I know that a different war is on everyone’s minds this week, but today, I want to talk about the so-called war that took place in 1992.
The other day, my wife shared an article with me written by Dumitru Crudu concerning a play that he saw performed in Tiraspol in late 2013.
For those of you who don’t know him, Dumitru Crudu is a Moldovan who considers himself a Romanian “superpatriot.” His day job is writing plays (and writing critiques of other people’s plays) and poems in the Romanian language while also doing some teaching on the side. In short, he’s one of Moldova’s leading “academics” and a hugely influential person, especially on this side of the Prut River.
In Crudu’s article about visiting Tiraspol and attending a Russian-language play, he said this (my translation):
The play was about war, about the heroism of Soviet soldiers, and the theater was full of senior citizens who enthusiastically rose to their feet and clapped after every song.
From that point onwards, I had the feeling that the play was not actually about World War 2 but about the Russian-Moldovan war of 1992.
He then throws a tantrum, exits the play, tells several people (including an old lady) that the play “sucks” and then goes on a vandalism spree, chucking eggs out the window of his vehicle as he speeds out of town (seriously).
I have no idea what the play was about, but Crudu is hardly the only person in Moldova (or Romania) to refer to 1992 as either the “Russian-Moldovan war” or blame the outcome solely on Russia.
Therefore, I wanted to address what actually happened in 1992 beyond what’s written in Wikipedia.
The city located approximately 15km west of where I now live is known by three names: Bender, Bendery, and Tighina.
“Tighina” is the short form of a Cumin word (Tyagyanyakyacha – say that five times fast!) that Moldovans started using about 700 years ago.
However, when the city was captured by Ottoman Turk forces under Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century, they renamed it to “Bender,” which is a Turkish word that means something like “port.”
When the Russians later captured it (without firing a shot) during the Napoleonic Wars, they started calling it “Bendery” (pronounced “Ben-Derry”) because it’s easier to pronounce for them.
Today, Romanian superpatriots call it “Tighina,” while Moldovans alternate between calling it “Bender” and “Tighina.” Russians and Ukrainians refer to it as “Bendery.”
For the sake of convenience, I’m going to call it Bender from here on out, not due to political reasons but simply because I always liked the name.
Geographically, Bender is on the west (or “right”) side of the Dniester River. Today, it is more or less under the control of the PMR (“Transnistrian”) authorities, which makes it an anomaly as most of the rest of the country is on the eastern (or “left”) side of the Dniester River.
Historically, the city was part of the old Kingdom of Romania from 1920 to 1940. This makes it much different than the rest of PMR, which was never a part of the Kingdom of Romania.
Nonetheless, the people of Bender have, historically, been more aligned with the “left” bank of the river than the right. In 1919, as World War 1 was coming to an end, there was a brief battle between Romanian/French* and Soviet forces in and around Bender, making it technically the first time that a foreign country attacked Soviet territory.
* At least 100 French soldiers stationed at Bender became sympathetic to the Communist cause and mutinied in order to side with the Soviet Union(!).
Long story short: Russia and Moldova/Romania have been contesting Bender for a long time.
A whole lot of ink has been spilled talking about the Soviet/Russian “14th Army,” so let’s review.
By 1991, the 14th Army referred to several groups of units of the Soviet Army spread throughout what is now Moldova, PMR, and Ukraine (Odessa region), including artillery units, parachute (airborne) units, and motorized brigades.
The 14th Army had also created a stockpile of weaponry at a village called Cobasna (now in PMR territory) because it was located at the southwestern flank of the Soviet Union and was, therefore, on the “front line” in case a war broke out in Europe (or with Turkey).
Following the events of 1989 in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, a ton of additional Soviet weaponry was also brought to the depot in Cobasna. Therefore, the people of PMR were sitting on a truly vast amount of weaponry in 1992, including hundreds of thousands of grenades, AK-47 rifles, etc.
When the Soviet Union came to an end, a lot of this materiel was divvied up and handed over to the respective republics. Moldovans never want to acknowledge it, but the 14th Army gave a LOT of equipment to Chisinau, including MiG fighter planes and attack helicopters.
Nonetheless, the army bases still existed, including one just outside the official Bender city limits but less than a mile from the city center. These bases then officially became Russian Army bases on April 2, 1992. For a variety of reasons, the soldiers serving in these bases were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the PMR side.
Some of their weaponry and equipment was sold to PMR, some bartered away, some stolen, some given or lent to PMR, and some weaponry (mostly small arms) was “stolen” when the wives and girlfriends of the soldiers were allowed to enter and take what they wanted while the soldiers were mysteriously absent for a short period. As well, some 14th Army reservists, as well as retirees from the 14th Army, also joined PMR’s Republican Guard (see below).
However, some 14th Army groups (including the 300th Airborne Division in Chisinau) played no role whatsoever in the fighting. Therefore, anyone who says “the 14th Army” as one cohesive unit did X or Y is widely inaccurate.
PMR didn’t have an army in 1992. Instead, it formed a “Republican Guard” in 1990 which had around 15,000 members, many of whom were ex-Soviet servicemen and therefore well-trained. In many cases, the guardsmen were also veterans of the (Soviet) Afghan war as well.
Also involved were a whole collection of motley elements, including around 500 superpatriotic crazies from Ukraine (UNA-UNSO, now known as Praviy Sektor) and around 1,000 Cossacks from Russia, all of which were on PMR’s side.
A few other misfits from around the Soviet Union also volunteered to join in the fight, including, allegedly, Dmitri Rogozin, on the PMR side.
There were also at least five different domestic “gangs,” including one lead by a homicidal maniac named Yuri Kostenko that played a key role in what happened in 1992. These days, they’d all be classified as terrorist groups, but at the time, they were free-roaming militia/bandit gangs that were mostly interested in stealing things and getting drunk. Some were “pro-PMR” and some were “pro-RM.”
Moldova (Chisinau), on the other hand, only created its army in March 1992. Some were reservists but others were just young kids who wanted to join for “patriotic” reasons and were, therefore, partially or wholly untrained. On top of around 5,000 soldiers (including officers), Moldova also had some 30,000 “policemen” which included about 300 OMON special forces (think “SWAT” if you’re American) and 5,000 “carabiniers” whose normal job is cracking the heads of protestors.
Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to have been anyone from Romania who volunteered to join in the fighting on Moldova’s side despite the 1992 “war” now being considered a “patriotic war” in Romania (and amongst pro-Romania idiots like Dumitru Crudu in Moldova).
Long story short: Romania did virtually nothing to help Moldova, but plenty of PMR’s neighbors were glad to volunteer on PMR’s side.
By the time 1992 rolled around, the battle lines had been drawn. PMR had been in full control over the Left Bank of the Dniester for close to a year and a half. Aside from a few relatively minor (but one strategically important) incident, the only bone of contention was the city of Bender.
From a global standpoint, Bender isn’t that big. It had (and still has) only around 150,000 residents, but that makes it either the second biggest city (in PMR) or the third biggest city (in Soviet Moldova, after Chisinau and Tiraspol). It was (and still is) home to a lot of critical industry, including a giant shoe factory, textile factories, and the only major printshop in the region.
Different parts of Bender were controlled by different forces. RM (Chisinau) controlled a couple of outlying villages as well as the city prosecutors’ offices and some police stations in Bender, but PMR had their own separate police force operating in the city. And then there was Yuri Kostenko, a Special Forces veteran who had served in Afghanistan, who was running a private militia in and around Bender.
Crime was rampant during the spring of 1992 as a record number of murders were both recorded and never solved.
March 28-June 18
On March 28, the president of Moldova declared martial law throughout the country, including in Bender. On April 1, two RM armored vehicles operated by policemen entered Bender and confronted some PMR guardsmen. This led to a brief gun battle that killed a handful of people, mostly civilians.
Meanwhile, the Russian base (just outside of) Bender issued a statement that it would intervene as peacekeepers if the fighting did not stop. On April 6, a ceasefire was signed and a negotiation team with representatives from RM, PMR, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine was formed. On May 8, all sides agreed to remove all heavy weaponry and armed forces out of Bender except for the (RM) police and (PMR) national guards.
RM then removed all of its heavy equipment, and for a short while, both RM police and PMR guardsmen conducted joint patrols. But Kostenko’s gang also remained.
On June 9, the deputy commander of the Russian base in Bender, Major Serikov, and his driver, were gunned down as they drove through the city. Kostenko’s guys then arrested and executed (without a trial) an RM police major named Perju, saying he had been responsible for the murder of Serikov.
June 19, 1992
On June 19, the commander of the Russian base in Bender, Major Yermakov, drove into Bender to the print shop to pick up copies of the army’s (daily) newspaper. The paper had always been printed in Bender, and 14th Army soldiers drove to the print shop every single day in order to pick up their newspapers.
At 5:25, Yermakov’s vehicle (a normal, unarmored car) arrived at the print shop and two Russian soldiers went inside to pick up the paper.
For reasons that no one will ever know, 10 RM policemen then surrounded the car and ordered Yermakov and his driver out at gunpoint. Apparently, they had orders to “question” Yermakov but not arrest him.
At that point, some never-identified guys (believed to be members of Kostenko’s gang) saw what was happening and started shooting at the (RM) policemen, who returned fire. Yermakov was taken into the police station and later transferred to Chisinau where he was questioned (without the presence of a lawyer) for several days.
Outside, the shooting continued for several hours. PMR authorities later said it was Kostenko’s guys who had started the whole thing but PMR guardsmen later participated. During the fighting, at least one RM policemen was killed and nine were injured.
At 7:00 pm, members of the peacekeeping committee said that the shooting could be stopped if Yermakov was released. But the Bender police chief said that he would not release Yermakov until the shooting stopped. PMR authorities then tried to order Kostenko and his guys to stand down, but Kostenko refused.
Meanwhile, the head of the Bender police called Chisinau and “asked for help.”
Around 8:00 pm, the mayor of Bender called RM Interior Minister and asked him NOT to send any reinforcements. The minister then said “No. My men need help, and I’m going to send it.” Meanwhile, other calls by the civilian authorities in Bender to high-ranking authorities in Chisinau went unanswered.
At some point after 9:00 pm, a convoy of RM armored vehicles started rolling into the city. At the same time, busloads of police, volunteers, and carabiniers from across RM also started to arrive in Bender. PMR guardsmen then got involved in the fighting, and the night ended with widespread shooting throughout the entire city.
RM President Snegur went on TV and said that he had sent in the army to Bender in order to assist the Bender police department. He also warned civilians to stay home until “the gangsters” were all disarmed.
By the early morning, RM forces had nearly complete control of the city, including the bridge across the river.
Meanwhile, PMR (or pro-PMR) forces were holed up in several strongholds, including the barracks of the guardsmen, the central post office, and a few other places.
In the morning, PMR sent some tanks from the eastern side of the river to re-take the bridge but two were blown up by artillery fire, and the rest had to withdraw. At 8:00 pm, however, another tank attack was successful, and PMR tanks rolled into downtown Bender.
PMR meanwhile mobilized all of its forces from around the country, including the calling up of reservists.
The interim commander of the (Russian) 14th Army issued a statement that all shooting should cease immediately. Since several RM shells had landed in or near the Bender base, he also warned that the Russian Army would “reciprocate” if the fighting did not stop.
Well, the fighting did not stop. By the morning of June 20, PMR forces were pouring into Bender, and there was widespread shooting throughout the city and peripheral villages.
Much of the fighting was the vicious, house-by-house sniper kind. Other parts of the fighting included RM lobbing artillery shells onto PMR positions, some of which were inside the city. This led to a lot of civilian deaths and injuries as local residents were caught in the crossfire.
Adding to the chaos and confusion, tens of thousands of civilians started fleeing the city, many loaded down with all of their belongings. Approximately half the population (~80,000 people) fled the city in two days. Some 60,000 of them were registered as refugees in Ukraine and the rest in RM or Romania.
As the city emptied out of civilians, the fighting intensified, as did the pillaging and the looting. One scene actually caught on TV was a bunch of RM “volunteers” carrying out thousands of pairs of shoes from a local factory.
Meanwhile, PMR forces steadily gained ground.
At this point, RM forces had been pushed out of most of the city, only controlling a small part of the downtown area as well as a strip of land just south of downtown (still known as the Lenin District).
As RM forces were pushed back, they relied more and more on artillery. Several shells blew up residential apartment buildings.
In addition, RM sent three MiG-29 fighters (originally the property of the Soviet 14th Army!) to try and intervene by dropping bombs on the bridge that crosses the river (which would’ve cut off PMR reinforcements).
In typical Moldovan incompetence, all three bombs that RM dropped missed their targets. Two bombs fell into the river and injured no one. One bomb, however, hit the village of Parcani (Russian: Parkany), but luckily this too did not injure anyone, although two houses were blown up.
June 26-July 21
With Yakovlev in detention in Chisinau, command of the 14th Army was given to General Alexander Lebed, who arrived on June 23.
Widely popular throughout Russia, Lebed was a “soldier’s soldier” type of commander who stopped all thefts (real or not) of weaponry and the unauthorized moonlighting by Russian soldiers as PMR guardsmen, etc.
Sporadically throughout the fighting, RM shells had been landing inside the Russian base in Bender. A lot of these had been fired from several kilometers away in or near the village of Hirbovati where there’s a big forest.
On July 3, Lebed ordered a massive artillery strike against RM positions in Hirbovati which utterly obliterated all further resistance. All of RM’s artillery was either blown up or quickly withdrawn out of range. This effectively ended the fighting in Bender.
Sporadic fighting in other areas on the PMR/RM border, however, continued until 21 July when Russian President Boris Yeltsin got all sides to agree to a ceasefire. RM President Mircea Snegur signed that document, which included the formation of a multinational peacekeeping force (known as JCC in English) that continues to remain in operation today.
Lebed is considered something of a national hero in PMR, but he later grew tired of PMR President Smirnov and made several remarks about him being a gangster. In 1996, Lebed ran for president of Russia and nearly won (losing to Yeltsin). He then became a top commander in the military (under Yeltsin) but died in 2002 in a helicopter crash.
Pretty much all of Bender, today, is under the jurisdiction of PMR, but the terms of the 1992 ceasefire mean that there are strict limitations on any armed forces in the “Security Zone” (that includes most of Bender).
Interestingly, the RM government still controls several buildings in Bender, including two schools, one police building, a prison, one train station (the only one that handles passenger traffic) and a prosecutor’s office. PMR shares joint “custody” of the train station but otherwise controls most of the civilian apparatus inside the city.
The only forces allowed to carry weapons in Bender are members of the peacekeeping group. These are all clearly marked by the letters “MC” (which are actually the Cyrillic letters “MS” for “Миротворческие Силы” (Mirotvorchesky Sili), which means “Peacekeeping Forces” in Russian). Which is why I always laugh (a little) when crazy people imagine seeing PMR border guards in Bender carrying machine guns.
Originally, RM and Ukraine were supposed to send guys to participate in the peacekeeping mission, but they later stopped doing that for political reasons. As a result, all of the ~400 peacekeepers are Russian soldiers plus 10 military observers from Ukraine who do not carry weapons but DO wear their Ukrainian army uniforms.
Some pro-Romania RM leaders and the Romanian government (as well as their US/EU-funded media lackeys) like to refer to these peacekeepers in quotation marks (i.e. “peacekeepers”), but the happy truth is that they are, indeed, keeping the peace.
I used to say that not a single shot has been fired in anger since 1992, but I’ve since learned that a stupid American tourist named Carolina Simkota was taking photos of one of the Bender peacekeeping positions in 2005 and caused a serious incident.
When the soldiers warned her to stop, she couldn’t understand them (since she didn’t speak Russian), and so a few shots were fired into the air. Luckily, she was smart enough to run away at that point, and nobody got hurt. But otherwise, nothing has happened in over a quarter of a century.
For entirely pragmatic, political reasons, the government of Ukraine is now an “ally” of Romania, and the participation of Ukrainian UNO-UNSO psychos in the 1992 fighting has been forgotten. This is especially weird to me because the same Ukrainian group also beat up a bunch of local Romanian leaders in Cernauti in 1992 as well. Furthermore, they are, ideologically, far-right quasi-fascists (or sometimes openly fascist).
But since the whole “thing” in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, both nations can now gripe about Russia together.
That’s why all blame for what happened in 1990-1992 is now placed at the feet of Russia, which is not just overly simplistic but factually wrong.
Mircea Snegur, who was head of the Soviet MSSR as well as the first president of independent Moldova, was a colossal idiot (his daughter, Natalia, is smarter but far more corrupt). It is abundantly clear that neither Snegur nor anyone else in Chisinau knew what to do once the Left Bank decided to go their own way in 1990.
Without a functioning army, without knowing how to fly warplanes, and with limited ability to aim their artillery, RM had little chance of winning the “war” in Bender in 1992.
Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that the “war” was completely unplanned. Once the shooting broke out, Chisinau just threw everyone they had into the mix, including hundreds of drunken, disorderly volunteers who were more interested in looting than fighting. And all efforts by the local government (including RM officials) to end the fighting were ignored.
Most importantly, the vast majority of the people who died in 1992 were civilians. Bender was nearly completely destroyed, and the people who live here have never forgotten that. This has soured most local people on any attempts by RM to “reintegrate” them into the country that looted, pillaged, and bombed their city.
Note: I have spoken to several people (civilians) who were in Bender that summer, including Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Russians. Even the most anti-PMR of them agree that the fighting was awful and that the civilian deaths were completely unnecessary.
From PMR’s point of view, the Russian intervention under Lebed was entirely welcomed. Furthermore, the ceasefire let them build their country as an oasis of peace and multi-ethnic harmony, which is what they had always wanted. The peacekeepers truly do keep the peace, which is why thousands of people safely and easily cross the border every day, which helps not just commerce to flourish but also allows people to stay connected to their families.
From Russia’s point of view (remember, this is the Yeltsin government we’re speaking of), RM way overstepped its bounds with how it handled the transition into an independent country. Passing laws that severely punished Russian speakers also greatly offended Russia. And when RM forces began shelling Russian army bases despite multiple warnings not to do so, Russia had no choice but to intervene and put an end to all of the fighting.
From RM’s point of view, everything PMR has ever done has been “unfair,” including the very fact that the Left Bank was always treated better by the Soviet Union. PMR was (and still is) where most of the industry is located, which means better jobs and more money. And RM hates admitting that, despite decades of promises from the useless Romanian government, it is still 100% dependent on PMR for its supply of electricity and natural gas.
Furthermore, RM has squandered multiple opportunities to peacefully resolve its issues with PMR, including not signing the 2003 Kozak federalization plan at quite literally the last moment.
From Romania’s point of view, the fact that they did virtually nothing to assist RM in 1990-1992 is a continual source of embarrassment, so it is never mentioned. Since Romania is now in batshit paranoid fear mode concerning Russia (seriously, they run daily drills to “prevent a Russian attack”), it’s very convenient to take Moldova’s side any time that it complains about Russia.
Lastly, the English-speaking international community continues to fund and support the utterly untenable position that PMR is a “fundamental” part of RM territory, thereby making PMR a “breakaway state” or “an outlaw republic” utterly without any historical or moral justification for wanting to enjoy a separate (and peaceful!) existence.
As such, the surreal RM position, despite being nearly completely divergent from reality, is considered the only “legitimate” one.
This means that all of RM’s terminology, including the PMR/RM split being a “frozen conflict” and that the name of the country is “Transnistria,” has been adopted wholesale by just about everybody, including hundreds of students who have written white papers on the topic and members of think tanks who write “position” papers until you can barely find a single paragraph written in any language (besides Russian) which doesn’t portray PMR as an outlaw “black hole” where criminals run free and everyone is an undercover KGB agent who loves Stalin.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!