Transnistria – a powder keg in the vicinity of Ukraine


While all eyes are on Ukraine at the moment, observers may wish to keep an eye on another key region – Transnistria – where history is still kicking and alive, especially for neighbouring Romania, as eludicated by Alexandru Negrea.  Alexandru graduated from the “Alexandru Ioan CuzaPolice Academy of Bucharest and has a master’s degree in international relations. He currently works as an expert in the field of European affairs within the Romanian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Originally from Bucharest, his research interests focus on geopolitics of central and Eastern Europe. He is particularly interested in humanitarian issues and post – conflict reconciliation.

The volatile international situation following Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the continuity of risks and threats to international security that have persisted since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The irredentist and revisionist desire to restore Russia to great power status comparable to the heyday of the Russian Empire, through aggression if convenient, has never been abandoned by the Kremlin. This desire has been demonstrated not just in Ukraine, but also in the form of frozen conflicts in the former Soviet republics over the past two decades – the best known examples being, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Transnistria.

It may be stressed that the desire to project an aura of great power status is not purely a matter of geopolitical games, but also reaches deeply into Russian culture, identity, and historical memories. This is most clearly demonstrated through state propaganda during the celebration organized of the 8th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Oleg Gazmanov, a singer close to the ruling elite, performed a song that romanticized Russian memories of great power: “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova / This is my country / Sakhalin and Kamchatka, Ural Mountains / This is my country / Krasnoyarsk Territory, Siberia and the Volga region / Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, as well as the Baltic countries ”.[1]

Bearing in mind the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, it is very important to pay special attention to the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova, which is located near Odessa and on the territory of which there are more than 1,500 Russian soldiers stationed. At the geopolitical level, various scenarios are being discussed, including an attack by Russian troops from Transnistria on Odessa by joining those already on Ukrainian territory or by destabilizing actions on the Republic of Moldova that may have direct or indirect consequences for Romania, a member state NATO.

A historical retrospective is needed to understand these elements and how Transnistria is used as a geopolitical chip by Russia. From the Romanian perspective, one can begin with a statement by a prominent political leader in Romania both in the interwar period and after the collapse of the communist regime in Romania, Corneliu Coposu. “Russia, whether it was tsarist Russia or Orthodox, posed the same danger to us. He never gave up his characteristic agrarian imperialism, following the will of Peter the Great.” [2] Coposu was one of the leading leaders of the National Peasant Party of Romania, one of the major historical parties eliminated by the communist regime forcibly installed by the Soviet Union in 1947.

Russian expansionism into territory that would be part of Romania today began in 1812 with the annexation of Bessarabia following the Treaty of Bucharest between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, the Romanian principalities being at that time still under Ottoman sovereignty as theaters of operations in geopolitical competition with Russia. In Bessarabia a broad policy of denationalization of the Romanian people, of Russification by banning the Romanian language and deporting Romanians to Siberia and Kazakhstan arose.[3]

The geopolitical context of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution in the USSR in October 1917 created a window of opportunity for the achievement of Greater Romania and for the unification of Moldova with Romania on March 27, 1918. As is still the case today, Russia was not satisfied with its status quo of that period and tried to regain the Republic of Moldova. A Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created, of which Transnistria was a part, mainly on the justification that Moldova was distinct from Romania, in effect facilitating an integration of the Republic of Moldova into the USSR as it sought to expand. [4] Later, after the Second World War, the Republic of Moldova was reintegrated into the USSR in 1945, following extensive policies of deportation and denationalization consistent with the USSR’s track record of forcefully uprooting populations to facilitate centralized political control.[5] The idea that Moldovenism was entirely distinct from Romania continued to be pushed by Russia and pro- Russian moldovans even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.[6]

The disintegration of the USSR in 1991 led to the emergence of 15 new states. The Republic of Moldova was the most atypical of them, including the leaders in the process of proclaiming sovereignty and then independence (August 27, 1991) did not believe themselves that the state would survive as an independent actor in international politics.[7] History seemed to offer two options to which the Academy[1], the experts-strategists in geopolitics or the leaders from Chisinau could relate during that time: a return to an integrationist project under the influence of Moscow or a return to the territorial composition of Romania.[8]

In this unpredictable context, the conflict broke out between the so-called Pridnestrovian Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (PMSSR) which wanted to break away from the Republic of Moldova and remain under Russian influence, and the Chisinau authorities advocating integration with Romania. Clashes reached full intensity in 1992 and the Transnistrian separatists, aided by Soviet troops, managed to consolidate their control over the area on the left bank of the Dniester. At that time, Russia’s main tactic was to keep the Republic of Moldova in a gray area of ​​uncertainty and underdevelopment, and in a permanent state of fear of a resurgence of the secessionist conflict.[9] Very much the same approach was taken by Russia towards Ukraine from 2014 onwards. A ceasefire agreement was eventually concluded between President Mircea Snegur and Boris Yeltsin (July 3, 1992), called the Convention on the Principles of Peaceful Settlement of Armed Conflict in the Dniester Area of ​​the Republic of Moldova. The document stated that “the 14th Army Units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, deployed in the Republic of Moldova, will strictly respect neutrality.” The presence of troops of the Russian Federation on the territory of the Republic of Moldova, under the pretext of peacekeeping, has been viewed by Moldova as an illegal occupation, and dogged by accusations that Moscow was attempting a federalization of Moldova that would include separatists as an influential political actor. This federalization would confer the veto right of the Russian-speaking Transnistrian province on the foreign policy of the Republic of Moldova and would permanently block the European aspirations of the Republic of Moldova. [10]

This scenario is well known by the conflict in Ukraine in which Russia wanted a federalization of Ukraine through the Minsk agreements and the granting of a special status to Donbass and Lughansk that could exercise its veto power in Ukraine’s foreign policy and cancel its European aspirations. [11]

The creation of an artificial enclave of people belonging to another nation, or the breaking of parts of the territory of one nation to be given as a gift to another (the case of Crimea, a territory donated by Khrushchev to Ukraine), are grey-zone options within the Russian toolkit. The method has been used by the Kremlin countless times in the Soviet era, and has the desired objective role of uprooting and alienating communities (the new Soviet man, as he was then called) in order to break any ties with the past memories and traditions to facilitate their consolidation into Russian territory or entities backed by Russia.

The seriousness of the situation has already been noted by the former Minister of Defense of the Republic of Moldova, Viorel Cibotaru, who has identified common elements between Russia’s actions in Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. While tactics may be flexible and action opportunistic, in all these regions misinformation has been launched about nationalist and unionist tendencies and the persecution of the Russian-speaking population in order to legitimize Russia’s claims, where the armed intervention of Russian troops cannot be ruled out.[12]

In the context of the conflict in Ukraine and the goal of conquering Odessa, Transnistria can be used as an outpost by Russia to create diversionary movements, or as a stepping stone towards the broader goal of expanding Russian influence beyond its current reach, from Crimea to Chisinau with considerable pressure on Romania but also other neighbours like Poland.

As a result, Russia has maintained geostrategic interest in Transnistria throughout history, one that has become even more relevant with the conflict in Ukraine and Moldova’s growing aspirations to join the European Union. Indeed, as unprecedented geopolitical undercurrents have emerged in the form of Sweden and Finland bidding to join NATO, volatility in the Transnistrian region may be accentuated in the future. What makes Transnistria a potentially more serious flashpoint than Ukraine, even if fighting is mainly in Ukraine for now, is that escalation risks bringing NATO and Russian forces into direct contact in the scenario that Russian troops from Transnistria would advance in the Republic of Moldova to the border with Romania. In this regard, Romania has shown constant support for the Republic of Moldova in humanitarian, financial and energy terms in order to reduce its dependence on Russian gas supplies. Until now, Romania has not taken into account military support while respecting Moldova’s neutrality. This could be discussed only if the Republic of Moldova so requests.[13] In the darkest scenario, Romania can be put back in a historical dilemma, to intervene or not to intervene directly in the Republic of Moldova in order to defend its former territory. Russia’s infamous threats against Moldova and Romania have been sustained by Russian politicians like Vladimi Zhirinovski, a Russian ultranationalist politician and the leader of the populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) who has repeatedly challenged the statehood of the Republic of Moldova and portrayed the Moldovan and Romanian people in disparaging terms.[14]

It is therefore necessary to closely monitor movements in the Transnistria area in the light of developments on the Ukrainian front and Russian expansionism, and to draw out contingency plans in the event of potential escalation.


[1] Moscow marks Crimea annexation with patriotic rally. Available at

[2] What Corneliu Coposu said about Russia: “Tsarist or Orthodox, it was the same danger for us. He never gave up imperialism. Available at

[3] Ioan Nistor, History of Bessarabia, Humanitas, 1991. ISBN 973-28-0283-9

[4] Nicolae Răuș, Gheorghe Neacșu, Dinu Moraru, O Agresiune sovietică împotriva României Tatar Bunar, În Documente și în presa Românească a vremii ( A Soviet agression against Romania, Tatar Bunar, In Documents and in the romanian press of the time), Cetatea de Scaun, 2017, ISBN 978-606-537-392-1, 71-76

[5] Valentin Naumescu, România, Marile Puteri și Ordinea Europeană ( Romania, the great powers and the European Order) 1918-2018, Polirom, ISBN 978-973-46-7154-0

[6] The concept of Moldovanism as an example of historical manipulation in political life, Available at

[7] Foreign Policy of the Republic of Moldova, Ileana Racheru, Monitorul Oficial Publishing House, Bucharest, 2020, 12-15

[8] Foreign Policy of the Republic of Moldova, Ileana Racheru, Monitorul Oficial Publishing House, Bucharest, 2020, 12-15

[9] Magda Grădinaru,  Interview with Vladimir Socor, senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, 24 February 2019. Available at

[10] Dragoș Drăgan, Interview with Igor Munteanu, a Moldovan politician and diplomat serving as member of Parliament of Moldova since 2019, 24 Noiembrie 2016. Available at

[11] Interview with Igor Botan, former presidential adviser (1992 – 1994), political scientist, Chisinau, 24 January 2022. Available at

 [12] Ukraine and Transnistria: “Different wars, same strategies”, Interview with Viorel Cibotaru, an expert in security and conflict resolution, former Moldovan Minister of Defense. Available at

[13] Cosmin Stan, Interview given by the Minister of Foreign Affairs  of  Romania, Bogdan Aurescu for ProTV News, 6 May 2022. Available at

[14]  Vladimir Jirinovski: mistake of Russia to create Moldova

Available at:

Photo credits:

[1] The Academy of Sciences of Moldova (hereinafter referred to as the Academy of Sciences – ASM) is a public institution of national importance, autonomous and independent of the state authorities and successor to the Academy of Sciences of the Moldovan SSR, established on August 2, 1961, reorganized based on the Science and Innovation Code no. 259-XV of July 15, 2004,  with subsequent changes and additions.

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