During the civil war that followed Moldova’s independence 22 years ago, the central government in Chișinău launched an offensive to regain the territory held by the pro-Russian separatists. Without formally declaring war, however, Russia came out on top in this small conflict. Suddenly, entire Russian army battalions armed with tanks and heavy artillery stepped out as “volunteers” to fight against Moldova.
With no army of its own or any heavy armour, but only lightly armed militia and volunteers, the fledgling Moldovan state was on the verge of being militarily crushed. It sued for peace, and an uneasy truce has prevailed on the frontline ever since, enforced by hundreds of fresh troops sent from Russia and euphemistically called “peacekeepers.”
Anything familiar about this story? Indeed, today we are witnessing the same kind of Russian counter-offensive in Eastern Ukraine. While the West meditates on whether or not to send defensive weapons to the embattled government of Ukraine, the latter is fast running out of resources and is close to military collapse. The Minsk negotiations will probably lead to a Minsk II agreement, which will fail just as Minsk I did. As long as he thinks he can win militarily, Putin will push for conquering more territory. It may be a harsh thing to say, but only arming Ukraine and increasing Putin`s costs in the conflict will bring about a serious peace deal.
What will happen next? Russia will create a new statelet on the Transnistrian model. We will have endless negotiations in various formats— bilateral with Russian supervision, multilateral with Russian supervision/participation, multilateral with UE and US as observers and Russian supervision/participation. The format may change, but Russia’s role in it will not. Russia sells the idea of negotiations as a way toward reaching a permanent solution. It will never come to that, but Russia will insist on dealing the cards.
The pseudo-state becomes a smugglers’ heaven—a state-owned business. Elites on both sides of the new de facto border make money by smuggling anything from foodstuffs to weapons. Ordinary people adapt— most weddings in Moldova serve cheap alcohol from Transnistria, and are celebrated with illegal fireworks smuggled via the same place. The weddings in Transnistria serve cheap mineral water and sweets from Moldova.
With every passing year, the two sides grow farther and farther apart. For ordinary Moldovans, Transnistria is not an issue, they have become used to its loss. The Moldovan government still keeps a low profile “reunification office” (downgraded from a “reunification Ministry” in the 1990’s and early 2000s), but nobody knows for sure what it is doing. Compare this with the huge resources allocated by Moldova to European integration – which is the real priority. As Moldova is getting closer and closer to the EU, Transnistria is fading farther away from the agenda. At some point in the future, the EU will have to recast the Cyprus precedent as a binding precedent: a functional EU member despite controlling just a part of its formal territory. Moldova and, from now on Ukraine, will challenge the EU to offer them a membership perspective. The alternative is to accept the Russian blackmail, which would mean to deny these countries EU membership without a settlement of the conflicts. And any such settlement will depend solely on Moscow. Guess who wins?
While it is still able to throw its weight around diplomatically and militarily, Russia’s strategy is built on quicksand. Now, 22 years after its military victory, Transnistria has lost 40 per cent of its population and it has a constant 70 per cent budget deficit. When a new president won the election, the governor of the Central Bank fled to Russia, taking the treasury with her. Anyway, the entire treasury was less than the annual salary of a football player at Shakhtar Donetsk (to keep the comparisons regional). The industry inherited from the Soviets consumes free gas from Russia (which sends the bills to Moldova) and re-exports mostly to the EU. As one Transnistrian businessman told me, “the Russians say they love us, but I have to pay huge bribes to sell everything there, we always prefer to export to the EU.” But Russia was paying the pensions and covering the budget deficit in the separatist enclave, so there was no escape from Russia’s love.
The Transnistrians are the primary victims of this Russian form of “protection.” I say “was paying,” because two weeks ago Transnistria announced that Russia was cutting its subsidies. Which raises the issue of survival for the non-recognised entity. It is ironic that Russia considers the 400,000 inhabitants of Transnistria too expensive to subsidise any further, while at the same time moves to create a much bigger replica of such an economic black hole (5 million people live in separatist controlled Donbas).