Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Ukraine’s (Potential) Western Front

Kyiv faces Russian troops to the north and east. Now, it’s got to worry about Trans-Dniester too.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
A statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is in Trans-Dniester.
A statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is in Trans-Dniester.
A statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is seen near a poster with the official coat of arms in Tiraspol, Trans-Dniester, on Aug. 31, 2012. MOLDOVA-TRANSDNIESTRIA/REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

TIRASPOL, Trans-Dniester—When visitors cross into Trans-Dniester, an unrecognized breakaway territory straddling Moldova’s border with southwest Ukraine, they are met with a modern iteration of the KGB. Imposing characters armed with a myriad of questions for foreign guests, the security forces have been stationed at the Bender customs checkpoint since the early 1990s after the pro-Russia territory declared independence from its parent state, Moldova.

With tensions rising across Europe due to Moscow’s buildup of military hardware along Ukraine’s borders, all Trans-Dniester authorities are on high alert. But they are not afraid of a potential Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory: They are afraid the war of words between the Kremlin and the West will recall hundreds of Russian troops and peacekeepers stationed on their soil back to Moscow.

Home to approximately 450,000 people, according to local authorities, Trans-Dniester, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), has its own government and currency: the Trans-Dniester ruble. (Moldovans call the place Transnistria, whereas international mediators opt for Transdniestria.) Either way, Russian flags fly high over dilapidated Soviet-style buildings. Beat up Lada cars sputter along eerily quiet streets, and statues of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin are seen in almost every open space. The people here mostly identify as Russian, and the majority of residents can remember the height of the Soviet days.

TIRASPOL, Trans-Dniester—When visitors cross into Trans-Dniester, an unrecognized breakaway territory straddling Moldova’s border with southwest Ukraine, they are met with a modern iteration of the KGB. Imposing characters armed with a myriad of questions for foreign guests, the security forces have been stationed at the Bender customs checkpoint since the early 1990s after the pro-Russia territory declared independence from its parent state, Moldova.

With tensions rising across Europe due to Moscow’s buildup of military hardware along Ukraine’s borders, all Trans-Dniester authorities are on high alert. But they are not afraid of a potential Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory: They are afraid the war of words between the Kremlin and the West will recall hundreds of Russian troops and peacekeepers stationed on their soil back to Moscow.

Home to approximately 450,000 people, according to local authorities, Trans-Dniester, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), has its own government and currency: the Trans-Dniester ruble. (Moldovans call the place Transnistria, whereas international mediators opt for Transdniestria.) Either way, Russian flags fly high over dilapidated Soviet-style buildings. Beat up Lada cars sputter along eerily quiet streets, and statues of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin are seen in almost every open space. The people here mostly identify as Russian, and the majority of residents can remember the height of the Soviet days.

At the Green Market in the center of Tiraspol, concerns about Russian troops and incursions into Ukraine were nonexistent. Some residents said they wanted to see Trans-Dniester join Russia one day, whereas others harkened for a Western-facing future. Everyone was delighted to see their home make international headlines last year, not because of its links to Russia but because Trans-Dniester’s soccer team, Sheriff Tiraspol, made it into the Champions League, the top European competition, and even beat Real Madrid. To those hawking handmade cheese and tasty honey, Trans-Dniester’s flag might be the last in the world to include the hammer and sickle, but its desire to be part of another conflict is harder to find.

Although the scene is calm in Trans-Dniester, there is concern in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, that the breakaway territory could be used by Russia in any potential conflict with Ukraine. Tiraspol is only 60-odd miles from the Ukrainian coastal city of Odessa and is home to about 1,000 Russian soldiers.

“At the moment, we’re not seeing any unusual activity in Trans-Dniester, but we are worried that could change,” Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu told Foreign Policy. “We are consistently calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldovan territory, and we stand for the fact that it’s our sovereign right to make that decision.” The Moldovan government has also appealed to Moscow to remove the 22,000 tons of military equipment housed in an ammunition depot in the Trans-Dniester town of Cobasna.

The Russian soldiers are meant to protect the depot in Cobasna and 500 peacekeepers; the Russian peacekeeping mission began after a cease-fire agreement was signed in July 1992, ending a five-month civil war that raged between Moldovan loyalists and PMR separatists. Although Moscow doesn’t recognize Trans-Dniester’s claim to independence—only the breakaway states of South Ossetia, Artsakh, and Abkhazia do—it has used the region to exert an element of control over Moldova, which is a neutral state.

Since 2002, more than 200,000 people from Trans-Dniester have received a Russian passport, a move that has continually irked Chisinau. Russia has done similar things with the populations of other friendly rogue republics, including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the two separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. Moscow has also rebuffed calls from NATO and the United States to withdraw its troops from Trans-Dniester in exchange for dialogue on arms control, saying the troops are needed to protect Russian citizens and be a “safety factor” to prevent any return to conflict. In early February, Russian troops staged military drills in the breakaway region.

Ukraine is understandably uncomfortable with this muscle-flexing on their southwestern border. In January, the Ukrainian intelligence directorate accused Russian special services in Cobasna of planning provocations on Russian armed forces, which could then be used as cover for an offensive.

“The reality is that the Kremlin tries to shape an environment of destabilization and instability all around Ukraine, not only in the eastern direction,” said Yuriy Klymenko, Ukraine’s special representative for the Trans-Dniester settlement. “The Trans-Dniester region and the Russian contingent deployed there could become part of these efforts.” Speaking in relation to the alleged false flag operation, he added: “Ukraine has never had any intention to destabilize the situation in the Trans-Dniester region or pose any military threats to it.”

For an unrecognized breakaway republic, the place gets lots of diplomatic attention. The 5+2 format, which works on a solution to the Trans-Dniester problem, includes Ukraine. And every Thursday in Bender, representatives from Kyiv are joined by delegates from Russia, Moldova, Trans-Dniester, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to discuss security concerns. But since 2014, Tiraspol feels Ukraine’s attitude has changed.

“Kiev is helping Chisinau to implement a blockade of measures against [the PMR], including a ban on the entry of vehicles to Ukraine with Trans-Dniester license plates,” said Galtsev Pavel Yuryevich, acting head of Transnistria’s Department for Public Communications, pointedly using the Russian spelling of the Ukrainian capital.

“This destructive decision has already caused a multimillion-dollar economic loss for us and affected the freedom of movement for thousands of our people,” he said.

The measure was introduced on Sept. 1, 2021, and has significantly soured relations with Kyiv. Moscow has denounced the measure as a “threat” to the “safety and well-being” of its citizens in the area.

For now, the number of Russian troops in Trans-Dniester is not increasing, but the territory’s tiny military budget has grown by approximately 40 percent to $17 million compared to 2020. Today, Trans-Dniester’s armed forces number between 4,000 and 7,500 troops. “The mechanism for the number of Russian troops cannot change overnight,” said Anatolii Dirun, an academic at the Tiraspol School of Political Studies. “If Russia wanted to increase troops, they have to get permission from the 5+2 actors. But that said, it’s not impossible for the numbers to go up.”

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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