Since the beginning of Russia's all-out military aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, the structural parameters surrounding the solution to the Transnistrian conflict have been dramatically reconfigured. Although conflict resolution appears to be a more realistic option than before the war, Chisinau still has critical dependencies and weaknesses in connection to the Transnistrian region in terms of security and energy.
Russian peacekeepers, along with separatist military forces, possess military capabilities superior to Moldova's. The EU invested about €90mn in the years 2021-2023 and Moldova increased its military budget by almost 70%, or €31.5mn, to MDL1.5bn (€74mn) in 2023. However, in order to minimise the deficit generated by underfinancing in the sector since independence, increasing and continuous resources are required. Furthermore, while Moldova wants to enhance its energy autonomy by interconnecting with the Romanian electricity market, this process will not be completed until after 2025 and does not necessarily guarantee a reduced price for imported electricity.
At the same time, Ukraine is determined to remove the traces of interdependence it has with the Transnistria region in the sphere of transportation by building an alternative route to bypass the region. Furthermore, the Transnistria region can only interact with foreign markets through the territory controlled by the constitutional authorities. This contributed to its increasing dependence on Chisinau and the European market, where around two thirds or 64% of its exports are delivered.
In addition, the "5+2" format is on hold until the end of the war and will emerge from the future of Ukraine-Russia relations. Thus the opportunities for the Tiraspol administration to pursue parity diplomacy with Chisinau on platforms other than those offered by the OSCE Mission, but strictly within the limits of Moldova's national borders, are limited.
Last but not least, the parliament in Chisinau introduced changes to the legislation, with the vote of 60 out of 101 MPs, introducing criminal sanctions for actions of "separatism", which harm policymakers in the Transnistria region.
The military, economic and political context at the local and regional level
The scenarios related to the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict depend proportionately on the multidimensional "battlefield" dynamics associated with the Russian military aggression against Ukraine.
In military terms, uncertainties remain about the sustainability and effectiveness of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which began in June 2023, as continued supplies of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine are required. The scepticism of some Western actors about the speed of the counteroffensive has been strongly criticised by the Ukrainian side, which maintains that the slowness is intentional for objective reasons, including the reduction of human casualties among the military forces. Furthermore, without the involvement of the European military industry, supply chains risk breaking down. That is why the EU has proposed intensifying orders from member states to generate demand and large-scale production respectively for Ukraine's needs. At the same time, the depth of Ukrainian drone penetration into Russian territory, with attacks targeting critical infrastructure in six regions, highlights the shortcomings of Russian air defences.
From an economic point of view, Western sanctions are drastically reducing the revenue collected in the Russian budget. This is visible in the case of the revenue obtained by state-owned energy giant Gazprom, which from a profit of almost $26bn in the first six months of 2022, recorded a profit of around $3bn dollars in January-June 2023, which represents a decrease of more than eight times.
At the same time, the financial support for Ukraine is becoming more defined and consistent, with €50bn proposed by the EU under the 2021-27 multiannual budget. Nevertheless, the obstruction of the export of Ukrainian grains, generated by Russian attacks on ports in the Odesa region, both at sea and on the Danube, creates costs for the Ukrainian economy. The volume of more than 30mn tonnes of cereals exported in 2022-23, through the cereal initiative, via the Black Sea, will have to be redirected towards the routes of the "green corridors". Added to the negative consequences on Ukrainian cereal exports caused by the blockade and the Russian attacks are the fraudulent exports carried out by some Ukrainian companies. Some 300 entities are under investigation for grain exports, tax evasion and other crimes worth at least $140mn in 2022 alone. Under conditions of war and with around 15% of its territory still occupied by Russia, the Ukrainian authorities plan to harvest around 45mn tonnes of cereals, or almost double the amount in 2021, which was 86mn tonnes.
In the political realm, Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstrates resilience and continues to eliminate opponents who question his legitimacy within national borders. The plane crash in which Evgeni Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, died is seen as a long-awaited response to the organised military rebellion against the Kremlin-controlled central authorities. Also politically, but from the Ukrainian perspective, the high costs and risks of holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024, caused by the war, could lead Kyiv to maintain its current political structure. Political polls show that the performance of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is appreciated by 91% of the population. The holding of Ukrainian elections is conditional on the existence of Western financial aid. In 2018, in times of relative peace, more than $80mn were spent just to hold the presidential elections. In any case, even if organised, the elections would divert attention from the war and direct some resources to the organisation of the elections.
Contradictory signals about the dynamics of the war, as well as the adaptation and reaction strategies selected by decision-makers in Ukraine and the EU, on the one hand, and in Russia, on the other, maintain a high dose of caution within the separatist elite in Transnistria. Actors in the region understand that Moscow is capable of retaliating if it feels betrayed. The attacks with explosives against police buildings and critical infrastructure in the Transnistria region in the spring of 2022 were destabilising actions. Although Tiraspol blamed the Ukrainian side and not Russia, the latter's secret services were identified as the alleged perpetrators of the subversive actions. According to these reasonings, in order to ensure their own survival, the Transnistrian elites will not abandon pro-Russian positions as long as Russia does not find itself irreversibly in a losing position in Ukraine. Until then, the political actors in the Transnistria region will avoid dissociating themselves from Russian geopolitical interests.
The dilemmas of the Transnistria region
In a confusing and highly volatile regional context, Tiraspol's elites find themselves in a dilemma. Although group interests prevail, the abandonment of geopolitical calculations can have serious consequences for the political and economic elites of the Transnistrian region. They risk being subjected to "Prigozhin" type scenarios if they try to fool Moscow. At the same time, there is a high probability that if they make concessions in the dialogue with Chisinau, including in the dimension of future reintegration negotiations, Western actors will be able to treat them leniently, guaranteeing immunity, including impunity. These two lines of thought determine the dilemma faced by those who de facto control the political processes in the Transnistria region.
On the one hand, it is understood that Ukraine is determined to support Moldova in the reintegration process. This was already pointed out by Zelenskiy on the sidelines of the European Political Community summit in June 2023. For now, Kyiv is guided by its own critical priorities aimed at restoring control over its territories, including the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. Non-resolution of the Transnistrian conflict is a threat to the national security of Moldova and Ukraine. Therefore both sides are interested in eliminating the Russian military-political presence in the Transnistrian region, preferably immediately after the end of the war and if Ukraine wins. The duration and effectiveness of the Ukrainian counteroffensive depends to a large extent on access to Western munitions. In this regard, there is valid concern about the risk of a “forced peace” being imposed on Ukraine if the Republican candidate wins the 2024 US presidential election. In such a case, Russia could demand concessions related to the restoration of the transit of Russian military units through Ukraine, made possible under the 1998 deal that was cancelled in 2015, to bring the Transnistrian region out of its current isolation. This would at least partially restore Tiraspol's weight in the negotiations in the "1+1" and "5+2" formats. Thus the situation in the breakaway region could return to the status quo prior to the all-out Russian aggression against Ukraine. Although the above conditions are not ideal for the separatist elites, they would provide a more convenient manoeuvring ground in relation to the constitutional authorities in Chisinau.
On the other hand, within two years, Tiraspol's energy advantage in negotiations with the constitutional authorities will lose weight significantly as a result of the deepening of Moldova's energy interconnection with Romania. The high-voltage line that will connect Chisinau with the Isaccea-Vulcăneşti interconnection, which is scheduled to come into operation in 2025, will supply electricity directly to the capital of Moldova, bypassing the transmission networks that cross the region of Transnistria. In addition, this interconnection will reduce the risks related to Russian attacks on the Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Also, the electricity received from the EU will be able to reach the territory controlled by the constitutional authorities of Moldova without risking disruptions from Tiraspol. Moldova may still be interested in buying cheaper electricity from the Transnistrian region, produced from Russian natural gas for which it does not pay. But given the alternative of importing energy from Romania, Chisinau can impose strict rules of the game on the energy market, asking Tiraspol to pay for the Russian gas used. In this way, it will be possible to reduce the debt for Russian gas, which is in the balance of Moldova-Gaz, 50% controlled by Gazprom, and which reached about $10bn, after an increase of 2.6 times in 2022. Furthermore, with the loss of revenue from unpaid Russian gas-fired energy production, the region's elites may be forced to partially and gradually reintegrate the region's economy into the legal fold of Moldova. The likelihood of such events is high, especially if Russia fails to force its style of peace upon Ukraine. In this case, the elites of the Transnistria region will have to adapt to the business legalisation process with the rest of Moldova. Otherwise, they will have to start a confrontation which, due to the weakening of Russia, could turn out to be in vain. Given its military and operational capabilities, Ukraine will not hesitate to react to any military risk coming from the breakaway region, with dire consequences for the latter.
The scenarios for the solution of the conflict in Transnistria
The Tiraspol separatist regime can still use its energy influence to win certain trade concessions from Chisinau, even with the permission of the EU institutions that seek stability. These concessions could be perceived by Moldova and the EU as a temporary price paid to limit the scope of the instability generated by the war in Ukraine. The resolution of the conflict could take place based on three basic scenarios that are analysed below:
1. The unchanged status quo: the "lesser evil" for Moldova and the EU. The increasing dependence of the Transnistria region on the constitutional regime in Chisinau, as a consequence of the isolationist effects of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, meets the necessary conditions for progress. The turning point will be Chisinau's ability to receive electricity directly from Romania, both through the Isaccea-Vulcănești interconnection, scheduled for 2025, and through the eventual Bălți-Suceava power at a later date. The deepening of asymmetry in the bilateral dialogue is beneficial for Moldova, which, under the conditions of a strategic system of "sticks and carrots", can persuade Tiraspol to agree to reintegration in sectoral areas – ranging from the establishment of a uniform customs regime until legalisation through the decriminalisation of the region's economy. The mechanism to deter possible aggression from the Transnistria region must emerge from a set of measures to prevent strategic risks. The reduction or even the complete elimination of economic risks can be achieved by establishing alternatives for transport, energy, etc, to the existing ones involving the separatist region. In the area of security, showing the costs of the escalation in Transnistria will depend on strengthening the Moldovan institutional capacities of law enforcement and the army. Last but not least, discouraging Tiraspol could mean pointing out the risks of sanctioning Transnistria's leadership. Taken together, these factors may produce a situation where the current status quo can be maintained to increase Chisinau's bargaining power.
2. Changing the negotiation parameters: the "Ukrainian factor". Kyiv demonstrates a strategic interest in contributing to the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict, through political means. Once the Russian military aggression is checked and decimated through the de-occupation of territories, the Ukrainian objective will be the elimination of threats emanating from the breakaway region of Moldova. According to this scenario, the driver of the solution to the Transnistrian conflict may be the Ukrainian factor, rather than the Moldovan one. A proactive stance by Kyiv may counter Chisinau's timidity. Co-ordinated border management in the Transnistrian segment, the fight against Russian and local Transnistrian propaganda, as well as public diplomacy in relation to the population, maybe just some of the ways in which Ukraine can become an accelerator of conflict resolution through non-military methods. If Ukraine defeats Russia, then Moscow's geopolitical influence in the region will decline by itself and Transnistria's elites will act pragmatically in favour of engaging in a constructive dialogue with Chisinau in order to avoid risks of a Ukrainian nature. In practice, Chisinau will play the role of a "good policeman", and Ukraine will be perceived in Tiraspol volens nolens as a "bad one".
3. Escalation of the conflict: the "Russian factor". The high-risk scenario refers to Russia's eventual intention to unfreeze the conflict in one way or another. Significant costs can be incurred for Moldova and Ukraine by sabotaging the former arms depot in the Transnistria region (Cobasna) or even a missile attack, citing the need to defend peacekeepers or Russian citizens. The Ukrainian example demonstrates that Russia is capable of violating any red line and Moldova has no air defence capability to identify and detect Russian missiles. Such a scenario is likely to mean the loss of Russia's cultural appeal in the Transnistria region, similar to the sea change in attitude seen in traditionally pro-Russian regions of Ukraine such as Odesa.
A precondition that inclines the Transnistrian region towards unconditional dialogue will arise from the quality of the implementation of the European agenda by the constitutional authorities. Another concerns the readiness of the EU and other European partners to facilitate, through diplomatic and financial means, additional formats or the replacement of existing ones ("5+2" format), drawing on the experience gained in the context of the separatist conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. At the same time, the EU will have to bear expenses related to a possible energy crisis in the breakaway region, caused by the cessation of natural gas supplies. Ultimately, what matters is Kyiv's willingness to support Moldova's reintegration strategies, which Chisinau must review based on a set of plausible scenarios about the development of the situation in Ukraine, but also on the probabilities of a deliberate thaw of the Transnistrian conflict by Moscow in an "attrition operation" against Moldova and Ukraine's southwestern border.