV consists of 1,350 soldiers.
The peacekeeping operation in Transnistria is carried out by a joint peacekeeping force of 402 Russian servicemen, 492 Transnistrians, 335 Moldovans and 10 military observers from Ukraine.