The Battle of Tiraspol

Over the weekend I’ve watched with growing dismay as the propaganda war over Transnistria has been heating up. As Hiram Johnson once (allegedly) said, “The first casualty of war is the truth” and during this latest buildup of tensions between Russia and “the West” that’s certainly been the case so I figured I’d do my humble part to set the record straight.


For centuries the land known as “Bessarabia” was the midway point between the territorial ambitions of the Russian and Turkish empires. Essentially it’s the land between the Prut and Dniester rivers, which encompasses most of modern-day (Republic of) Moldova but not exactly. And it’s those little tiny points of exception that are the source of contention today.

After the Crimean War (1853-1856), which Russia “lost”, Romanian territories were granted greater independence from Turkish control, which led to Romania’s first united kingdom and Russia’s firm and eternal conviction that it needed to retain control over its naval base in Sevastopol (Crimea).

A few years later (1878), the kingdom of Romania made a land swap with Russia, trading Bessarabia for Dobrogea (some of which is now Bulgaria). But after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (1917), Romanian patriots met in Alba Iulia and declared that all majority-Romanian lands (including Bessarabia) were part of the completely independent nation of Romania (for much more on World War 1 and Romania, see my post here).

In 1940, thanks to the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union acquired Bessarabia once more. But in 1941, with assistance from Nazi Germany, Bessarabia was given to Romania again, a situation that lasted until 1944 when the Soviet armies swept west on their way to Germany.

Bessarabia was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic but some of the southern parts, including what Romanians call Cetatea Alba (the White Citadel) but now called Bilhorod-Dnistrovski, was given to Ukraine (as part of their Odessa oblast). A small bump on the eastern (called “left” in Romanian) part of the Dniester River however was kept as part of the Moldovan SSR.

In 1954, the Soviet Union ceded Crimea to Ukraine but, just as with lands split between Moldova and Ukraine, none of it mattered too much when everything was still administered by the Soviet Union.

In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and Moldova (Bessarabia), Ukraine and Russia became three independent nations. In 1992, that bump of Moldovan land on the eastern (left) bank of the Dniester River declared independence from Moldova. There was a brief war involving Romanian and Russian soldiers (plus Moldovan and Transdniestrian forces) and then the shooting stopped, leaving a de facto independent country that has little international recognition.

Although the population is roughly a third Russian, a third Ukrainian and a third Moldovan, the government is staunchly pro-Russian, using the language in all its official communications and papers. Their currency is called the ruble, pegged to the Russian currency of the same name but not officially recognized by the international banks.

A few (~1500) Russian troops still serve as peacekeepers but the economy is a mixed bag, shakily dependent on both the goodwill of Ukraine and Moldova for export routes. The government is partially recognized by Russia and receives economic support from Russia but is a long way off from being accepted into the Eurasian Customs Union or formal annexation into the Russian Federation.

For the past 22 years, all the relevant parties have been holding talks to resolve this “frozen conflict” without success.

Lies, Misinformation and Propaganda

Because of the recent events in Crimea, the Mighty Wurlitzer has been cranked into overdrive with many, many supposedly credible sources reporting that Russia’s next move is to invade and annex Transnistria, an action that would have severe consequences in Europe, including in Romania.

Lie 1 – Russian troops on maneuvers in Transnistria

On Friday afternoon I was aghast to see all Romanian news media report that Russian troops were “holding drills” in Transnistria, preparing for “an eventual attack against an enemy”. This report from the AFP (Agence France-Presse) was supposedly based on a statement by Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, head of Russia’s western military district, as reported by Interfax (Russian) news agency.

The only problem is that none of this was true. Colonel Kochetkov did give a statement to Interfax about the Russian military holding drills but it was around Murmansk and St. Petersburg and nowhere near Transnistria. In fact, Colonel Kochetkov went to great lengths to assure the news reporters that a) the drills were being held nowhere near the Ukrainian border and b) were within normal parameters for troop strength.

I checked (Romanian-language) Moldovan, Ukrainian, Russian and even Transnistria’s own domestic press to see if anyone else was reporting Russian military drills in Transnistria and found no mention of it whatsoever. If it had happened, Ukraine would’ve been at high alert, Moldova would’ve been frantic and the Transnistrians would’ve been jubilant.

Despite this clear error (or lie?) from the AFP, all Romanian sources and countless other newspapers throughout the world reported that the Russian military was holding drills in Transnistria. I even saw one local blogger from Odessa talking about it, worried that Russia was about to invade his country.

Lie 2 – Transnistria has asked to formally join the Russian Federation

The quasi-legal government of Transnistria, Yevgeny Shevchuk, flew to Moscow last week to formally ask that his “country” be annexed into the Russian Federation, just as Crimea had been done that week. I know that Shevchuk met with Dmitry Rogozin (Russian deputy PM) as I saw Rogozin talk about it on his Twitter feed and last week the Russian Duma (parliament) chaired a meeting on Transnistria.

Will Russia now absorb Transnistria? After all, the Transnistrians have already held a referendum (in 2006) to join Russia and 97.2% voted in favor. The entire western world is now waiting with bated breath to see if Russia will take that next step.

The only problem here is that Transnistria has not formally applied to join the Russian Federation. Titus Corlatean, Romania’s foreign minister, has confirmed that. Not even the Transnistrian media is reporting that they want to officially join the Russian Federation.

All Shevchuk has done is congratulate Putin on annexing Crimea and then work to make sure that Transnistria’s borders with Ukraine remain open. The Transnistrians are also particularly pleased that Rogozin and Serghey Pyrozhkov (Ukrainian ambassador to Moldova) are hurling insults at one another (link in Russian).

Lie 3 – Russia is about to invade Transnistria

NATO supreme military commander Philip Breedlove has said that Russian forces are “amassed” on Ukraine’s eastern border and that Transnistria could be their “next target”.

Tony Blinken, the American deputy national security adviser, also said that it’s possible that the Russians are “preparing to move in” to Transnistria. An influential American congressman, Mike Rogers, also stated that the Russians are “in a position to take over the southern region of Ukraine” until they get to Transnistria and so now he wants the American government to start flooding Ukraine with weapons.

Even if Russian troops were standing with their boots touching Ukraine’s eastern border (which they’re not), it would be over 1,000 kilometers before they would get to Tiraspol. That would include battling through enormous swathes of Ukrainian territory populated by people who have no interest whatsoever in welcoming Russian soldiers. That would be one hell of a war with death, destruction and mayhem, all to get to a tiny strip of land on the extreme western border of Ukraine (Transnistria).

Unless for some reason Russia wants to begin World War 3, invading Ukraine to acquire Transnistria is never going to happen. Every Russian official, from President Putin to Foreign Minister Lavrov to Defense Minister Shoigu have repeatedly stated that Russia has no plans to move into eastern Ukraine (which is far more pro-Russian), much less western Ukraine (where Transnistria is).

Lie 4 – We all want what’s best for Moldova

President Basescu has repeatedly tried to push for a unification between Romania and Moldova, only to bitterly realize that most Moldovans don’t want that. It’s a nice theory on paper for most Romanians, a unification with their brothers who speak a similar language, but it would be an economic disaster as Moldova is far poorer than even already poor enough Romania.

Basescu’s new project is to somehow speed up Moldova’s accession to the EU, usually a lengthy and difficult process that requires a lot of economic and political reforms that Moldova currently has no chance of achieving. Some Moldovan politicians are certainly in favor of this but others are not.

The pro-EU forces in Moldova are trying to jam through as much as they can because Moldova will hold parliamentary elections later this year and it is highly likely that the Communist party (largely pro-Russian) will increase the number of seats (currently 40%) in the parliament sufficiently to not have to form a coalition government with any pro-EU factions.

Besides just Transnistria, the often ignored (at least in the Romanian press) Gaugauz minority are also dead set against closer ties to the European Union. The Gaugaz president Mihail Formuzal loaths Basescu so much that he declared the Romanian president “persona non grata” in Gaugazia.

Some Moldovans are eager for closer ties to the EU, including a long hoped for visa regime allowing them to travel and work in the EU. Wine producers and other industries also would like to be able to sell their goods in the EU on a duty-free basis. But ties with the EU come at a price, as Moldova is now under pressure (link in Russian) to implement EU sanctions on Russian officials. And Russia is currently mulling over whether to impose visa restrictions on Moldovans working and living in Russia.

Last week I saw veteran Romanian journalist Cristi Tabara on Moldovan television debating with Moldovan MP Vitali Catana about what Moldova should do. Tabara was clearly browbeating Catana, mocking his pro-neutral stance by asking him how Moldova will be able to provide security for itself without joining the EU (and by extension, NATO). And the Romanian press continues to churn out articles about how Moldova has no option but to join the west to avoid being swallowed up by Russia.

But almost all Moldovans speak Russian and many countless thousands of them depend on jobs in Russia and hold no particular animosity towards Russia the way that nearly all Romanians do. Moldovan cable television packages are about half Russian and half Romanian (or Romanian subtitled western shows) and the sense I get is that they would truly like to remain neutral and have the best of both worlds, working and living in Russia or western Europe, without paying the price of having to be barred from the other.

The tiny barren country is being tugged on from all sides with little disregard for what the people who live there actually want. Whether it’s the silly ravings of Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovski or the lies of the AFP or the political grandstanding of Traian Basescu or the lunatic theories of NATO military commanders, nobody seems to give a shit about the people of Moldova, including Transnistria and Gagauzia.

In fact, it was a Russian-speaking journalist working for the British version of Vice who was the only person to actually go to Moldova and (literally) ask people on the street what it is that they want. As you can see at the link, it’s a mixed bag with almost everyone just wanting to live in peace and not be used as pawns in some great geopolitical chess game.

If you don't know who I am, you have no business talking about Transnistria
If you don’t know who I am, you have no business talking about Transnistria

But of course when it comes to Russia, the vast echo chamber of paranoia and fear takes dominant stage and there is little room for dispassionate analysis and debate. I fear that the news will continue to be rife with “experts” talking about Transnistria when they can’t even find it on a map (thinking it is in western Moldova) and have never tasted a drop of Kvint in their entire lives.

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