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War in Ukraine: what is Transnistria?

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For several days, American intelligence has been concerned about an extension of the war in Ukraine towards Moldova. Transnistria, a Moldovan separatist region, crystallizes tensions.

A separatist enclave

Transnistria is a strip of land 450 kilometers long and about ten kilometers wide, located on the border with Ukraine. Populated by 500,000 inhabitants, it represents approximately 10% of the former Soviet Republic of Moldova.

In 1991, with the fall of the Soviet empire, the territory proclaimed its independence. Supported by the Russian army, Transnistria emerged victorious from a brief and violent civil war which killed more than 2,000 people between March and July 1992.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A self-proclaimed separatist republic, Transnistria is not recognized by any state, not even Russia. The territory is de facto independent as it has its own capital (Tiraspol), government, army and currency.

A territory under Russian influence

In Transnistria, people live on Moscow time. “The Russian flag floats on all official buildings in Tiraspol (…) alongside the local emblem which has retained the hammer and sickle. The Romanian language, official in Moldova, gives way here to Russian”, relates a journalist from Le Monde reporting in the capital of the enclave.

In 2006, 97.1% of the inhabitants voted in favor of joining Russia in a referendum. In March 2014, the day after the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the government of Transnistria declared once again that it wanted to join Russia. A vote and declarations which were not followed by effects.

Transnistria receives constant support from Moscow, especially for gas, delivered free of charge. Sheriff, the main conglomerate in the enclave, is owned by former members of the Soviet intelligence services. Omnipresent, the group dominates all economic sectors (energy, media, telephony, banking, construction, etc.) and owns the local football club, Sheriff Tiraspol.

The Russian influence in Transnistria is not only economic. Since the civil war of 1992, the Russian army has never left the region. The Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria, with 1,500 soldiers, is stationed there permanently.

A resurgence of tension

In the midst of the war in Ukraine, the strategic position of Transnistria – Tiraspol is only two short hours from Odessa – worries the Moldovan authorities. The Kremlin could in particular be tempted to use the enclave as a rear base for the invasion of southern Ukraine, like Belarus for the North.

At the end of April, a radio center and the Ministry of Public Security of Transnistria were the target of attacks with explosives and grenade launchers. Preemptive Ukrainian attack? Moscow operation to justify an intervention in Moldova? Those responsible have not been identified.

A few days before the explosions, Russian General Rustam Minnekayev had claimed that the Russian-speaking population of Moldova was “victim of oppression”, one of the pretexts invoked by the Kremlin to intervene in Ukraine in order to “defend” the Russian minority.

Last March, Moldova applied to join the European Union. A choice that must not have pleased Vladimir Putin, anxious to keep the countries of the former Soviet bloc within his sphere of influence.

Aware of the risks hanging over the country, the President of the European Council Charles Michel promised on May 4 to “considerably increase” the military aid given to Moldova.

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