Transnistria: Russia Anxieties Played Out on the Smallest Stage of All

The year 2013 has not been kind to Russia’s regional ambitions. It effectively lost Ukraine to Brussels when Kyiv confirmed its choice of an Association Agreement with the EU instead of Moscow’s Custom’s Union. Its hamfisted attempt to force the issue by engineering a trade war with its neighbor during July and August backfired spectacularly. Rather than scare Ukraine into its arms, it galvanized Ukrainian support for deeper ties with Europe.

As a result, Ukrainian government officials will head to Vilnius next month to sign the Association Agreement with the support of 80 percent of their 46 million people – including the Russian speaking population and every political party except, inevitably, the Communists.

This has left Russia looking somewhat desperate as a regional player, and if you want to see proof of this desperation, you need look no further than tiny Transnistria, the disputed strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine.

At 4,100 square kilometers, it is little bigger than New York’s Long Island; but to Moscow right now, it is deserving of special attention.

Like South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and the Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, the dispute over Transnistria is a product of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a brief war in the early 1990s. Moldova, also on the cusp of signing an Association Agreement with the EU in Vilnius, calls it part of its territory, but around 90 percent of the population see themselves as Russian, not Moldovan.

Russia, for its part, doesn’t actually recognize Transnistria as an independent state, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t use it as a tool against Moldova’s ambitions. It has lavished cheap gas on the territory to prop up its industries and is handing out Russian passports to pretty much whoever wants one.

As the European Council on Foreign Relations concluded in 2012: “Transnistria’s greatest value to Russia is in providing a source of leverage within Moldova.”

In the past few months, Moscow has upped the ante by naming Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, described as a “a nationalist hawk”, as its special representative to Transnistria. On his very first visit, he repeated Russia’s pledge to be “guarantor” to the territory while warning Moldova that its pro-European drive will inflame divisions along the disputed border. That’s carrot and stick, Russian style.

So why has Moscow drafted in a Deputy Prime Minister to babysit a tiny territory with just half a million people? The answer could be that Russia is fighting for every bit of regional influence it can get.

Vladimir Putin’s unsubtle attempts to remake a Russian empire are looking shaky at the moment. With Ukraine out of the picture, his Customs Union can boast just Kazakhstan and Belarus as 100 percent committed members.

So as a result, Transnistria is taking on a significance totally disproportionate to its size. It is as if Russia’s regional anxieties are being played out on the smallest stage of all.

Then there is the time imperative. Once Moldova signs the Association Agreement, it will trigger a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Deal which spells trouble for Transnistria. As it stands, the territory enjoys a favorable EU tariff regime for its exports that mostly consist of steel and textiles.

But once Moldova puts pen to the Association Agreement, that special deal goes with it. All the cheap gas in the world won’t shield Transnistria from the harsh economic reality, and the citizens of this non-existent state will instantly see the pitfalls of missing out on European integration.

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