With the war in Ukraine overpassing its first anniversary, the rhetoric of a potential extension of the war to Moldova through Transnistria raises serious concerns. The president of Moldova, Maia Sandu, in a press briefing on 13 February warned about Russia’s prospective plans to destabilise Moldova. It was Ukraine’s president who initially unveiled them. On its side, on 23 February the Russian Ministry of Defence issued a warning regarding a potential attack on Transnistria by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. These claims were subsequently refuted by the Moldovan authorities. It is worth noting, that this is not the first time when concerns regarding the extension of the war to Moldova arise. Last year, several explosions incidents were reported in Transnistria, the origins of which were related to the war in Ukraine. Also, in December 2022 the director of the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) of Moldova affirmed that Russia might have plans to invade Moldova by spring 2023. However, the following day this affirmation was refuted by the SIS itself and Moldova’s partners who without eradicating such a hypothetical situation, stressed that there is no information regarding an imminent Russian attack on Moldova. The situation was reheated on 9 March when the Transnistrian administration claimed to have debunked a terrorist attack against their leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky, allegedly plotted by Ukraine. These events summed with the tense situation in the neighbourhood of Moldova make it relevant to inquire about why Transnistria matters and what is the faith of the existing secessionist conflict within Moldovan borders.

On Transnistria’s Status Quo

Located in the Eastern part of Moldova, at the South-Western border of Ukraine, Transnistria is a separatist entity within Moldova’s internationally recognised borders. It proclaimed its independence in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It has over time developed and consolidated state-like features. For more than thirty years now it maintains its status quo. The existence of this breakaway territory represents a serious security issue for Moldova, especially in the context of an armed conflict in Eastern Europe. It is internationally acknowledged that Russia exercises effective controlover Transnistria. On 15 March 2022, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution designating Transnistria as a territory occupied by Russia. In its constant case-law, the European Court of Human Rights stresses that Russia’s continued support of Transnistria is not only political and economic but also military.

Security Concerns and Why Transnistria Matters

Transnistria is the home of the largest ammunition depot in Eastern Europe, Cobasna, created in 1949. There is stored ammunition after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from countries of the former Warsaw Pact. The Transnistrian region currently hosts the Operational Group of the Russian Forces that guards the facility and the so-called Russian peacekeeping mission dislocated in the demilitarized zone. And precisely these elements combined with a pro-Russian administration in Tiraspol make Moldova vulnerable and add to the instability in the region. The international community and Moldovan authorities continuously called on Russia to withdraw its military forces and ammunition. In 1999 at the Istanbul Summit Russia agreed to these requests, and indeed, during the period 2001-2004 destroyed part of the ammunition under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Yet, it failed to withdraw its army and another 20 thousand tons of ammunition. The ammunition is expired, and its use is very dangerous. According to a study by the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Moldova, in the event of a deflagration, the power of the explosion could be equivalent to that of an atomic bomb. It is worth noting that Moldovan authorities have no access to the deposit and the only available information about its content dates from 2006 when an international documentation visit was organised for the OSCE ambassadors.

A Frozen Conflict with ‘Frozen’ Negotiations

In this complex situation with serious security concerns, the constitutional authorities of Moldova were not particularly proactive in de-tensioning the situation via diplomatic means. As will be discussed further, they rather went to a legislative escalation. The few tête-à-tête meetings between the Vice-Prime Minister for Reintegration of Moldova, Serebrian, and the so-called Minister of Foreign Affairs of Transnistria, Ignatiev, were not as successful as one would expect. This is especially proved by the declarations of Ignatiev who constantly accuses the central authorities of the escalation of the situation.

A caveat is needed regarding the relationship between Chisinau and Tiraspol. After a short war in 1992, the common engagement was to solve the conflict through diplomatic means. Since 2005, the negotiation process has been in the format 5+2. Chaired by the OSCE, it includes Moldovan de jure authorities and Transnistrian de facto administration, Russia and Ukraine mediators and the European Union and the United States as observers. Currently, the format of negotiations lost its viability because the two mediators are at war. Moldovan Foreign Ministry pleads for negotiations in the format 1+1 (Chisinau and Tiraspol). Indeed, maintaining continuous dialogue with Tiraspol is necessary. It is in the interest of both sides to maintain peace and stability on the territory. This is also affirmed by Tiraspol. However, the new regulations criminalising separatism adopted by the Moldovan legislator are seen by Tiraspol as a hostile act which negatively affects the negotiation process.

Criminalisation of Separatism: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

Transnistrian administration expressed its disagreement with the recently adopted amendments to the Criminal Code of Moldova according to which actions such as separatism, financing separatism, inciting separatism, plotting against Moldova, collecting and evading information that could harm the sovereignty, independence and integrity of Moldova are punished with imprisonment. These are the first legal provisions that criminalise separatism in Moldova. And consequently, Transnistrian separatism falls under the criminal responsibility umbrella.

These amendments further fuel Tiraspol’s anti-Moldova rhetoric. Moreover, Transnistrian leaders called upon Russia to intervene. They invoke an extraordinary effort for Tiraspol to defend the rights of the Russian citizens and compatriots in Transnistria. The critique from Russian officials was not long to wait. They argued that the amendments will negatively impact the negotiation process. Despite claiming to behold to the negotiation process, it is still to be seen what stance will take Russia on this after the annulment by president Putin the Decree 605/2012 regarding the necessary measures to implement the foreign policy strategy of the Russian Federation which provided that Russia will seek a solution to the Transnistrian problem, based on respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and neutrality of Moldova, by granting special status to Transnistria. It is worth mentioning that in the recently adopted Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, there is no reference whatsoever to Transnistria. It comes also as a surprise that Russia criticises the criminalisation of separatism. First, Russian legislation has a similar provision. Second, according to Article 5 of the Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation between Moldova and Russia, both parties condemn separatism and pledge not to support separatist movements.

The adoption of such amendments in a state which faces separatism is applauded, despite their delayed adoption. Yet, their effectiveness may be questioned for several reasons. First, how can Moldova ensure the application and enforcement of laws and decisions in a territory that it does not control? Second, what framework and mechanisms will be followed? The amendments to the Criminal Code entered into force on 18 March 2023. Does it mean that starting from then Transnistrian leaders will be prosecuted? Legally there are all the premises, however, it is less likely it will happen in practice. Some experts believe that these amendments will be used by the Moldovan authorities to gain more political weight and influence in the bilateral relations with the Transnistrian administration. It may be well so, since to date in the Transnistrian conflict resolution process, Moldova and Transnistria were seen on equal footing if not less. Independently of the real aim behind the adoption of these provisions, it is argued here that their adoption in the context of the war in Ukraine could be more detrimental than beneficial for maintaining peace and stability on Moldova’s soil.

Peace and Security First

There is no clarity on how the Russian invasion in Ukraine will end, and whether Transnistria will be involved or not. Yet, some authors believe that once/if Russia reaches Odessa in its invasion plan, Transnistria will join it and become part of a bigger project, Novorossiya. However, it is submitted here that at the moment Transnistria is not a target, and if Chisinau and Tiraspol manifest sufficient diligence, any military escalation may be avoided. It is important to keep alive the diplomacy and prioritize peace and stability because, as stressed above, the consequences of a prospective military confrontation in Transnistria might be disastrous for the entire continent.