Tricky Question of Russian-Moldovan Relations

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Vladimir ROTAR
Moscow agreed to reconsider elimination of its ammunition in the Transdniestrian region. But is Chisinau ready this time to seriously tackle this issue?
Sudden and extremely rapid visit to Moldova paid yesterday by Deputy Head of Russian President Office Dmitry Kozak remains, perhaps, the main political news of this week in the republic. Yesterday, colleagues listed the priority topics, which, apparently, were discussed at the only Kozak’s meeting in the Moldovan capital attended by the Head of State Maia Sandu, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Policy and Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration, Nicu Popescu and Vlad Kulminsky. It’s remarkable that a few hours before the meeting, the Russian media published that Chisinau, among other things, is going to raise the topic of withdrawing the Russian army group from the territory of the left bank. As a result, this rather complicated and sensitive issue for Moscow was not brought up at least publicly. But, as expected, the politicians discussed trade and economic relations, the gas contract and the Transdniestrian settlement, as reported by Maia Sandu in her telegram channel. It is curious that Dmitry Kozak, speaking to the media, said that during his conversation with the president, the issue of disposing ammunition in Transdniestria was also discussed: “We were asked to assist in resolving the Transdniestrian issue and related disposal of ammunition. We are also interested in the disposal of this ammunition, which has expired and cannot be transported. We agreed on this interaction.” Maya Sandu expressed her desire to resume negotiations with Moscow on this issue at the end of last year, almost immediately after her victory in the elections, admitting that there are certain differences in the views of the two states. “I believe that there are chances to find a solution, because last year, when I headed the government, we started a dialogue on the disposal of ammunition... Placement of this ammunition on the territory of Moldova is very dangerous. Then Minister Shoigu expressed his willingness to discuss the issue of disposing ammunition or removing it”, Sandu said at the time. Indeed, in August 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, while in Moldova, unexpectedly proposed to begin the process of disposing ammunition at warehouses in Kolbasna. As you know, about 20 thousand tons of them are still stored there. Transdniestria "inherited" them from the Soviet 14th Army. This initiative quickly found support from the OSCE, and aroused a keen interest in the United States. Later, after negotiations between Nicu Popescu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the outlines of Moscow technical and organizational vision with regard to this process appeared. So, at the first stage, the parties were supposed to deal only with outdated arsenals with an expired shelf life (more than half of them), and the defense departments of the countries planned to sign an action plan for the entire list of accumulated military issues, including the supply of Russian peacekeepers on the left bank of the Dniester... The next step supposed to be drafting project documentation and identification of funding sources. The Kremlin also hoped that the weapons would be removed and disposed by Russian military specialists. Judging by the further developments, Chisinau actually was not ready for real progress in this issue. Although such an experience of interaction was already available, after all, in the early 2000s, almost 50% of weapons, equipment and ammunition were removed or destroyed. However, this time the leadership of the republic apparently did not like the Russian terms. It was followed by rather crude attempts to rewrite these terms. Moldova got busy to involve other external players in the process, primarily the West. The utilization was publicly tried to speed up, and, it seemed, without informing the Russian colleagues. For example, Nicu Popescu, a couple of months after vist of Shoigu, said that the ammunition would be transited through Ukraine to Russia “in the near future”, and this was allegedly agreed with all EU countries, despite the fact that by that time there was no real progress, and Moscow hoped to arrange the process on the spot, emphasizing that this was not a quick, but also hard work (requiring the delivery of necessary equipment, contracting, recruiting of specialists, etc.) which will take at least a year. In addition, Sergei Lavrov then hinted at a direct correlation between destroying ammunition depots with the success of the Transdniestrian settlement, recalling that the last time the export of weapons from Kolbasna stopped precisely because of the aggravation of relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau. At the same time, the negotiation process with the left bank had already reached an impasse by the fall of 2019, being generally in standstill to this day. Therefore, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the dialogue that had begun was quickly curtailed and frozen until yesterday. Addressing the need to close the issue as soon as possible, Chisinau usually points to the risks associated with the environment and security. However, it seems that the key motive here is still the intention to achieve the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Transdniestrian region, and the protection of warehouses is one of the main reasons for staying there. Kozak's visit and the tone of the subsequent meetings and statements indicate that Moscow, despite the results of the last electoral cycles, is ready to “listen” and “hear” Chisinau on many issues, including the elimination of ammunition. Nevertheless, it should be understood that Russia's position regarding the arrangement of this process has hardly undergone significant changes over the past two years. It is safe to say that the Kremlin continues to keep in mind the independent administration of the project without involving “outsiders” such as the United States, the EU and any other actors (perhaps, partially except for the OSCE), and will also look at progress in normalizing relations between the two banks. Therefore, without a doubt, the rough attempts to “bend Moscow” back in 2019 will bring no success. As Kozak said yesterday, Moscow will not give any gifts. And even though it was about gas, I think this approach will be applied in other areas of cooperation as well. So, if the new republic leadership really wants to solve this long-standing case, then it is necessary to act intelligently, accurately and pragmatically, gradually finding compromise solutions, and not unilaterally “overturning the negotiating table.” Perhaps, in this case, the parties will be able to come to a certain draft agreement already by a hypothetical meeting between Maia Sandu and Vladimir Putin. The main thing is to understand that Russia has its own interests in this matter, and if Chisinau is ready to take them into account, Russian-Moldovan relations in general, and the issue of eliminating ammunition in Transdniestria in particular, have good prospects.