With Crimea now firmly under Russian control, many are casting their eyes around for the next likely target should Russia continue to redraw the map of modern Europe.
They’ve settled on the Republic of Trans-Dniester, a sliver of contested land that declared its independence from Moldova, Europe’s poorest nation, back in 1990 but has yet to be recognised by any government around the world.
With a population of just half a million — a mix of ethnic Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians — Trans-Dniester is little more than a blip on the map, but in recent weeks it’s become the focus of much political attention.
Speaking Sunday at a meeting in Brussels hosted by the German Marshall Fund, a research center, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, focused on the place as he discussed the “very, very sizable and very, very ready” Russian forces deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border.
“There is absolutely sufficient force,” he said of those troops, “to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome.”
Russia already has a troop presence in Trans-Dniester, which is separated from Russia by about 650km of Ukraine and was once part of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the Soviet Union’s 15 units, until Moldova became independent in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed.
As that collapse was taking place, Trans-Dniester — so named because it’s on the east side of the Dniester River — declared itself independent from the rest of Moldova. A brief civil war ensued in 1992, which ended in more than a thousand deaths and an uneasy stalemate.
At the end of the war, the Trans-Dniestern authorities invited around 1500 Russian troops to stay, in order to keep the peace and ensure their independence. They’ve been here since.
But whether Russia is interested in Trans-Dniester is not so clear.
Last week, the chairman of the Supreme Council, Trans-Dniester’s governing body, asked Russia to consider drafting a law that could lead to the annexation of Trans-Dniester. Russia hasn’t responded, and despite the presence of its troops in the breakaway republic, it has yet to recognise Trans-Dniester’s independence.
“There is nothing new about Trans-Dniestern authorities declaring they want independence, or their interest in joining the Russia Federation,” said Iulian Groza, Moldova’s deputy foreign minister. The interest hasn’t been mutual.
On Sunday, however, Moldovan media reported that Russian troops stationed in Trans-Dniester were staging military drills, while reports out of Russia said Russian ministers in Moscow had discussed the issue of Trans-Dniester.
“We have asked our Russian counterparts about this meeting and what it involved,” Groza said.
Crossing between Trans-Dniester and Moldova, which still considers the region part of its country, reveals a heavily militarised border. Military checkpoints guarded by soldiers and tanks dot the bumpy road that leads to Tiraspol, the capital, with its wide boulevards and Soviet-era architecture.
The city itself feels under-developed, with a makeshift market, where locals sell used clothing, operating in a central park on the weekends. In the evening, the city shuts down, with just a few restaurants open and few streetlights.
Soviet touches are everywhere in Tiraspol. Outside the Supreme Soviet, the Trans-Dniestern parliament building, a towering statue of Lenin stares out over the main road, named after the date of the Russian revolution: October 25th. Statues of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and other celebrated Soviet-era Russians are scattered around the city, while the hammer and sickle on the unrecognised nation’s flag seems to hark back to the days of the Cold War.
In the center of Tiraspol, an elaborate monument memorialises the Trans-Dniestern dead from the civil war. The waters of the Dniester River, the dividing line between Moldova proper and Trans-Dniester, flow slowly by.
Sentiment in Tiraspol seems to strongly favour a return to the Russian fold.
“We are a small nation and can’t be independent, and I am scared of the EU,” said Andrei Dabrovichi, 19, a student working at a cafe off the main square in Tiraspol. ‘They are very different to us. We here have a Russian soul.”
Selling used clothes from a sheet placed on the dusty pavement, 82-year-old Valentina Ivanova speaks a common sentiment. “I pray for the return of the Soviet Union,” she said. “Putin gives us hope. He is reuniting the Soviet Union.”
Nearby, a teacher in her late 60s who declined to give her name said, “In the Soviet Union we had stability. Everyone had a job. There were no worries.”
In a 2006 referendum, 97.2 per cent of Trans-Dniesterns voted in favour of joining Russia, a number very close to the pro-Russian total in the recent referendum in Crimea. But unlike Crimea, where Russia moved to annex the Ukrainian region within days of the vote, Russia has never recognised the results of the Trans-Dniestern referendum. No repeat referendum has been called.
In Moldova and other parts of Europe, however, many are worried about what could happen next.
“There are plenty of similarities between Crimea and Trans-Dniester,” said Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris who’s a former adviser to the Moldovan prime minister. “Both would like to be close to Russia, but the moves are not being played out in democratic or legitimate ways.”
The big question, Popescu said, is “whether there are limits to Russia’s actions.”
Ukraine’s troubles began when President Viktor Yanukovych, reneged under heavy Russian pressure on a promise to sign a trade agreement with the EU, sparking months of demonstrations in his country that led to his ouster. Moldova is set to sign a similar EU agreement this summer. The EU, worried about Russian pressure, has moved up the signing to no later than June, from August.
Trans-Dniester, which opposes the EU accord, might become a factor.
“Russia tries to use Trans-Dniester to keep Moldova under its control,” said Oazu Nantoi, program director at the Institute for Public Policy, a research center in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau.
What Russia will do as the signing date nears has many in the Moldovan capital worried. Will it change its long refusal to recognise Trans-Dniester as an independent state? Will it agree to annex it, as the Trans-Dniester authorities have asked? Will it then move its troops across Ukraine to unite two annexed Russian regions? Many in Chisinau fear the worst.
Sitting in a park in the Moldovan capital, Nicolai Topalo, a 41-year-old Moldovan factory worker, spoke of his growing fear.
“The same stuff happening in Crimea could happen to us,” he said. “It feels very unstable, and I think we could be next. We are very small and weak, and we need to keep moving towards the protection of the EU.”