As Moldova and Russia spar again over Moscow’s military presence in the breakaway region of Transnistria, BIRN looks at what it would take to end this decades-long dispute.
Relations between Moldova’s new elected pro-European president, Maia Sandu, and Russia started off on the wrong foot when Sandu immediately vowed to ensure Russia finally withdraws its troops from the Transnistria region that broke away from Moldova with Russian support in the early-1990s.
“I am sure we will find a format for resolving the [Transnistrian] conflict, and this should include the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. I have always said that, and we will say it in the future,” Sandu told Evropeyskaya Pravda in an interview.
“For us, the goal is for Russian troops to withdraw from Moldova. There has been no danger of military action in the region for a long time,” Sandu told a press conference on November 30.
In most of her addresses to the international public since she took office in December, Sandu has also insisted on the withdrawal of Russian troops and removal of Russian weapons from Moldovan territory.
The new President has called for the replacement of the existing military peacekeeping mission with a civilian observer mission under the auspices of the OSCE.
She argued that there is no danger now of a new armed conflict erupting on the banks of the Dniester River that separate Moldova from the breakaway region.
BIRN has checked what needs to be done in both Russia and Moldova, but also in terms of the international presence, to get Russian troops to leave Transnistria.
Saga that dates back to the early-1990s
As the Soviet Union dissolved, and the former Soviet republic of Moldova proclaimed its independence, fighting erupted between those who championed or feared independence.
After five months of fighting between pro-Russian rebels backed by the ex-14th Soviet army and the Moldovan army, the Russian and Moldovan presidents, Boris Yeltsin and Mircea Snegur, signed a peace treaty on July 29, 1992.
This resulted in a peacekeeping mission patrolling the left bank of the Dniester River, composed of Russian and Moldovan military contingents, representatives of the administration of the Transnistrian region and Ukrainian military observers.
Today, Moscow maintains a peacekeeping mission in Transnistria of around 500 soldiers and the Operative Group of Russian Troops, OGRT, of 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers.
They guard one of the biggest ammunition depots in Eastern Europe, in Cobasna, which is thought to house about 20,000 tons of guns and ammunition. About a thousand of the Russian soldiers in Transnistria are engaged in supervising the arms depot.
From the military point of view, Moldova is far weaker than its breakaway region.
Moldova counts about 6,000 soldiers in its small army, while Transnistrian military forces number between 10,000 and 15,000 soldiers. Moreover, while the Moldovan army has no warplanes or tanks, the breakaway Transnistrian army has both.
Moreover, Russian forces in Transnistria hold over 100 joint military exercises together annually with Transnistria, keeping the Tiraspol regime’s forces up and ready for any military scenario.
So far, no progress has been made on getting Russia to reduce the number of troops in the area, let alone withdraw all of them.
On May 2, 2017, Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled that the movement was all in the wrong direction. The Russian Federation had “not withdrawn its occupation troops from the east of the country but, on the contrary, has strengthened its military presence in the Transnistrian part of Moldova, and Moldova remains under military occupation”, it said.
The possibility of progress between the two sides is currently rendered even more unlikely due to complicated internal affairs ahead of the snap election expected in Moldova early this year, and the current lack of interest in the international community.
Sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, the tiny strip of land called Transnistria remains the de facto forward operating base for Moscow’s interests in the broader region.
At the OSCE summit in Istanbul in 1999, Russia undertook to withdraw its army from Transnistria. However, it failed to honour that commitment.
For now, official Chisinau has no tools to compel Russia to withdraw from Transnistria. Importantly, the 1992 provisions stipulate that withdrawal is not possible without Russia’s consent. As of today, the de facto authorities in Tiraspol are not at all likely to accept withdrawal, and nor is Moscow.
Additionally, Moscow considers the US military base in Moldova’s neighbour Romania a significant threat; therefore, it likely considers its military presence in Transnistria more important than ever.
Moscow dismisses call to leave as ‘irresponsible’
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already dismissed Sandu’s pledge to removing Russian troops from Transnistria as “an irresponsible demand”.
“This [call] is unlikely to help resolve it [the conflict], and we will be unable to accept such irresponsible demands,” Lavrov told a press conference on December 1.
Before him, Elena Panina, a member of the Russian Duma’s Foreign Affairs committee, told Ria Novosti that the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria risked “unthawing” the Transnistrian conflict.
“Sandu wants Russian peacekeepers to leave Transnistria, but from the beginning excludes the scenario of federalization — with the help of which a balance of interests and a long-lasting peace could be reached.”
“What is being proposed to the people of Transnistria instead? De facto, a return to the situation of 1992, when a bloody conflict broke out, which took the lives of thousands of people,” she said.
She added that Tiraspol would never accept such scenario, anyway. “The Transnistrian issue could have been solved 17 years ago when Russia proposed the Kozak memorandum,” Panina continued.
The reference was to a document that Moldova’s then president, Vladimir Voronin, rejected in 2003.
The plan promoted by Moscow official Dmitry Kozak was to reunite Moldova and Transnistria in a weak federation.
But Moldova rejected the proposal, fearing it would give Transnistria and its sponsor, Russia, too much leverage in Moldova’s internal affairs, in effect, tying Moldova to Russia.
Also, besides proposing the establishment of an asymmetric federal Moldovan state, the provisions importantly stipulated the continued presence of Russian troops in Moldova for another 20 years, until 2023.
Withdrawal scenario would involve three ‘pillars’
An expert from the organisation Promo-LEX, Ion Manole, said a peacekeeping mission to replace Russian forces would help ease tensions in the area by implementing de-demilitarization of the breakaway region.
He accused the Russian media of distorting Sandu’s recent statements. “When Sandu reiterated this obligation of the Russian Federation [to quit Transnistria], old-fashioned manipulation was used to mislead the public and cause panic,” he said.
“The Russian military forces that must be withdrawn from Moldova’s territory should not be confused with peacekeepers,” he told stopfals.md.
Military analyst and former defence minister Viorel Ciobataru told BIRN that any withdrawal of the Russian troops would have to involve three “pillars”.
Moldova would first have to clear up the endemic corruption and smuggling in Transnistria, which he said had been used as a smuggling platform for almost three decades.
Second, Moldova would have to push for the controlled destruction of old ammunition stored under Russian guard in Cobasna.
Third, both Moldova and Russia would have to sign a treaty guaranteeing that Moldovans on both banks of the Dniester border would not attack each other.
“Moldova has entered into this package of agreements with the European Union, the Council of Europe and NATO warning Chisinau not to use force against Tiraspol. But now Russia must also take necessary steps,” Moldova’s former army chief told BIRN.
Madalin Necsutu is a political and investigative journalist who specialises in Eastern Europe and the politics of ex-Soviet states in the region. He has worked as a journalist since 2006 for Romanian media outlets like the Mediafax news agency and daily newspapers ZIUA, Curentul and Evenimentul Zilei. He was awarded for his political and investigative stories in Romania by the Romanian Professional Journalists Union in 2016; won the prize “European Reporter in 2017” by the European Commission; and has been awarded in Moldova by the UN Development Project in 2016.