Bluffing or Provocation? Why Threaten Transdniestria with Donbas

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On October 31, Viktor Muzhenko, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, met with his Moldovan counterpart, Igor Cutie. Muzhenko and the commander-in-chief of the Moldovan army discussed defense and security cooperation. The website of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reads that “a separate item on the agenda of the meeting was interaction issues in the event of an aggravation of the security situation in Transdniestria”.

Later in the evening Muzhenko wrote on his Twitter about the “aggravation of the situation in Transdniestria”. The journalists appreciated the Odesa meeting of the commanders of the armies of Moldova and Ukraine unequivocally – “Transdniestria can become a new Donbas”.

A hint of war is always scary. In the realities of 2018, it should be remembered that saber-rattling is a ritual that does not always mean a desire to fight.

What really happened

About the meeting in Odesa is known only what the press service of the Ministry of Defense and Muzhenko’s Twitter posts reported. The ministry’s website posted photos of the meeting and a video: cut short stories about how the commanders-in-chief of Ukraine and Moldova walk on the parade ground, greet and discuss something in the office. On Twitter, Muzhenko’s post about the meeting has 4 comments – one of the users, OleksandrPalchenko, argues that the cap of the commander in chief is “just a shame”. The meeting of two military men would have remained uninteresting formality for all, if not the phrase about “a possible aggravation of the situation in Transdniestria”. Actually, the hype around the meeting was provoked by one protocol sentence from the website of the Ministry of Defense, and all the other horrific interpretations are down to journalists. They can, however, be understood. It has long been customary to draw analogies between conflicts in Transdniestria and the east of Ukraine. Someone thinks that Kyiv follows in the footsteps of Chisinau in its not too successful attempt to resolve the conflict by force in 1992. Someone predicts the so-called “Transdniestriation” of Donbas and further “freezing” of the situation in limbo. Someone is certain that both conflicts were provoked by the Russian intelligence services. In 2015, the situation around Transdniestria became extremely tense. Kyiv declared the unrecognized republic a threat, because a group of Russian troops and warehouses of Soviet ammunition are located on its territory. Then Ukraine pulled the troops to the borders of Transdniestria, and the authorities of Tiraspol began to seriously prepare for defense. In the end, everything worked out, but the prospect of a new war on the Dniester was real. Since then, Russian troops and 20,000 tons of ammunition have also been located in Transdniestria, which is why Kyiv from time to time reminds about the Transdniestria threat, and the patriotic media resources of Ukraine and Russia willingly quote these statements. But oversimplifying the situation is also dangerous – after all, it was not the journalists who created the crisis of 2015, when everybody spoke about the new war in Transdniestria.

Bluffing or provocation?

Muzhenko and Cutie undoubtedly discussed Transdniestria, and certainly did not do this for the first time. It is difficult to imagine that consultations between the defense ministries bypass the unresolved conflict in the border area. Chisinau and Kyiv discuss the Transdniestrian problem in various forms at all levels. Most recently, the Prime Ministers of Moldova and Ukraine, Pavel Filip and Groysman, spoke about the status of Transdniestria, and even earlier – the heads of foreign ministries. Therefore, the meeting in Odessa is a new link in a single chain of events. It is appropriate to recall that since 2014, Muzhenko has been leading the Kyiv’s anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, he said that units of the regular army of the Russian Federation were fighting in the Donbas. Russia opened several criminal cases against Muzhenko on suspicion of using prohibited methods of warfare and genocide. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine is subjected to sanctions in Russia since November 1. Simply put, Muzhenko has the reputation of a war criminal in Russia. Therefore, the very fact that he is discussing with the Moldovan military a possible aggravation in Transdniestria is a provocative step, which the Defense Ministry’s press service has diligently outlined in a separate line. Apparently, Kyiv is trying not only to maintain, but also to increase the degree of constant tension in relations with Moscow on the eve of future changes in the regional space, which becom more likely. Experts predict the forthcoming agreement between the United States and Russia, known as the “big deal”. At the same time, many analysts are confident that the subject of the future gentleman’s agreement may be mutual concessions on the conflict regions – Syria, Donbas and Transdniestria. Kyiv clearly understands that they are unlikely to be able to influence the content of this agreement and, moreover, sabotage its implementation. So, saber-rattling is perhaps the only way to raise the bar for Ukraine’s demands on the allies represented by the United States and NATO on the eve of big bargaining. Hardly anyone in Kyiv wants to fight with the regular troops of Russia in Transdniestria, and then with Russia itself. The experience of Georgia in 2008 showed that Moscow can and will respond proportionately. However, the current leadership of Ukraine finds it important to seem explosive, unpredictable and ready to ‘fight to the end’ in spite of common sense. Kyiv expects that this will force the participants of the “big deal” to take into account Ukrainian interestsat least somehow. When Transdniestria is threatened with repetition of the fate of Donbass, this is a provocation and a bluff at the same time. However, even the assumed “pre-election” inflation of the situation on the part of Chisinau and Kyiv adds tension and can bring the situation out of control with a certain sequence of actions. As the well-known saying goes, if even a gun hanging on a wall shoots, then a gun that is defiantly waved can shoot with even greater probability. With regard to the current situation, it is obvious that the long-term revanchist sentiments in Moldova have fallen on the fertile soil of Ukrainian militarism. Therefore, the main question is whether their ‘senior’ development partners represented by the US and the EU will allow the Moldovans and Ukrainians to cross the red line only because the regimes in these republics want to maintain power at any cost during the fateful elections in February and March 2019. A certain military provocation may really be considered as a method of holding power in critical situations. Meanwhile, an analysis of regional trends shows that to preserve these regimes is not included in the plans of Washington and Brussels, and even more so at the cost of unleashing a new war in Europe with completely unpredictable consequences that are guaranteed to affect all world players involved.