Any escalation in Eastern Ukraine might fuel tensions in Moldova's Transnistria and result in destabilizing behavior from both Moscow and Kiev.

Ukrainian border guards stand at a checkpoint at the border with Moldova breakaway Transnistria region, near Odessa. Photo: Reuters

Until recently, the situation in Transnistria looked like a peripheral political subplot. In December 2011 this breakaway republic saw a change of government when its longtime leader Igor Smirnov, reputed for being a hardline conservative and mistrusting the West, was replaced by the young and energetic Yevgeny Shevchuk. As a result, many Western experts and diplomats began talking up the acceleration of a peaceful settlement in Transnistria.

However, these calculations proved to be off the mark. Although the new administration demonstrated a willingness to engage in dialogue with Moldova (which Transnistria is officially considered to be part of), it did not view the process as a chain of unilateral concessions.

Peace in the sense of ignoring one’s own interests was likewise not an option for Russia, one of the guarantors of any potential peace settlement. As a result, the status quo remains in place with no major breakthroughs in the negotiations. Unlike two other breakaway republics - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - Moscow has not recognized the independence of Transnistria.

However, all Russian official documents on the issue emphasize that the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) is one side of the conflict, and not just a territory or “separatist enclave” whose interests must be respected and taken into account when finalizing a peace formula.

The Ukrainian political crisis, as well as the change in the status of Crimea and Sevastopol, has reanimated the question of Transnistria. It is not hard to see why.

First, the unrecognized PMR borders Ukraine to the east (a 405 km boundary). That means that, in addition to Russia, Ukraine is a guarantor of a peaceful settlement to the conflict on the Dniester.

However, after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, the new government in Kiev expressed concern about the use of Transnistria as a platform for “separatist actions” in the Odessa region and moved to introduce administrative restrictions on the de facto border.

[The Ukrainian government has recently taken actions that raise questions about the status of this border. For example, Ukrainian customs posts located on the border of Ukraine and Transnistria have stopped allowing through goods processed by Transnistrian customs. In addition, on March 12, the Ukrainian border guard tightened controls over the passage of Russian citizens living in Transnistria. Several hundred Russian citizens, age 17 to 65, were refused entry into Ukraine without explanation. However, on March 19 the Ukrainian Embassy in Moldova issued a rebuttal, saying that the allegations were “aimed at destabilizing the situation in the region and at discrediting the role of Ukraine in the Transdniestrian settlement process.” – Editor’s note.]

Moscow, in turn, sees these actions as a “blockade” against the PMR and as an attempt to change the current format of the peace settlement (or at least make some major adjustments).

Second, the Moldovan-Transdniestrian conflict is the closest ethno-political confrontation in Eurasia to the borders of NATO and the EU.

Third, the public mood inside Transnistria after Crimea’s accession to Russia has strongly intensified. State authorities and ordinary citizens remember the referendum of September 2006, in which Transnistrians voted for independence and close integration with Russia. On April 16, 2014, the Supreme Council of the PMR appealed to both chambers of the Russian parliament and Vladimir Putin to initiate the process of state recognition of Transnistria.

Meanwhile, Russia's position on the issue since the very outset of the Ukrainian crisis has remained extremely balanced and cautious. Its basic outline was formulated in late March during a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Later, during the Russian leader’s annual televised call-in on April 17, Putin emphasized the inadmissibility of Ukraine’s effective blockade of Transnistria. He also underscored that he backs the current “5+2” negotiation format, which involves the two conflicting parties (Moldova and Transnistria), an intermediary (the OSCE), two observers (the U.S. and the EU), and two guarantors (Russia and Ukraine).

At the same time, Putin did not say a single word about accelerating the procedure to recognize the PMR along Abkhazian-South Ossetian lines. What are the reasons for that?

Today, many Western experts and politicians accuse Russia of revisionism in the post-Soviet space. Indeed, by annexing Crimea to the Russian Federation, Moscow has set a precedent for one part of a former Soviet republic to join part of another former Soviet republic.

But it is plain to see that the Kremlin has never applied the same yardstick to all ethno-political and territorial conflicts. Whereas Russia views Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and the PMR as a party to a conflict, in Nagorno-Karabakh it adheres to the principle of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. The unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic is not even considered a participant in the standoff between Baku and Yerevan.

Also worth noting is the fact that all of Moscow’s “revisionist steps” were only taken after the existing status quo was either violated or completely and transformed. That was the case in 2004-2008 in Transcaucasia. It happened again in February-March 2014 in Ukraine.

In the context of Moldovan-Transdniestrian dynamics, much remains vague and unclear. At the end of 2014, Moldova will hold parliamentary elections in which the ruling pro-European coalition will face off against the Communists. Although the Communist Party cannot be described as pro-Russian in the fullest sense of the word (suffice it to remember that Russia’s plan for peace and the federalization of Moldova in 2003 was shot down by the “red president” Vladimir Voronin), it opposes the “Romaniaphiles” and advocates the accelerated signing of an association agreement with the EU.

Interestingly, the initialing of this document in Vilnius provoked resentment in Gagauzia (an autonomous region of Moldova), where in February of this year a referendum favored joining the Customs Union.

This declaration of intent has been overshadowed by events in Ukraine and the revival of the Transnistrian question. But given certain circumstances, Gagauzia’s choice could be significant. In this situation, Moscow would be wise not to hurry.

It is also possible that the Moldovan Communist Party will be a major resource of Euroscepticism even without the patronage of the Kremlin.

Naturally, the Ukrainian situation will provide ample grounds for raising the Transdniestrian issue. It is difficult to image how events will pan out in the South and East.

Meanwhile, any aggravation of the situation in regions such as Odessa, Nikolaev, or Kherson could prompt Kiev to take hasty action against the PMR. But unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian Federation has no common border with Transnistria. This greatly complicates the room for maneuvering.

In this regard, Russia’s position looks more and more like that of an active observer, with no ability to take tough decisions that could alter the status quo. To date, all direct and unequivocal actions have created considerable side risks. It is by no means a fact that the multiplication of dangerous combinations is the Kremlin’s chief task, given the fraught relations between Russia and the West.

But at the same time, Moscow is trying to send an unambiguous signal that any attempt to change the situation on the Dniester through minimizing its interests or potentially squeezing it out of the peace process is unacceptable, as is any approach that ignores the position of Transnistria itself, which is a party to the conflict, not an object for external manipulation.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.