Moldova, together with its Western partners, keeps discussing the issue of withdrawal of ammunition from Russian depots in Transdniestria. The goal is to create conditions for the removal of the Operational Group of Russian Troops, which mission in the region is to safeguard these warehouses.
At the end of last week Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process Franco Frattini arrived in Moldova. In the Moldovan capital he met with Deputy PM for Reintegration, Cristina Lesnic. It is interesting that among the usual topics of the negotiation process, the Moldovan official focused on the problem of Russian arsenals in Cobasna in unrecognized Transdniestria. Lesnic complained to the OSCE representative that Chisinau still does not have full information about the ammunition in these warehouses, which, in her opinion, are a “serious threat to the population”.
“Both national and regional security is of particular importance for us. Russian military ammunition depots are located near the Ukrainian border. We have had no clear record of what ammunition and how much is stored in these warehouses. These ammunition and weapons may cause a crisis situation,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.
The issue with the arsenal in Cobasna has a long history. Since Soviet times there were tens of thousands of tons of ammunition, and since then only half of them has been disposed. Moldova from time to time expressed a desire to somehow ‘remove’ Russian weapons from unrecognized Transdniestria, but now this topic has been regularly raised at the highest level.
Speaking about the background of such close attention, it is easy to notice that the issue with the warehouses in the ‘TMR’ is directly related to the Operational Group of Russian troops (OGRT) located there. It has long caused obvious discontent of Chisinau, which a couple of years ago, through the Constitutional Court, even declared illegal its presence on the territory of Moldova. The reason for such an active promotion of this issue becomes clear given that the main function of the OGRT, along with the support of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, is safeguarding of warehouses in Cobasna. However, against the background of the protracted internal political crisis in Moldova, the current ‘interim’ government deliberately ramps up the issue, trying to divert the attention of the international community from the political agenda and extremely unpleasant for Chisinau issues of democracy and transparency of the existing political and legal system of the state. On the other hand, the pro-Western Democrats’ government is playing its old sure-fire card, attacking Moscow hopping to get Washington’s approval signals.
For this purpose, the political representative of Moldova in the negotiations with Transdniestria is flogging a dead horse, dragging in the issue of the Russian warehouses to the issues on the agenda of the negotiation process with Transdniestria, which Moscow and Tiraspol have actively opposed for many years.
Preparing for the big deal?
Under the pretext of a political crisis, the Moldovan side has not actually been negotiating with Tiraspol for six months, as international representatives, including Frattini, say. Such a vacuum seems to be deliberately created in order to make the calls about a “Russian military threat” even louder against this background.
There is a reason to believe that the information hype around the ammunition depots in Cobasna is also an echo of the behind-the-scenes study of the possibility of the so-called Big Deal between the United States and Russia, which has long been talked about among many political analysts. It is obvious that before the final bargaining, each side is trying to solidify its positions and gain more trump cards for the upcoming negotiations. For example, the US and NATO have taken a number of measures to build up their military forces in the region.
Recently alone, the North Atlantic Alliance has additionally deployed hundreds of soldiers and more than ten F-16s from Fort Worth, Texas to Romania. Moreover, the objectives of the redeployment were directly stated to be “strengthening of defense in the Eastern zone of NATO” and preventing of “possible aggression of Russia”. In the summer, the US plans to deploy the anti-missile defense system THAAD in Romania that has already caused a negative reaction from the Kremlin. Moldova is preparing to host large-scale artillery exercises Fire Shield 2019 almost on the border with Transdniestria. The military training will involve the Moldovan military, as well as their American and Romanian ‘colleagues’.
Together with the increase in its own military group, Washington is preparing the ground for removal and possible disposal of ammunition from the arsenals in Cobasna. The US and Germany have already invested millions of euros in the improvement of ammunition depots in Moldovan Floresti. It is interesting that as part of the modernization, not only equipment and infrastructure were improved and new storage facilities were built, but also armored trucks for the transportation of ammunition were purchased.
Inflaming of the topic of removal of Russian weapons from the Transdniestrian region is accompanied by an active media campaign, statements by various Moldovan officials and Western diplomats add fuel to the fire. They are increasingly speaking about the environmental and security risks posed by the ammunition warehouses in Cobasna, as well as the threat they pose to residents of the nearby settlements of Moldova, Ukraine and Transdniestria itself.
Chisinau’s active attempts to promote the topic of Russian warehouses in the current agenda of the Transdniestrian settlement are a wake-up call for Moscow. They can mark a new round of discussion of this long-standing issue with increasing pressure on Russia from both the US and NATO, and the European Union with the OSCE. The latter, through the already mentioned Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, has already supported the position of Chisinau on the need to conduct an inspection to the storage facilities in Cobasna. Despite having no powers, Frattini even promised to organize a visit there of mediators and observers in the negotiations on Transdniestria.
Russia’s consent to the international inspection of warehouses in one form or another will signal its readiness to engage in a dialogue with Washington, which has long been patronizing the current authorities of Moldova. The refusal will mean Moscow’s disagreement with the American rules of the ‘game’, which means that we can expect counterarguments to the increased activity of the US and NATO in the region.
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