A lot has been said and written about events in the Ukraine over the last few months, yet there is a very interesting area to the west. Some say it is stuck in the past yet others say it doesn’t want to move forward. This area is Transnistria, and although virtually unknown outside if the region, both history and current events mean that it merits further investigation.
Before we look at what it is however, we first need to see where it came from and to do so, we need not look first at the fall of the USSR but even further in the past.
Contrary to where Americans might think that this region is on a map, Bessarabia is the region of Europe that is today Moldova, Transnistria and the Budjak area in the Ukraine. The region has been a political football for the last two centuries, being kicked back and forth as the local powers have gone to and fro through the area in successive conflicts. The Treaty of Bucharest ceded the region to the Russian Empire in 1812, becoming the Bessarabian Governate or Oblast. In 1856 after the Crimean War, certain areas were again returned to Moldova. In 1878 after Wallachia, the area that is today Romania united with Moldavia, Bessarabia returned to Russia in exchange for other lands. After the October Revolution in 1917, the area became the Moldovan ASSR, part of a plan by Moscow towards a federal republic. The Romanians however intervened, and under these auspices, the fledgling state allied itself with Romania rather than the Soviet Union. In 1940 however, after consultations with Berlin which was by this time on friendly terms with Bucharest, Moscow was able to pressure Romania into ceding the area over to the USSR, this becoming the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. The area then fell to axis powers in 1941 and back into Soviet hands during 1944. This remained the status quo until 1991 when the fall of the USSR caused the dissolution of the Moldovan and Ukrainian SSRs.
After all of this, the area had seen a good number of peoples come and go, yet the Soviet-Russian influence in the region had lasted the longest, this having become part of what made the region what it was and critically regarding current events, what it is today. The winds of change were felt when the Soviet era ended, yet in spite of the majority of the people being quite happy as they were, the storms of war were soon blowing through the region.
As with many former republics, independence did not come without conflict. A brief war was fought, and in September 1990, the area which is today Transnistria made a declaration of sovereignty from Moldova. This war, whilst officially ongoing, was only a little over a year in duration and neither as drawn out nor as bitter as those seen in other areas of the former Soviet Union that suffered conflict after 1991. It was waged between pro-Transnistrian forces aided by Cossack guards and elements of the Russian armed forces who had not yet left for Russia and those loyal to Moldova. Minor territorial gains were made by both sides, Bender, the second town of the new nation coming under local control and Tiraspol, a mere fifty miles from Odessa becoming the capital city of the new republic. Put simply, this small area has over the centuries not only been part of Russia, but has adopted Russian culture in preference to any other, that being obvious in the way the land and people are today.
Now that we’ve seen how it came into being, let’s have look at what it is. With its capital Tiraspol, the country today has just over half a million people living in a long thin strip of land lying on the east bank of the Dniestr river. In total, the republic is a mere 1,600 square miles in area, yet is fiercely independent from its much larger neighbors, Moldova and the Ukraine. Not only that, but it remains the only de facto country in Europe to still live with a very Russian-Soviet mentality in its day-to-day affairs. Everything from street names to architecture, politics to the armed forces is still very similar if not identical to how it was fifty years ago. With it now being its own ruler, it has autonomy over all its domestic affairs, its own legislative apparatus, army as well as issuing its own passports and currency. It still has a large (for the size of the country) industrial sector, the steel and electricity industries being of great importance. Recognition is however a rather more difficult matter. Only South Ossetia, Artsakh and Abkhazia recognize it as a sovereign state, the UN considering it part of Moldova.
Economically, the country is even poorer than Moldova, yet its economy has moved away from the state model and today is for the most part privately-owned. Electricity, steel and manufacturing, largely of textiles are the pillars of the economy, these being carry-overs from before independence. Just as with many post-Soviet states, corruption has played a large role in the country’s affairs, the Sheriff concern having been been in the headlines on a number of occasions. The country suffered from protracted economic woes for the first fifteen years of its existence, yet various factors have served to improve its situation considerably. What is interesting however is that whilst the republic is considered in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau to be part of the country, trade does go on between the two. Not only that, but with Brussels considering it to be part of Moldova and therefore the EU, that market is now a very important trading partner for Transnistria.
In short, as time and tide have washed over the region during past centuries, the people have chosen the Soviet and then Russian paths, yet with current events being what they are in both East and West, this area is again coming into the spotlight. Recent happenings in the country over recent days now present pressing arguments that the ripples from the Ukraine are now rocking Tiraspol’s boat.
Sitting in the Middle.
Flanked on one side by Moldova with a very pro-western government and on the other by a nation that is fighting a war on behalf of the West, a country that is little bigger than a micro state is certainly facing the challenges that currently conditions present. Until only a few days ago, the situation in the area was as it had been for years, yet with rockets being fired at the Security Ministry, the destruction of radio antennae and the laying of NATO mines on an airfield by drones over the last couple of days, an erstwhile backwater has suddenly found itself in very choppy seas. Surrounded by great uncertainty on all sides, just as with any unstable situation, there are a great number of rumors and tales regarding events, imagined or otherwise. One of the more prevalent ones is that Romania and Turkey are planning operations to not only return Moldova to Romania, but to also extinguish Transnistria per se. One issue that has persisted throughout the conflict in the Ukraine is the involvement of Turkish Bayraktar drones to attack Russian objectives, and with the aerial delivery of mines, only a fool would discount out of hand Turkish involvement. Whilst Russia was able to eliminate all but a handful of these UAVs early in the war, Ankara has supplied replacements, these being delivered through Romania. With instability in this corner of the world and Erdogan ceaselessly attempting to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, it is more than just a possibility that both Bucharest and Ankara are attempting to run a sideshow within the framework of NATO.
Sitting on the Side.
As the possibility of Romania and Turkey, both NATO members, attempt to complicate Eastern European matters further, it needs to be remembered that neither Transnistria nor Moldova are members of either the EU or NATO. Moreover, Transnistria had declared its independence long before anyone in Chisinau had even considered cozying with either NATO or Brussels. Should war break out or Russia enter the fray on Tiraspol’s behalf, there should be no talk of the Atlantic Alliance invoking Article Five. That said, with Finland and Sweden being fast-tracked into the organization, it may just be that the same could happen with Moldova should western powers wish. We all know how Yugoslavia fell into Washington’s grip, yet with war already raging in a world so very different to that of twenty years ago, Washington, London and Brussels may be looking for excuses to justify an intervention. This may however cause a very severe backlash, both from an already enraged Bear, but also from a western public that is increasingly suspicious of government and military alike.
At the Forefront.
In spite of its diminutive size, the tiny slice of land that Transnistria occupies is important for a number of reasons. The first is that it is a stepping stone between Moldova and the Ukraine, and with the president of Moldova, Maia Sandu being as pro-West as she is, there is little doubt that she would welcome western assistance if this meant that Transnistria could be brought under her rule. This would obviously play into the hands of both Brussels and Washington, they both wanting obstacles removed as they fight their proxy war against Russia. From a Ukrainian perspective, with Russia’s operation causing a shortage of munitions, the immense caches still sitting in arsenals since Soviet times would greatly help a slowly disintegrating Kiev as the days and weeks go by. Finally, as a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment surrounded by Uncle Sam’s cronies, European leaders would like nothing better than to attack Russians outside of Russia with a lessened risk of punitive consequences; as a country Transnistria may be small, but the land it sits upon is part if a big-stakes game.
Forward as a Nation.
Whilst Transnistria enjoys very little official recognition across the world, Russia’s Special Operation over the border in the Ukraine has laid the foundations for a number of new nations in the region, the DNR and LNR being the most famous. Notwithstanding, with the possibility of a referendum in Kharkov and so many former Ukrainians disgusted with the actions of Kiev and its men, Transnistria could be one of a number of regions that will eventually become autonomous nations. That will of course cause the West to whine, yet with things being as they are, there is no time like the present to redress the imbalance that thirty years of Washington’s politics have brought to Europe.
Transnistria may not be a nation known to many, yet its small size belies its importance in a number of ways. With a history far richer than many larger nations, its status as a country is questioned by Moldova, yet with Romania loathe to grant independence to Chisinau, this issue still causes strong emotions in Bucharest. To the east, the future of both the Ukraine and more importantly the oblast (state) of Odessa may play a pivotal role in Tiraspol’s fortunes as we look to the future. As a large steel and electricity producer, its economy is enjoying better fortunes than at many times since independence, yet its location, assets and people are most certainly under great scrutiny in certain capital cities.
As a proxy war is fought right on its borders, political vultures are circling, some for Transnistria’s strategic positioning, some for the arms that lie there and others in order that it be part of their empire. Recent events, both in and out of the country have proven that whilst Kiev’s war is more or less caused by the West, the Ukraine, and its failings in light of the assistance it has received have proven that more is less, yet with its steadfast stance, Transnistria has demonstrated time and again that less is more…