,,Ukraine today is paying an extremely high price for peace in the rest of Europe. At the same time, Kyiv is moving towards a victory, and it remains to be seen how exactly the victory will be formalized and shaped. However, what should be clear is that the future peace agreement, aside from reparations, justice, you name it, should also include the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. A process of reflection on the settlement should already take place in Kyiv, Chisinau, EU, and the United States…”
The implications of the Russian war against Ukraine already went beyond the war theater. Every day, tens of countries are affected by the disruptions caused by the Russian aggression – be it the food supply from Ukraine, energy exports, high prices or the waves of refugees fleeing the war and seeking protection outside of Ukraine. However, in recent weeks, the spillover effect of the war went way further. Russian missiles fell on the territory of Moldova and Poland, giving a bitter understanding of how the daily life of millions of Ukrainians looks like. Moreover, Moldova, a country whose energy system is tightly entangled with the Ukrainian one, experienced a short blackout like the one in Ukraine because of the Russian missiles attacks on the territory of Ukraine. This happened despite the fact that Moldova is now importing energy from Romania and not from Ukraine. But since the high-voltage line passes through Ukraine, it also affects Moldova.
The leadership in Chisinau, in fact, is already fighting an aggression projected by Russia in Moldova. Certainly, the tools of the Russian aggression do not involve military actions, but all other elements of the Russian playbook are scaled up regularly. Just to give an impression one needs to highlight few of them. Above all, these involve activating the Russian-sponsored groups to organize political turmoil, media disinformation and psychologic operations, hacker attacks and energy blackmail. The energy supplies, which Kremlin is weaponizing to weaken Moldovan leadership and create tensions in the society, is of particular interest. The political subtext of Moscow’s actions is very evident since Gazprom’s supply to Moldova is every month way below lower than the contracted amounts. Gazprom announced it could reduce the supply by 56% in December. These threats were accompanied by political statements of Russian officials blaming Chisinau and Kyiv for what it had not done. On top of this, the war indeed created a significant amount of hardships related to the energy infrastructure and supplies.
The breakaway region has been in the cards since the very beginning of the war as it was seen as a possible direction of attack on the south of Ukraine. Smiles and sarcastic jokes towards Moldova were coming from Russian agents in Tiraspol when the Russians waged the war against Ukraine. However, the Ukrainian resistance and resolve forced Moscow to reconsider its plans for the region, which significantly weakened the image of Russia as omnipotent and thus, the trust in Russian protection. The distrust was illustrated by the fact that Russia was highly unsuccessful in recruiting “volunteers” in the Transnistrian region to fight for Russia in Ukraine. Moreover, some Russian contracted military in the region were phasing out their cooperation after the expiry of the contracts.
The region, at the operational level, is controlled by a business group which started to send signals that they are not interested in a war, although officially the Tiraspol administration continued to be bully in its statements, accusing Chisinau and Kyiv, among others, of economic pressure. However, the autonomy of the governance in the region is highly exaggerated as the region could not exist without the sponsorship of Kremlin, therefore the signals coming from Transnistria do not cost much. Since the end of February, the Transnistrian perimeter of the Ukraine-Moldova border has been closed, which seriously affected the region’s ability to get income from shadow economy, such as smuggling. That means in fact that for the first time in 30 years Moldova fully controls the movement of goods to and out of Transnistrian region, which made the region more vulnerable to Chisinau.
The difficulties of the Transnistrian region, however, were amplified with the decision of Russia to supply less gas to Moldova and, thus, less gas to the region. For decades, the region has been sponsored by Russia through providing gas that Tiraspol never paid for. This was a real issue for Chisinau, since it perpetuated the regime, but it was also an asset, since it considered that Kremlin would not dare to cut the gas to Moldova, because this would mean to sacrifice Transnistria. Yet, Russia decided to punish Moldova for its position on the Russian war against Ukraine, which also made the Transnistrian region very fragile.
Without diving into too many details, until the beginning of December, for the last couple of months, Transnistria was producing electricity only for its own consumption and thus was seriously suffering from cash flows that used to earn by selling electricity to Moldova. A few days ago, Moldova made a new arrangement with the Tiraspol administration to supply the country with electricity in exchange for allowing the region to use the gas supplied by Gazprom. The deal between the two, on the one hand, keeps the region financially afloat. On the other hand, it makes the supply of energy stable, irrespective of the missile attacks in Ukraine, and much cheaper that should ease the bills burden for Moldovan population. Unfortunately, Moldova is not yet ready to handle this crisis from a different perspective since the circumstances around Transnistria were very much different than today. However, the energy independence has significantly increased since the right bank is not going to get supplies from Gazprom, at least for the next few months.
It might seem that it is too early to discuss the future of Transnistria after the war, but one could see how significantly the situation of the region is changing. In less than a year, Transnistria is no longer able to continue its smuggling schemes, the import-export activities are under the supervision of the authorities in Chisinau, while the image of Russia is fading. All these changes are obliging us to think about what if the region is totally left without funding from Russia? And also, what is going to happen with the region when Russia loses the war?
This winter, Moldova is breaking its energy dependence from Russia, although the costs are very high for the population and painful for almost everyone. On the other side of the river Nistru, in Tiraspol, the administration is claiming that Moldova and Ukraine have created a “blockade” of the region and are stealing its gas – a narrative used also by Moscow to justify its actions. The fact that Moldova is preparing for a winter without Russian gas is an excellent tool to de-weaponize Russian energy and a great deal of strategic thinking that has lacked since independence. Never before Moldova had gas reserves for two months in advance. This also allows Chisinau to be more vocal about the real causes of the energy rising prices, but also to engage into “name and shame” campaigns affecting Russia’s image and decreasing the Russian power in Moldova, including in the Transnistrian region. But mainly, the preparedness of Chisinau with gas reserves makes Russian gas blackmail unlikely since Russian would not achieve its goals.
The region and the settlement process, with minor exceptions, has lacked attention and interest for the last 30 years. However, as the current war shows, it could become in the future a tool for pressure, both towards Ukraine and Moldova. Now there is a context to address the issue of the conflict settlement.
Ukraine today is paying an extremely high price for peace in the rest of Europe. At the same time, Kyiv is moving towards a victory, and it remains to be seen how exactly the victory will be formalized and shaped. However, what should be clear is that the future peace agreement, aside from reparations, justice, you name it, should also include the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. A process of reflection on the settlement should already take place in Kyiv, Chisinau, EU, and the United States. As the history shows, regimes which are created artificially tend to collapse very fast and painfully. That is why Moldova should be ready to address a possible collapse of the region. You like or not, but almost the entire population of the region are holders of Moldovan passports. Avoiding a social collapse combined with a smooth and peaceful conflict settlement should be the main priority. It remains to be seen how prepared will the Moldovan government and the international community be when this happens.
Leo Litra is a Senior Research Fellow at the New Europe Centre (Kyiv).
This Op-Ed is published within the project “Strengthening awareness and understanding of the security and defense issues of the Republic of Moldova”, implemented by the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE) and Friedrich Ebert Foundation Moldova, in partnership with the Zonadesecuritate.md and the Zugo.md media platforms.