Territorial disputes preclude countries from joining NATO. Keeping Moldova weakened on its defensive borders by depriving it of its industrial and agricultural lands is good for Russia.

Transnistrians are allowed to have dual citizenships. Three countries allow this: Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia.

The presence of ethnic Russians and citizens is useful for Russia. As with the Donbas and Crimea, it gives Russia an excuse to send defence forces if anything looks unstable and it can step in to defend its people. Having a large number of Russian citizens in another country is a way to influence domestic policy. It’s also a good source of currency remittances back to Russia.

Transnistria, Moldova, Western Europe lose from the state of paralysis, but Russia wins. Current circumstances might not be great but paralysis by indecision means none of the risks that come with change.

You win more flies with honey - Moldova and Transnistria’s future

Moldova is clearly making moves toward the west.

Romania, which it closely identifies with, is already an EU member. It’s in much better economic shape than it was in the 90s. English is the global lingua franca and the most popular language of business even in the EU, because English is widely spoken among the educated of Eastern Europe. Younger generations in Moldova and Transnistria are increasingly normalised to the idea that Transnistria and Moldova are different countries. The further away you get from the USSR, and as Russia continues to decline, the more likely it seems that younger generations will forget the Cold War and look west.

Before too long, Transnistria will have been independent for longer than it was part of Moldova. It’s functionally its own country in many ways, and even there’s more and more crossover with Moldova.

Russian military presence is a hard fact of reality. You can’t easily get around that kind of physical power.

How long can it stay as time goes on and the cultural, emotional reasons for it erode?

If Moldova can now afford it, instead of drawing a line under the whole affair, it might as well wait and see if Transnistria wears itself out and comes back on its own.

A compromise solution might be for Transnistria to give up on the idea of joining the Russian Federation, and for Moldova to recognise Transnistria as an independent country.

For the Transnistrians, what is worse? Prospering with the west, counterintuitive to cultural tastes, or staying in a nostalgic comfort zone but poorer and subservient as a human shield for an idiosyncratic, paranoid, dilapidated Russia?

Transnistria; the future of Eastern Europe & Russian strategic interests 15-Jun-2021

Eastern Europe faces a choice: follow the pull of Western Europe, the EU, and prosperity, or stay aligned to a declining Russia, but stay in its cultural comfort zone.

Most of Central and Eastern Europe have made their choices. To Russia’s west, only Belarus stands out as not Russo-sceptic.

The internet, western entertainment, universities, cultural change, and better economic prospects have completely overtaken the old spheres of influence drawn up at Yalta.

Of the original Warsaw Pact countries, only Albania is not an EU member, and now it is part of NATO. Russia is directly bordered by the NATO allies of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and Poland, next to its Kaliningrad Oblast enclave.

Russia is on the decline but doing whatever it can to hold onto as much power and influence as possible. Moldova and the breakaway republic of Transnistria are a good case study. Moldova and Transnistria capture many of the economic, cultural, and defensive factors involved in what’s going on around Russia’s borders, in places like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbas region.

East or west, home is best - about Transnistria

At the end of the USSR some of its constituent republics declared independence, including Moldova.

It’s too much of a stereotype to say that Transnistria is like being back in the USSR but it very much has its own identity. Transnistria has its own police, postal system, currency, passports, and all the things someone might associate with an independent country.

Go west, life is peaceful there - economy and culture

Countries and regions like Moldova and Transnistria will have to answer a question. What is more economically and culturally attractive: either live in a peculiar limbo or get over it and move on?

In 1992, Transnistria was approximately 14% of the population and 40% of Moldova’s GDP. Moldova was deprived of its industrial base and most fertile land. Today the GDP per person statistics are much more even. Moldova is still deprived of a valuable industrial and agricultural territory, but this is less important than it was in 1992. Politics or pride or concerns about territorial integrity are more theoretical and easier to let go.

Transnistria faces different problems. A consequence of no international recognition is that no international business chains, from east or west, open there. There are some Moldovan businesses but almost all the rest are local. At the same time, Transnistria relies on exports to make its money. It is held back because it can’t properly integrate with its neighbours, whether that’s as part of another country, or as an independent actor.

This is complicated for Transnistria by the relationship Moldova has with the EU. In 2014 Moldova signed an Association Agreement for basic levels of cooperation. This kind of treaty is seen as an early step toward EU membership and at the least is certainly a move to economically align with the EU. Transnistria must buy Moldovan customs stamps for its exports.

Western Europe is richer and bigger than Russia but economic alignment in this direction limits the potential for trade with Russia, and it’s still culturally difficult for the Transnistrians.

Another complication, though it increases the likelihood of a more western future, is the Ukraine crisis.

After the Ukraine crisis started in 2014, the data suggests that the balance of Transnistrian exports shifted from east to west. Approximately 35% go to Moldova, 16% to Poland, 9% to Italy and only 13% to Russia (Financial Times 04-Apr-2014). This may be a little deceptive. Electricity and steel are two of Transnistria’s biggest exports. They rely on natural gas which is supplied by Russia at as much as a sixth of the market rate.

Resources and money are one thing, but human resources mean a lot too. Emigration across socio-economic groups is high and there’s a brain drain. Most university students either want or have to leave Transnistria. On these measures, western alignment looks inevitable.

On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that if there was a referendum tomorrow, Transnistrians would vote to align with Russia. Many Transnistrians are wary of Moldova. The province of Gagauzia is a cautionary tale to Transnistrians.

Gagauzia is a sort of Turkic but Christian area. The Gagauzians looked likely to split from Moldova in the early 90s too, like Transnistria. It declared independence in August 1991, compared with Transnistria’s declaration in September 1991. The ethnic split in Gagauzia was approximately evenly Gagauz, Romanian, and Russian. It preferred Russian ties. The separation was dealt with peacefully. Gagauzia was brought back into Moldova through votes of its representatives based on promises from the Moldovan government that it would have autonomy and self-determination. 

While Gagauzia has a lot of these things, many do not think the promises were kept, that it could get dragged into the EU and away from Russia against its wishes, and that its autonomy does not go far enough.

Many Transnistrians think Gagauzia was cheated by Moldova and that their choice to stay separate is vindicated.

Regardless, any change is going to happen for cultural and economic reasons. When Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia it was quickly crushed by the Russian military. There are approximately 1,500 Russian soldiers plus another 500 peacekeepers in Transnistria and it is illegal to criticise the Russian army.

Nothing sudden or military will happen. Transnistria is a Russian strategic interest.

If I can’t have it no one can - Russian strategic interests

Transnistria is a good example of a similar phenomenon which has happened elsewhere like Donetsk and Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The collapse of the USSR was bad for Russian power and its defence frontiers. People can argue about whether this is likely, or a cover for territory grabs, but Russia is still at least a bit worried about invasion across the European plains to its west, across Germany, Poland, and Ukraine. Napoleon and Hitler both swept across these areas and deep into Russia. The Cold War kept that threat alive. When it ended, NATO said it would not increase membership past East Germany but then it did.

Perhaps to Russian military strategists it is better to have defence positions and territorial buffers and not need them, than need them and not have them.

Transnistria is a Russian southern defence frontier, despite it being on the other side of Ukraine today. Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, was the headquarters for the Soviet 14th Guards Army, and soldiers from it fought for Transnistria in the civil war. It was subsequently reformed into the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) where it remains today, headquartered in the Transnistrian region of Cobasna.

The people in Transnistria, a region in Moldova across the Dniester River, were not happy.

Moldova is mostly ethnically Romanian. Today the government tries to uphold a Moldovan identity but the language is completely mutually intelligible with Romanian. Most Transnistrians are ethnically Russian and Ukranian, speak Russian, and identify more with Russian than Romania. The only time Transnistria was part of Moldova was when they were both part of the USSR.

When Moldova became an independent country in 1990 the Transnistrians immediately had some concerns.

The Moldovan government started preparing to rejoin Romania in full, as Moldova had only been separated and brought into the USSR in 1940. Each side of the Dniester river has its own historical perspective going back to World War 2. The east celebrates liberation from the Nazis and the west says that the soviets just replaced the Nazis as oppressors of their latin culture.

When Moldova made Romanian its official state language, it sparked a short civil war in 1992 which lasted 2 months and killed 1,000 people.

The result of the civil war was that Transnistria became functionally independent, but not recognised by any country. Russia does not recognise it either despite some nostalgia showing in its national flag.