Ukrainian crisis: A new context for a Transnistrian settlement
In the past 12 months, a radical change in the situation surrounding Transnistria has occurred. In connection with the recent events in Ukraine, but also due to the success of Moldova in the process of European integration – mainly thanks to its signing of an Association Agreement with the EU – a re-evaluation of the positions of all key players involved in the Transnistrian issue has taken place, primarily Ukraine, Moldova, and Transnistria itself.
Up until the beginning of 2014, the attitude of Kyiv toward Tiraspol could be described as ambivalent. At the official level, the Ukrainian authorities did not recognize Transnistrian statehood and expressed support for the territorial integrity of Moldova. At the same time, Ukraine tolerated the existence of this unrecognized region on its borders.
Kyiv’s policy was determined by two main factors. The first was the desire to preserve the best possible relations with Russia, which required if not support for the existence of Transnistria then at least refraining from acting toward its detriment. The second factor was the economic benefits that part of the Ukrainian political class and the oligarchs drew from Transnistria. Events in Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in Donbas, however, forced Kyiv to revise its relations with Tiraspol. It has become clear that Transnistria can be used by Russia to conduct subversive activities in the southwestern area of the country.
Turning to Moldova’s policy toward Transnistria, since the end of the military phase of the conflict with the region in 1992, Chisinau had been trying to pursue an appeasement policy aimed at the non-exacerbation of relations with Tiraspol. This resulted from a desire to maintain at least neutral relations with Moscow, especially because of the great importance of Russia for the Moldovan economy and because of the pressures of the Moldovan electorate, which has traditionally opposed any inflammation of the Transnistrian problem due to fears of a possible outbreak of armed conflict and Russian sanctions.
The increased assertiveness of Chisinau toward Tiraspol, roughly from the middle of 2014 onward, can be attributed to the previously described change in policy of Ukraine, and the signing and ratification by the Moldovan parliament of the Association Agreement with the EU.
From the perspective of the Kremlin, Transnistria was meant to serve as an obstacle to the affiliation of Moldova with the West, understood as integration with the EU and possible reunification with Romania.
Russia has always seemed aware, however, that the optimal solution would be to cause the reunification of Moldova and Transnistria through the establishment of some form of federation in which Tiraspol would have the right to influence the political decisions of Chisinau.
However, Moldova’s signing of an Association Agreement with the EU, together with clear and regular statements of the Transnistrian authorities about their wish to integrate with the Customs Union promoted by Russia, seems to completely roll back the possibility of a resolution of the conflict implemented on the basis of federalization.
At the same time, Russia realized in recent months that the existence of Transnistria in its present form actually in no way prevents Moldova from its integration with the West. This means that the separatist entity in eastern Moldova, which costs Moscow approximately 1 billion dollars a year, is an expensive but very ineffective tool of leverage over Chisinau.
However, the possibility that Russia could decide to unilaterally recognize the region should not be ruled out. This would allow Moscow to include Tiraspol in the Eurasian integration process, which is now largely blocked because of the imprecise legal status of the region, and complicate the situation of Moldova. Despite this, recognition would prevent Chisinau from its pro-European aspirations and would undoubtedly strengthen the position of Tiraspol.
If the recognition of Transnistria by Russia became a reality and the expected response from Chisinau were to occur, this would cause a serious exacerbation of relations with the breakaway region, and perhaps even the beginning of hostilities.