The temporary thaw in the usually icy relations between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria has apparently come to an end. A warning signal was sent by the Russian foreign ministry special envoy Sergei Gubarev on October 13 during his visit to Tiraspol, Transnistria’s administrative center. Gubarev stated that if a situation arises whereby Moldova would lose its sovereignty or neutral status, “the Russian Federation would consider implementing Transnistria’s right to self-determination” (RIA Novosti, October 13).
This was Russia’s explicit reaction to Moldova joining the US-led Global Peace Operations Initiative, an event highly praised by Moldova’s President Nicolae Timofti during his meeting with US Ambassador William H. Moser (army.md, October 1). The Global Peace Operations Initiative is a Washington-funded security assistance program aimed at supporting other countries’ peacekeeping capabilities. The United States offered Moldova a $1.6 million grant to allow the development and improvement of peacekeeping training infrastructure at the National Army’s military training center in Bulboaca. Moldova has also finalized talks on its participation in European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP)–related projects, particularly being interested in contributing to EU-led crises management operations (russia.mfa.md, October 18).
That generated extreme displeasure in Moscow, which reacts very heatedly when its former satellites strengthen their military ties with the West. Gubarev’s warning was shortly thereafter echoed by Transnistria’s KGB Chief Vladislav Finagyn, who publicly accused Moldova of moving along the path to parting with its neutrality. Finagyn claimed he possessed information indicating that the Moldovan parliament is preparing to approve a set of legislative initiatives that would transform Bulboaca into a NATO military base (ng.ru, October 16). The allegations were rejected by Moldovan authorities as groundless.
Finagyn’s accusations in the media seem to be part of a larger Russian-choreographed public rebuke of Moldova’s leadership. The practice of dispatching its public servants to take on official positions in Tiraspol allows Russia to guide the secessionist authorities in support of Moscow’s wider policies in the region. One of the Transnistrian KGB chief’s new first deputies is Evgeniy Petrushin, a colonel from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) who until recently worked as the deputy chief of the FSB office in Dagestan. Petrushin fought in Chechnya and was detached from the Russian FSB to guide and coordinate the activities of the Transnistrian KGB (kommersant.md, August 17).
This is not the only incident that has rocked the boat of the Transnistrian negotiation process lately. Without consulting Moldova’s authorities, Russia attempted to arm its military forces in Transnistria—detached as peacekeepers—with automated grenade launchers and sniper rifles. Moldovan Minister of Defense Vitalie Marinuta warned Russia against violating the existing agreements, stressing that these types of armament do not correspond to the goals and scope of a peacekeeping operation (ng.ru, October 18).
In response, the assistant to the Russian minister of defense, General-Colonel Valery Evnevych, requested a meeting with Minister Marinuta. During the meeting, General Evnevych insisted the attempt to bring heavy-caliber infantry weapons into the conflict security zone was an unintended mistake by local Russian peacekeeping commanders (army.md, October 18). This was a highly unusual and even extraordinary acquiescence by a Russian high-level officer. Russia has been very sensitive to the criticism of its peacekeepers in Transnistria and the attempts to replace them with international unarmed observers (see EDM, June 15). Any hint that Russian peacekeepers may not be fully competent would be unimaginable, particularly coming from a Russian top military officer in official tenure.
Given the small number of these weapons (six automated grenade launchers and nine sniper rifles by some accounts), it is mostly likely that by attempting to arm its peacekeepers with them, Russia was just testing the waters. A lack of reaction from Moldovan authorities would have encouraged the Russian Ministry of Defense to bring more heavy infantry weaponry into the security zone.
Among other concerns, Minister Marinuta pointed to the joint military exercises between Russian and Transnistrian troops involving “new” scenarios as well as to Russian efforts to repair and modernize the Tiraspol military airbase (ng.ru, October 18). General Evnevych insisted the airbase modernization and airstrip repairs are being done to ensure the transportation to Russia of eight helicopters and some other military material (nr2.ru, October 19).
It is unclear, however, why Moscow is investing funds in base repairs for transporting eight helicopters, which would be cheaper to send to Russia by railway. The base is apparently being prepared to receive heavy lift transport aircraft, as it already receives smaller military aircrafts on a regular basis. This is unsettling, as shortly before the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the Russian Ministry of Defense sent its engineers to repair the railway tracks in Abkhazia (lenta.ru, May 31, 2008). Russia used these railway lines during the war for the transportation of its military troops to the Georgian administrative borders with Abkhazia.
While a scenario similar to the one in summer 2008 in Georgia seems unimaginable, it is necessary to understand that even a minor incident involving some skirmish between the forces located in the security zone would allow Russia to state its peacekeepers are still necessary. The attempt to bring small numbers of automatic grenade launchers and sniper rifles for the Russian peacekeepers, Moscow’s concerns about Moldova strengthening military cooperation with the US and the EU, the repairs to the Tiraspol airstrip for heavy lift transport aircraft, and military exercises between Russian and Transnistrian military troops—all these seem to sketch a dim picture.
The similarities to the Georgian scenario do not end here. The 2008 war convinced Russia that it was an efficient method of discouraging the West from lending political support to the Georgian leadership’s Euro-Atlantic integration efforts. A small instance of armed violence between Moldova and Transnistria, either real or choreographed, could set back for many years Moldova’s efforts toward European integration, silence any voices demanding the replacement of Russian peacekeepers with international civilian observers, and probably alter significantly the domestic political scene in Moldova in favor of pro-Russian forces. Therefore, however unlikely such scenario may seem, it would pay to make sure it cannot happen.