Russia’s ever-more egregious military adventures are a horrific experience for Ukraine and a shock for a formerly complacent European continent. And yet the Kremlin’s behavior amounts to such over-reach that it may have exposed itself to counter-action in its illegal, colonial outposts.
Wherever Russia can, it grabs the land of other countries, usually arguing that it is aiding Russian speakers living beyond the country’s borders. These so-called frozen conflicts have proliferated in Ukraine, but also in Georgia and Moldova, where the longest-established puppet state is called Transnistria.
After the Russians failed to achieve a de jure veto on NATO enlargement in the 1990s and early 2000s, they discovered how to achieve a de facto veto. This is well described in How Russia Keeps Post-Soviet States in Its Orbit by Luka Jukic, which describes Russian efforts to trap countries in “seemingly unwinnable conflicts” which keep them “firmly out of Western institutions like NATO or the EU.” Although Russia failed to prevent the Baltic states from joining both organizations, the Russians went on to attack Georgia in 2008 and occupy territory in Ukraine in 2014.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has so altered the security map of Europe that it is time to reconsider the fundamentals. The status quo in Ukraine is currently being forcibly renegotiated by the Kremlin, the outcome unknown. Georgia, while also an aspirant EU and NATO member, and also the target of Russian threats, is probably not in a condition to re-set the terms of regional geopolitics. It is reasonable to assume that any attempt to re-take the Russian puppet statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is beyond its capabilities, even if the government wanted to act.
Moldova, on the other hand, is in a much better position. It is geographically separated from Russia, borders the NATO ally Romania, with which it shares a language, and is in the Western collective consciousness just because of its seeming vulnerability (and of course because Russia regularly targets its pro-Western government with military threats.)
The tale of Moldova, Russia Transnistria, and Romania is a long one that centers on historical boundaries and population movements over the past several centuries. At the end of the Cold War, some small groups of ethnic Russians in former Soviet territory were angered to find the local ethnic majority in charge. Russian forces on the bank of the River Dniester helped ethnic Russians to form an illegal entity unrecognized by any UN member state. In 1993, the international community agreed “to facilitate the achievement of a lasting, comprehensive political settlement”, something codified in the Mandate of the OSCE mission to Moldova. This required the withdrawal of foreign (Russian) troops and the observance of minority rights. Russia has shown no serious effort to respect the agreement in the succeeding three decades.
Recently, Moldova has become more willing to push back on Russian malign activity. The Moldovan government issued a formal protest in response to a Russian general’s claim on April 22 that linking its territory to Transnistria through occupied Ukraine was a key objective of the invasion.
Moldova should now take this a step farther and overtly state that the Russians should leave Transnistria and the region should peacefully integrate with Moldova. If Moldova takes the agreed-upon criteria as its starting position and overtly guarantees human and minority rights, it might obtain the support of a variety of international actors. European entities are already highlighting the situation: in March of 2022, the NATO Secretary General stated that in “Moldova and Transnistria, which is part of Moldova, there are Russian troops without the consent of the government in Moldova” while the Council of Europe changed their viewpoint and designated Transnistria as Russian occupied territory.
The Military Balance 2022 says that before the invasion of Ukraine the Russians maintained approximately 1,500 soldiers, while local forces numbered some 4,500 to 7,500; because the Russians can only bring reinforcements in by air over the Black Sea or Ukraine, these forces are cut off and vulnerable to conventional military operations.
There are several ways that Moldova could eject the Russians from Transnistria. The key to all of them is that the Moldovan government would have to make the decision to get rid of the Russians. Any outside assistance without an express request by the Moldovan government would play into Vladimir Putin’s hands and give him an information victory by allowing him to state that this “proves” that his invasion of Ukraine was in response to US-led, NATO-based aggression against all Russians everywhere and therefore legitimate. Although very few would believe him, several states could use this as an excuse to halt their opposition to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Although there is no guarantee of success, there are three military options. The first two use the classic “hammer and anvil” approach. In the first, Moldovan forces would be the anvil and Ukrainian forces could cross their border as the hammer. The second would be for Ukrainians to mass forces on their side of the border as the anvil while the Moldovans attack separatist forces in Transnistria. This latter option has two problems, however: the Moldovan military only has 5,150 active members, and this type of operation would require the Moldovans to make a contested crossing of the Dniester River, a complex maneuver that would daunt the best of modern militaries. A third approach would be a simultaneous attack by the Moldovans and the Ukrainians.
The issue does not have to be resolved by force. A non-military approach would involve European states and organizations supporting negotiations combined with information operations and strategic communications designed to convince the Transnistrian population to voluntarily join Moldova. The weakness is that this could require a significant amount of time and might miss the window of opportunity the current situation provides.
Russia has clearly demonstrated its hunger for the land of sovereign states and its unwillingness to leave once established. Its war of aggression against Ukraine and its threats to Moldova offers a very clear casus belli, as does its illegal occupation. From the Moldovan point of view, any action would be perilous, but it is hard to think it will have a better chance to retake its own territory. Moldova would need to openly embrace the criteria set forth by the international community, call for the Russians to leave its land, and ask for assistance from other European states and institutions.
Alexander (Alex) Crowther is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is a Professor of Practice for Cyber Issues at Florida International University and conducts research for the Swedish Defense University.