The Frozen Conflict in Transnistria: Why the West Should Pay Attention to Moldova

By: Shawn Stefanick, Columnist

Photo by: Getty Images

On February 17, 2018, at the annual Munich Security Conference, Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip renewed his calls for Moscow to withdraw Russian troops from the Trans-Dniester Republic (commonly referred to as Transnistria), a Russian-backed separatist enclave in eastern Moldova.[i] Judging by the lack of discourse in Washington and Brussels, Filip’s declarations fell on deaf ears. The lack of response is not surprising, considering Moldova is of little geopolitical significance to the West. Yet, even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its deliberate fueling of secessionism in eastern Ukraine in 2014, few policymakers overtly recognize Russia’s use of secessionism and its disruption of political resolutions as a political weapon. For the Kremlin, Transnistria is a fait accompli—the frozen conflict is an end-in-itself.

Approximately 1,200 troops from Russia’s 14th army regiment have been stationed in Transnistria since the 1950s.[ii] The roots of the current impasse date to a flawed 1992 resolution between Chisinau and Moscow. In 1990, Transnistria seceded from the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic.[iii] Later, in March 1992, Moldova attempted to regain control of Transnistria, but was repelled by Russian troops.[iv] A resolution to end the hostilities, signed by Russia and Moldova in July 1992, cemented the presence of Russian armed forces in Transnistria as a “peacekeeping force” that inadvertently made its withdrawal dependent on a Moldovan-Transnistrian political settlement.[v]

A political settlement, though, has been unobtainable; Russia has repeatedly hindered the conflict’s resolution. In the past two decades, Moldovan presidents have attempted to reunify the country by negotiating a bilateral agreement with Moscow, often proposing the dismantlement of the pro-Russian Tiraspol regime for assurances of a friendly Moldova.[vi] Moscow, however, remains obstinate, insisting on the federalization of Moldova. The “Kozak Plan,” first introduced in 2003, would restructure Moldova’s domestic political system, granting Transnistria nine of 14 senators, whose majority is needed to pass legislation, and would have permitted Russian armed forces to remain in Transnistria until at least 2020.[vii] On January 17, 2017, Putin again hinted that Moscow will accept nothing short of a Transnistrian veto over Moldovan domestic politics, saying that the Kozak plan was “as close as ever to reaching a final settlement.”[viii] Even without the Kozak plan, though, Moscow’s meddling is not for nothing; the Kremlin’s recalcitrance serves its regional geopolitical goals.

The Kremlin’s fait accompli in Transnistria gives Russia influence over Moldovan domestic and foreign policy. Moscow’s violation of Moldova’s territorial integrity constrains Chisinau’s ability to implement the democratic reforms necessary for integration into the EU and NATO. At will, the Kremlin can surreptitiously flare up tensions between Tiraspol and Chisinau to distract Moldova’s population and undermine Chisinau’s legitimacy. Often, Russia has been ominously blunt. In September 2013, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin warned that Moldova “would lose Transnistria if Moldova continues moving toward the European Union.”[ix]

The frozen conflict also acts as a wedge against potential Moldovan membership in NATO. There is no official rule against a state with an unresolved territorial dispute joining NATO. However, the placement of Russian troops on a NATO member’s territory might require triggering Article 5—which states that an attack against one member state is an attack against all—or NATO risks losing credibility and undermining its alliance.[x] At the present, the West is not seriously contemplating a conventional military conflict with Russia. The unresolved conflict impedes Moldovan membership in the EU and NATO with little cost to Russia, incentivizing the maintenance of the status quo.

Policymakers in Washington and Brussels, therefore, should pay close attention to Moscow’s exploitation of the Transnistrian conflict and the motives behind its actions, as it portends an ominous outcome for eastern Ukraine. As the Kremlin continues to view the post-soviet space through the lens of Cold War spheres of influence, NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s borders is more than an irritant. Russia also believes the West lacks the will and resolve to enforce the territorial integrity of non-EU, geopolitically insignificant states such as Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, and has demonstrated its willingness to destabilize its neighbors to prevent them from integrating with western institutions. The failure of the Mink I and Minsk II agreements and Moscow’s insistence of “excessive” autonomy for Donetsk and Lugansk, the two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, as a precondition for a resolution, therefore, should be of little surprise.[xi]

Moving forward, the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict is highly unlikely. While the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), in November 2017, claimed that “progress” was being made toward the conflict’s resolution,[xii] the illusion of progress is nothing more than an odd convergence of external factors. An amalgamation of a pro-Russian Moldovan president, western sanctions on Russia, and Russian financing of military endeavors in Syria and of separatists in eastern Ukraine have combined to temporarily and tenuously ease tensions in the republic. Moscow has no incentive to cede a strategic chokepoint in the post-soviet space for nothing in return. And, as Chisinau is unlikely to grant Transnistria, and therefore Russia, a de facto veto over its domestic politics, the conflict is unlikely to thaw any time soon.



[i] RFE/RL, “Moldovan PM Renews Call For Russia To Quit Transdniester,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, February 18, 2018.

[ii] Mihai Gribincea, “Russian troops in Transnistria – a threat to the security of the Republic of Moldova,” December 05, 2006.

[iii] Witold Rodkiewicz, “Transnistrian Conflict After 20 Years,” OSW Centre For Eastern Studies, 2011.

[iv] Global IDP Project, “Moldova: Uncertainty about integration of displaced from Transdniestrian region,” Norwegian Refugee Council, March 2004.

[v] Witold Rodkiewicz, “Transnistrian Conflict After 20 Years,” OSW Centre For Eastern Studies, 2011.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Marcel van. Herpen, Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

[viii] “Joint news conference with President of Moldova Igor Dodon,” President of Russia, January 17, 2017.

[ix] Vladimir Socor, “Rogozin Threatens Moldova with Sanctions over Association Agreement with the European Union,” The Jamestown Foundation, September 4, 2013.

[x] NATO, “Collective defense – Article 5,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, March 22, 2017.

[xi] Roland Oliphant, “Ukraine May Grant Autonomy to Pro-Russian Separatists in a Bid for Peace,” United Kingdom Telegraph, July 31, 2015.

[xii] “Substantial progress in Transdniestrian settlement talks in Vienna, clear commitment to solve remaining issues, says OSCE Special Representative,” Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, November 28, 2017.

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