Why Transnistria’s future depends on the war in Ukraine
This piece was originally published on the London School of Economics' European Politics and Policy Program blog and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.
Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region shares a border with Ukraine. Laurențiu Pleșca and Lucas Dastros-Pitei write that the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war will have a major impact on whether Transnistria chooses to pursue independence or reintegrate with Moldova.
NATO’s declaration following its Vilnius Summit in July this year mentioned Moldova no fewer than eight times, reiterating the bloc’s “support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova within its internationally recognized borders and calling on Russia to withdraw all of its forces stationed in the Transnistrian region without Moldova’s consent”.
Transnistria, though regarded as a part of Moldova internationally, operates in an autonomous manner, with elements of an established government. This self-proclaimed Transnistrian government is supported by Russian military aid, with 1,500 Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region, largely to “protect” a large ammunition depot in the village of Cobasna. The “peacekeeping” contingent infringes upon Moldovan sovereignty and continues to act as an obstacle to further Moldovan-Transnistrian cooperation.
The Transnistrian region relies economically on direct and indirect support. Heavily subsidised Russian natural gas enables the region’s metallurgical and heavy industry sectors to continue producing goods and electricity. However, due to the 2014 Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU, all Transnistrian businesses registered within the Republic of Moldova can export and import through Moldova to the European market under lower tariffs. Around 70% of Transnistria’s exports now go to the European Union.
With the decline of Russian subsidies and fiscal support, the Transnistrian region has become economically dependent on the goodwill of the EU and Moldova. It now faces a choice of reintegrating and possibly gaining greater benefits from the EU or remaining independent and potentially strangling its economy. The outcome of the war in Ukraine is likely to be vital in settling this dilemma.
The Moldovan government supports the full reintegration of Transnistria into the country. However, there is no step-by-step plan for how reintegration is to be achieved and more efforts are needed in several areas.
The main diplomatic negotiation platform for resolving the conflict has been the so called “5+2 format”, which brings together Moldova, Transnistria, Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and the United States. However, this format has been frozen since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and finding a replacement for the format is now a key priority.
Socially, there is the need to plan a joint budget covering both Moldova and Transnistria to ensure there is a degree of social equity. This would need to include issues such as managing the pensions of citizens between the central banks currently operating in both territories. Politically, tools should be found to incorporate the institutional system of Transnistria into that of Moldova. Transnistria has all the institutions of a consolidated state and it will be difficult to convince it to dismantle the police, army and parliament.
In recent years, several key infrastructure projects have been undertaken that are vital for Moldova’s stability. These include a major electricity interconnection project linking Moldova and Romania, which will ensure a secure and diverse power supply. These projects show that Moldova is moving closer to the goal of EU integration.
However, the reintegration of Transnistria remains a challenging issue for Moldova’s President, Maia Sandu, and the current government led by the Party of Action and Solidarity. Sandu recently stated that Moldova does not reject EU integration with Transnistria. She believes that this can be achieved in two steps, emphasising that “the integration process must move forward regardless of the conflict in the region”.
The hope is Moldova’s leaders have learned from the mistakes of previous governments, who suffered from the lack of a political, economic and social plan for Transnistria. Such a plan is vital if Moldova is to keep pace with the reforms required for EU accession, with Sandu setting a target of 2030 for Moldova joining the EU.
The aim of the Transnistrian region, in contrast, is full independence from Moldova. This is especially true under the governance of the Renewal party, which holds a majority of seats in the Transnistrian parliament.
With decreasing support from Russia, Transnistria has become more reliant on the EU and Moldova for energy, trade and healthcare. This was made clear in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when the Ukrainian authorities closed all border crossing points, thereby disrupting key supply routes into Transnistria. During the first year of the war, the Transnistria-Ukraine border was effectively closed, cutting off economic relations not only with Ukraine but also with other economic partners. As a landlocked territory, this left Transnistria reliant on the Moldovan government approving any imports into the region.
However, independence would decouple Transnistria from the EU, isolating the region from vital EU markets and hindering future economic development. In the absence of Russian support, an independent Transnistria could quickly become an economic island. Deprived of the benefits it currently receives from Moldova’s EU Accession Agreement and candidate status, it would be forced to pay higher tariffs on trade and would risk losing out on energy and goods from the EU and Moldova.
On the other hand, the Renewal party would be able to exert stronger central control over an independent Transnistria. This would likely lead to an increase in Russian influence over the region. The decoupling from the EU and Moldova that would occur following independence could also encourage Russia to take a more assertive stance and possibly increase the country’s military presence. This would undoubtedly end any aspirations for Transnistria one day becoming part of the EU and could also result in reduced political freedoms for citizens.
The conclusion of the Russia-Ukraine war is likely to be key. A Russian victory could lead to a far greater Russian presence in the region, which would have clear implications for Transnistria. A Russian defeat, in contrast, might undermine the viability of independence and increase Transnistria’s reliance on Moldova and the EU.
It is clear the 5+2 initiative is unlikely to produce significant outcomes in the foreseeable future, given the current geopolitical climate. The two leading mediators, Ukraine and Russia, are essentially engaged in a state of war, while the third mediator, the OSCE, is grappling with an existential crisis as it confronts the larger issue of Russia’s role within the organisation.
The Transnistrian regime must ask itself which scenario it wishes to pursue. Reintegrating into Moldova would provide some substantial benefits given Moldova’s movement towards the EU. In this sense, Moldova’s European integration process might serve as a catalyst for the reintegration of Transnistria. Yet it remains to be seen whether the regime in Transnistria is content to stick with the status quo or whether it intends to push further toward independence.