Military Provocation in Transdniestria: Who Stands to Gain from Aggravation?

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The reactivation of the Transdniestria conflict builds up day by day. It is already possible to identify the interests of main actors and vulnerabilities in the current security architecture
The escalation of tension in the Black Sea region is gradually reaching its peak. The epicenter of events has again shifted to Ukraine, where the hype about an “imminent Russian attack” has not subsided in recent weeks, fueled primarily by Washington, and more recently by Kiev. Now the neighboring country is seriously considering the scale and strategy of a hypothetical attack, of course, while not overlooking Moldova. There is a growing opinion that from our side, namely the left bank, not controlled by the authorities, where a group of Russian troops is stationed, one of the strikes of the Russian Federation will also follow. It’s noteworthy that Ukraine has definitely an objective opinion that no attack from Transdniestria is possible. Ukrainian observers have been participating in a peacekeeping operation in the region for more than 20 years. Given the juxtaposition with the left bank of the Dniester and the free activity of numerous pro-Ukrainian organizations there, Kiev has a sufficient amount of military and intelligence data about the situation and plans of the armed forces stationed in Transdniestria - the local army and the operational grouping of Russian troops, which also almost entirely consists of the left-bank residents. In Tiraspol itself, there is also a clear understanding that any aggressive move might be fatal for it, since this will untie Chisinau’s hands for the forceful suppression of separatism on the Dniester. And in principle, the population of Transdniestria, which includes a huge number of citizens of Ukraine and Moldova, will never support such an adventure. Especially as the tiny mobilization potential of an unrecognized entity is clearly insufficient to threaten Ukraine like an adult. Similarly, the political elite of the region will oppose this, since it has a serious business on the territory of Ukraine and therefore is aware that any reactivation will trigger a regrouping of not only forces and resources, but also assets and capital, which clearly will not benefit the long-term commercial interests of Tiraspol. However, Kiev continues to promote the topic of the Russian threat emanating from Transdniestria. Moreover, not only rhetorically, but also practically. Last week, the Odessa region witnessed exercises of the Ukrainian “marines” who, according to the legend, repelled Russian aggression by setting up an ambush and subsequently dislodging the sabotage groups of an alleged enemy from the administrative buildings which they occupied. The only rationale for the reasons for such maneuvers is that certain forces in Ukraine itself are interested in provoking tensions in order to divert attention from internal problems. Transdniestria can serve one of the tools to that end, since its population is loyal to Russia and therefore automatically becomes an easy target for the Ukrainian media to promote the image of an enemy and potential aggressor. But there are certain circles in Ukraine that are ready to use the phantom Transdniestrian threat not only in theory, but also in practice. A local manageable conflict, with truly limited hostilities and controlled damage to the population and critical infrastructure, is also considered as one of the possible scenarios for solving problems to promote the interests of the Western community, primarily the United States, in the region. John Bolton, an adviser to ex-President Donald Trump, is quite explicit about this in his publicistic insights featuring his urge to forcefully close the issue of Transdniestria – “an artificial entity entirely dependent politically on Russia”. John Bolton’s words were supported by concrete actions of the previous administration of the American president, whose strategy is generally continued by Joe Biden’s office. For example, during Donald Trump’s presidency, a position of a permanent military adviser from the United States opened up at our Ministry of Defense. The NATO Cyber Incident Response Center, conceived back by the previous administration, was recently launched. Military exercises continue on the territory of Moldova and Ukraine. Given the available serious military infrastructure created earlier by the United States and NATO in Moldova, and legislative norms defining Russian and Transdniestrian military and paramilitary formations as the main threat to Moldova’s security, the probability of aggravation on the Dniester increases many-fold. After all, it is not for nothing that the United States sent military aircraft with weapons to the airport of Chisinau and is actively arming Ukraine with lethal weapons. Let’s not forget the nature of John Bolton’s forecasts, which in most cases are by no means idle speculation, but a very concrete publication of plans and possible scenarios for further developments. It was this “new sincerity” that helped him gain a stable position in the establishment. If we talk about interests, then Ukraine’s position’s clear and is described above. It needs the reactivation of the Transdniestrian issue for domestic political purposes, including for additional discrediting of pro-Russian parties and politicians allegedly supporting separatist tendencies provoked by Russia. Besides, Ukraine is not a sufficiently independent actor being frequently constrained by the Washington-elaborated and imposed strategy. The United States conventionally uses the tactics of controlled chaos as the aggravation in Eastern Europe does not pose any military or political threats for the United States. Post-conflict administration can always be outsourced to the parties and the European Union themselves, along with the costs. But reviving the topic of the Russian threat may distract attention from the confrontation in the Indo-Pacific region, where Joe Biden is still hesitant to finally tangle with China. In addition, there’s always the strategic task of discrediting and eliminating the Russian military-political presence in the region. This focus even appears in every press release of the US State Department and in public speeches by President Maia Sandu written so similarly, as if they have a common speechwriter. The most effective way to implement the escalation scenario is provocation, and Russian warehouses of equipment and weapons in the north of Transdniestria can predictably become the target. Any man-made disaster, even unintentional, will instantly raise the issue of the liquidation of warehouses and subsequently the disbandment of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transdniestria. In turn, without the latter, problems may arise with the activities of the Russian peacekeeping force, which will allow us to raise the question of transforming the current mission into a civilian or police mission with an international mandate. The number of non-military methods of countering such a threat from the Russian side is limited, since the “5+2” format does not work, plus during Poland’s chairmanship in the OSCE in 2022, Moscow is unlikely to find reliable partners there. But the Kremlin will not be able to refuse to protect its own interests in the Transdniestrian region, since the loss of positions in Moldova will provoke increased pressure on Belarus, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In this sense, Russia will try in every possible way to avoid a crisis scenario, not allowing provocative actions, no matter who initiated them. However, the “evil plan is simple”, so it’s our authorities who have the casting vote here. If Chisinau gives Kiev and its overseas partners a clear signal of disinterest in the crisis, this position may still be taken into account. The problem is that the current government is neither independent nor competent to make such decisions reasonably and realize the long-term interests of the country objectively. This is confirmed by a whole series of mistakes that have already been made, which not only reduce the population’s standard of living, but also paralyze the members of the government, who are increasingly afraid to take responsibility and prefer to blindly trust foreign consultants. And what pieces of advice might follow is easy to predict after reading, for instance, Bolton’s article.