West concerned about Russia rekindling Moldova’s frozen conflict

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Western nations have expressed concerns about Russia potentially attempting to rekindle a frozen conflict in Moldova on the border with Ukraine.

In a rare move, the leadership of the breakaway region of Transnistria on Wednesday appealed to Moscow to “stop the genocide” and help the Russians in the region, in a call that was reminiscent of Ukraine’s separatists in eastern Donbas who sought Russian help at the outset of the conflict in 2014.

According to Transnistrian authorities, about 200,000 of the less than half of a million population are Russian. Moscow also has a military base in the enclave, with about 1,300 soldiers left after a secessionist war over Transnistria in 1992 claimed 700 lives. Most are local recruits.

President Vladimir Putin, in his state of the union speech in which he warned of nuclear war if the west deploys troops in Ukraine, refrained from mentioning the Transnistrian call for help. But the Russian foreign ministry said protecting the secessionist region was one of Moscow’s priorities and that it would carefully consider the request.

Western officials are concerned about a renewed flare-up in Moldova, a small and impoverished European nation that has no army, and is outside the EU and Nato.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Thursday that he discussed the regional security situation and the “disturbing signals from Transnistria” with his Latvian counterpart, Evika Siliņa. “Our countries are exposed to all kinds of threats coming from the East,” he wrote on X.

The European Commission said it was following “very closely” the situation in Transnistria and called for “both sides to engage in constructive dialogue” to defuse tensions. “The Republic of Moldova has the complete and full support of the European Union and its member states,” said commission spokesperson Peter Stano.

Washington issued a similar message of support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova, after seeing “Russia take a number of incredibly reckless and destabilising acts in the region”, said US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Wednesday.

While Transnistria did not ask Russia to prepare a more dramatic step such as the annexation of its territory, “these Transnistrian appeals are also not time delimited and allow the Kremlin to address various appeals whenever it deems necessary or expedient”, the Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank, said in a research note.

Transnistria is ratcheting up the pressure on Moldova by claiming that it is being subjected to a multipronged “genocide”, ranging from an economic blockade that was intensified by newly introduced customs rules to linguistic rights.

Moldova’s government justifies changes to customs duties as part of its broader efforts to prepare the country for EU accession. The pro-European government in Chișinău applied for EU membership and was granted EU candidate status in June 2022, alongside Ukraine.

Transnistria’s appeal to Moscow echoes that of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Ukraine’s two eastern regions subsequently held independence referendums that were used by Putin to intervene militarily in order to allegedly protect the Russian-speaking population there.

However, Transnistria’s geographic isolation would make any similar action by Moscow much more complicated, as it would have to conquer Odesa and the surrounding Ukrainian territories bordering Moldova.

The Moldovan government says the pro-Russia authorities in Transnistria have been trying to keep a difficult balancing act between seeking support from the Kremlin without getting dragged directly into Moscow’s conflict with Ukraine.

Transnistria now has 70 per cent of its trade with the EU, in part thanks to Transnistrian companies that have had access for the past decade to EU markets if they register in Chișinău. With the border between Transnistria and Ukraine also closed since 2022, economic flows between Moldova and its breakaway region are now higher than before Russia’s all-out attack on Kyiv.

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