Ukraine’s policy towards Transnistria also impacts the agenda of the Government in Chișinău, which would rather focus on domestic reforms. Kiev decided to ban the access of all vehicles registered in Transnistria from entering its territory starting September 1, although Chișinău authorities wanted to delay the measure.
A Russian outpost in Ukraine’s side
Three years ago, on September 1, 2018, Chișinău and Tiraspol agreed that all vehicles coming from the breakaway region may transit international space freely as long as they had the so-called neutral license plates, namely plates that don’t display the insignia of the separatist regime unrecognized by the international community. After several successive extensions of the terms of the agreement, Ukraine decided to stop this mechanism and announced it would no longer allow vehicles with the standard Transnistrian license plates to enter its territory.
Kiev’s decision follows growing tensions with Moscow in the last 7 years, which have been constantly amplified. The latest such incident happened in spring, when Russia made an open demonstration of power, building up its military presence on the Ukrainian border.
Kiev knows Transnistria serves as an advanced military outpost of Russia, a country that took it upon itself to support and protect this separatist regime ever since its creation. Moscow’s position has remained unchanged in the three decades that have since passed: even this year, shortly after the parliamentary election won by PAS, the head of the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots, Leonid Kalashnikov, said that Russia would “strengthen its Transnistrian factor”, if the Government in Chișinău pursues an anti-Russian policy.
“Russian policy towards Moldova will depend on the Government that will be elected: if this government repels itself from Russia, then, of course, we will act accordingly, by strengthening our Transnistrian factor”, Kalashnikov warned at the time.
Political shenanigans between Ukraine and Russia have a number of consequences for the Republic of Moldova which Chișinău authorities want to avoid. The priorities of the Republic of Moldova, as promised by the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) in the campaign for the July 11 parliamentary election, include the fight against corruption, the reform of the judiciary and increasing living standards. Transnistria is rather at the bottom of the agenda of the new administration in Chișinău.
On the other hand, after taking office as president of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu has tried to strengthen cooperation with Ukraine. As a matter of fact, one of her first external visits was to Kiev, shortly after becoming president.
On August 23, Maia Sandu joined the “Crimea Platform” initiative, whereby Ukraine is trying to rally as much support as possible in its efforts to retake the Crimean Peninsula, invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014. In fact, the president of the Republic of Moldova had also previously argued in favor of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, saying that no one should stand above international law.
A few days later, on August 27, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, traveled to Chișinău, where he spoke of the need to consolidate regional security, describing the “Crimea Platform” as a new beginning for solving the frozen conflicts in the region where Russia is involved.
“Russian forces in Transnistria, Crimea and South Ossetia represent a source of insecurity in the region. We should act together in these matters. We recommend our partners in the Black Sea region should join our cooperation initiative. We want the Black Sea to consolidate our relations as partners, neighbors, friends and kindred people”, the Kiev official went on to say.
Still, with the decision to ban vehicles with Transnistrian license plates from entering its territory starting September 1, Ukraine obviously has a security strategy of its own for Transnistria, in which it is unwilling to coordinate with Chișinău.
The Republic of Moldova has tried, with little success, to convince Ukraine to postpone the decision at least until January 10, 2022, but Kiev refused to make any concessions.
The ban has irritated Moscow, and the Russian MFA was quick to compare the decision to Ukraine’s slash of water supplies to Crimea and to what it has termed the social and economic isolation of Donbass.
Ukraine’s decision to no longer extend the permission for Transnistrian vehicles to enter its territory was unilateral and puts the Republic of Moldova in a tight spot in relations with Moscow, all the more so as after his visit to Chișinău on August 12, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak, received assurances that the derogation period would further be extended.
The Government in Chișinău doesn’t want to antagonize Russia in any matters related to Transnistria, which is why the Moldovan deputy prime minister for reintegration, Vlad Kulminschi, tried to negotiate both with Kiev, as well as with Tiraspol. This led many to believe Chișinău is willing to bat for Tiraspol. If we stopped for a minute to consider this episode dispassionately, we will see Kulminschi only tried to solve the situation in order to save the Government the additional headache.
PAS has only just grabbed the power reins, and it won’t be easy fighting on multiple fronts. Transnistria is a very delicate matter with a huge risk of boiling over. Moreover, Maia Sandu had talked to Kozak about the possibility of destroying all munitions stored at the Cobasna depot, which would leave the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) barehanded. Ukraine’s unilateral decision to ban Transnistrian vehicles is not helping Chișinău in this respect.
Keeping the priorities straight and the partnerships upright
At home, PAS needs to focus its attention and efforts on the agenda that earned the party the majority in Parliament, an agenda where Transnistria is not an immediate priority. For this very reason, Ukraine should not unilaterally impose a certain security agenda on Chișinău, one that would rattle its own governing objectives. The priorities of the current power should stay the same. Kiev will have to understand that the partnerships it seeks to develop in the region should be based on mutual respect, not on putting its allies in delicate and unmanageable situations. The whole business about the license plates is not the first incident. This spring, a former corrupt Ukrainian judge was kidnapped from Chișinău, where he was hiding from his country’s special forces.
A sound and robust security climate can only be achieved together with partners whom you can trust, all the more so considering the security risks coming from Russia, a country that still holds a great amount of leverage in ex-Soviet space. Therefore, if Chișinău wants to light the candle near the gunpowder barrel called Transnistria, it should proceed with extreme caution and in perfect sync with the other regional actors. Otherwise, this may lead to unforeseen circumstances that will require additional efforts, waste resources and end up eroding trust between countries seeking to build a strategic partnership.