Transnistria is starting a dangerous game

(To Renato Caputo)

On February 29, Vladimir Putin intends to address parliament for the last time during his current presidential term.

Two weeks later, Russian citizens will have to go to the polls to support Putin's re-election for the next term. Although there is no doubt that the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) will announce his victory under any circumstances, the Kremlin is determined to do something before the elections that will strengthen, at least in appearance, Russian citizens' support for the president.

On the eve of Putin's speech, Transnistria will officially ask Russia for help and remind the Kremlin that it wants to become a constituent part of the Russian Federation. In response, in the most radical development of events, Russia may even announce the annexation of this region of Moldova.

However, in Moldova, this option is considered unrealistic, because such a step would affect both Transnistria itself and Moscow's influence in the region. However, one should not forget that logic in international decisions is not a strong point of the Kremlin. Therefore, this suicidal scenario for Transnistria cannot be ruled out.

The self-proclaimed authorities of Transnistria are preparing a major political event the likes of which has not been seen for many years. On February 28th it will be held in Tiraspol a "Congress of deputies of all levels", involving the so-called parliament of Transnistria, as well as the district, city, village councils of this Russian-controlled region of Moldova. Tiraspol has already organized similar events in the past. The current congress will be the seventh. Such events took place four times in 1990–91 to declare Transnistria's "independence"; the fifth congress was held in 1995 to approve the "constitution" of the region. But it is the sixth congress, held in 2006, that is the most significant. All Transnistrian deputies were brought to Tiraspol to approve the decision to hold a referendum on the future of Transnistria. According to the results of the referendum, held in the same year, the local electoral commission announced that more than 97% of Transnistrians supported the future accession of Transnistria to Russia. Furthermore, they voted to maintain independence until joining the Russian Federation.

That referendum, in practice, changed little, as no one in the international community recognized it, and in fact the region was already under Russian occupation. Almost 10 years after the sham referendum was held, the Russian flag was declared the second state flag in the region.

The official reason for this year's emergency meeting should be the economic problems of Transnistria and the alleged blockade implemented by the authorities of Moldova, although this term, currently used by Transnistrian leaders, is clearly a propaganda stretch. However, even in 2006, the leaders of Transnistria had justified the congress with economic reasons and with the blockade imposed at the time by the Moldovan authorities and everything ended with a vote of "accession to Russia".

In 2024, the leadership of Transnistria does not seem to want to hide that the decisions of the congress will concern geopolitics, rather than economics.

Since last year, the Moldovan government has canceled the duty-free import regime in force for Transnistrian companies. Before this, companies located in the breakaway region had, paradoxically, long been in an advantageous position compared to producers in the government-controlled part of Moldova. Last year, Chișinău decided to equalize the rights and obligations of economic operators from Transnistria with the rest of Moldovan companies, which, obviously, Tiraspol did not like, but without the separatist "authorities" being able to do anything to prevent it.

A strong escalation of Transnistrian rhetoric began in mid-February and now Tiraspol is hastily organizing a conference.

As often happens in autocracies, the decision was made as if the people requested it. So, on Friday, February 16, citizens reportedly turned to the regional leader Vadym Krasnoselsky with the idea of ​​holding a general congress, on Monday he supported it, and on Wednesday the "parliament" of Transnistria announced that the meeting would be held on February 28th. The location, participants and time of the event are determined. Only the decision for which the deputies are brought to Tiraspol is not made public.

So where does the data come from on what will happen to Russia? The fact is that Transnistria's top politicians do not hide this. Only the details are unknown. Furthermore, the authorities have already started information work to prepare the population for this.

The head of the Transnistrian parliament, Alexander Korshunov, took it upon himself to demonstrate to the mass media that the equalization of Transnistrian affairs with Moldovan affairs "leads to a humanitarian catastrophe", which the congressional decision should prevent. Korshunov, however, underlined that the congress will address the whole world, not just Russia. "The situation is difficult and it is necessary to appeal to all structures, including European ones", he said, without however revealing the substance of the appeal.

More details were revealed by the deputy of the Supreme Council of Transnistria, Vadym Kravchuk, who admitted - on Tiraspol's TSV television channel - that the purpose of the congress is to confirm that Tiraspol still wants to join the Russian Federation. "There is no point in holding another referendum, but it is appropriate to confirm the previous decision. Transnistria determined the unification with Russia already in 2006. The congress of deputies of all levels will most likely confirm our intentions", has explained.

Gennadiy Chorba, one of the few representatives of the Transnistrian opposition, spoke even more bluntly. On his Facebook page he drew attention to a coincidence: the congress, where in one form or another an appeal to Russia will be announced, was urgently scheduled for February 28. And Russian President Putin is scheduled to address the Russian parliament on February 29.

Chorba concludes that the congress "must express, on behalf of the citizens living on the left bank of the Dniester, the request to admit Transnistria into the Russian Federation, and on February 29 Putin will announce this in his speech, and the Federal Assembly will quickly approve the decision to accept such a request ".

In Chişinău they are following Transnistria's initiative, but without showing signs of panic. They are also perfectly aware that the Transnistrian "authorities" do not make such decisions on their own. These actions are agreed with the Kremlin and are probably even stimulated by Moscow.

There is no formal reason for a formal protest by Moldova: since the agenda of the congress was not made public, not even a draft of the draft decision which will be submitted to the village deputies for "approval" was released and settlements. There is a high probability that the average congress participants will see the document for which they will vote already after its approval.

MP Oazu Nantoi, one of the few experts on Transnistria in the current parliament of Moldova, does not expect to see such radical formulas envisaged by Chorba in the appeal. “I believe there will not be something as radical (as a call for annexation). But there may be a call for Putin to protect Transnistria”, he explains.

More importantly, Nantoi believes that it is not advantageous for Russia to legally announce the annexation of the left bank of the Dniester right now. "In a situation where Russia is looking for a single candidate for this year's presidential elections in Moldova, who can oppose President Sandu, I am not inclined to believe that it will lead to such an aggravation", he explained, appealing to the fact that the annexation of Transnistria would affect the pro-Russian electoral base in Moldova. These considerations are logical and valid.

However, there is a "but". In Russia, such decisions are made personally by Putin and he is not always guided by logic. Indeed, immediate annexation would only bring harm to Russia. First of all because it will remain purely declarative: unlike past decisions on the annexation of the occupied territories of Donbas and Southern Ukraine, on whose territory the Russian Federation simultaneously conducted military operations, it will not be able to do anything similar with Transnistria. This region does not border the Russian Federation and is landlocked. The Russians will neither be able to transfer further weapons there, nor appoint and transfer their emissaries there, except for those who are already in the territory of Transnistria.

Furthermore, there is no mention of any "opening of a second front with Ukraine" from the territory of Transnistria in case of annexation: there are no military capabilities in this territory and a counterattack by the Ukrainian Armed Forces will lead to a quick defeat of Tiraspol.

In short, if the Kremlin decided to do so, it would be an action that would not bring any tangible advantage to Moscow. This hypothetical solution would, in fact, be much more unfavorable for the political and economic elites of Transnistria, for whom it is desirable to maintain the status quo for as long as possible. 

This analysis, however, ignores the factor of the Russian elections, as well as the history of Putin's decisions that ultimately proved harmful to him. Considering this, a radical development of the situation is also quite possible.

The fact that the Transnistrian leadership does not seek immediate accession to belligerent Russia is absolutely irrelevant. It does not matter how exactly the decision of the current congress in Tiraspol will be formulated. After all, Putin has already obtained a formal appeal for the annexation of the left bank of the Dniester, dating back to 2006, and now it is enough for it to be renewed.

So now Transnistria finds itself at a historical crossroads. Next week could be decisive.