Moldova and Ukraine are still enjoying the “honeymoon” of their relationship, but contradictions and mutual discontent will be increasing – in addition to discord in environmental issues, Transdniestria may become one of the “bones of contention”
The internal political struggle in Ukraine is intensifying day by day. By the mid-term of the presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky, his personal rating has noticeably sunk, which is due to the continuing decline in living standards and personnel reshuffling in the cabinet of ministers and the party structure “Servant of the People”. And even though Zelensky holds power more or less confidently, the chances of his re-election without tangible success are as vague as possible.
An additional intensification of political passions was caused by the return from Warsaw of the fifth president of Ukraine and concurrently one of Volodymyr Zelensky’s main rivals, Petro Poroshenko, who was persecuted by the local State Bureau of Investigation on charges of treason when concluding contracts for coal supplies. The oligarchic clans behind the current head of state are realistic about Poroshenko’s electoral potential and the mobilization readiness of his supporters. If he cannot be legally charged, discredited and imprisoned, then 2024 may be the year of an unexpected revenge. In the end, Volodymyr Zelensky did not fulfill too many of his election promises and, most importantly, failed to stop the war in the Donbas.
On the contrary, in recent years Russia has made a number of decisions, including at the legislative level, which have further involved the population of the self-proclaimed republics of eastern Ukraine in the area of Russian influence. Remaining generally poor and depressed, the region is being rapidly Russified and transformed into a fortified area or even a training ground for Russia’s further steps to ensure its national security. Along with military maneuvers near the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Ukraine borders, the situation around Donbass hardly indicates an early settlement through negotiations.
Clearly, in the current domestic political circumstances, the office of the Ukrainian President benefits from escalation over Russia’s military preparations in the Donbass region, since any external threat, even a very hypothetical one, consolidates the population around the current government. Especially when respectable European states and reputable international organizations are absolutely serious about it, discussing every detail and consequence of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine in unison.
At the same time, it is simply impossible to support mobilization until 2024, even purely for psycho-emotional reasons. As people in Donbass and “anti-terrorist operation” participants feel daily fighting as routine, so the massive presence of Russian armed forces at the Ukrainian borders will soon be perceived by the majority of the population with complete indifference.
Of course, Russia-initiated consultations with the United States, NATO and the OSCE on security guarantees fuel the international community’s interest in Ukraine, and the statements of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who admits the possibility of Ukraine joining the alliance, are encouraging for the political elite and certain segments of the population. However, these talks are in general ambiguous and implies many risks both for security and the political and economic model of modern Ukraine. There are no grounds for asserting that Kiev is approaching its goals, that the United States is guided solely by Ukrainian interests, or that Russia will be ready to “surrender Donbass”. Moreover, Kiev, despite the persistence of Ukrainian diplomacy and stronger positions of the greens in German politics, is objectively losing the fight over the launch of the Nord Stream -2, which is damaging to Ukraine’s transit status. Therefore, this foreign policy contour won’t be able to guarantee people’s substantial long-term support for Vladimir Zelensky’s course.
More tangible and measurable successes are needed that can be easily sold to the domestic audience in exchange for votes in the presidential elections. Therefore, the President’s Office is actively seeking relatively painless areas to endeavor. Based on the insight that the internal political and economic woes cannot be solved without an adequate reconciliation and education policy, as well as a radical reduction in oligarchic rents, Vladimir Zelensky’s team is looking for options to boost their rating on the external perimeter.
In this regard, the pro-Russian Transdniestria, where Ukrainian political, intelligence, trade, economic and cultural positions are quite strong, seems to be the best option. It’s not that hard to convince the internal public of the much exaggerated threat posed by the separatist enclave and the Russian troops stationed there.
It is in this context that the reports in the Ukrainian media on the alleged sabotage activities of immigrants from Pridnestrovie in the Odessa region should be perceived. The publication of articles describing in detail Transdniestria’s military potential, obviously based on the information available to Ukrainian intelligence, fits into the same logic. Calculations are exaggerated exactly when there is need to substantiate the reality of the military threat allegedly emanating from Transdniestria.
Only after a convincing enemy image is created, you can start fighting him, including by non-military methods. For example, by banning bank transactions, restricting trade and economic ties, or refusing to allow the Transdniestrian-plated cars enter Ukraine. Such measures increase tensions – yet, at all events Chisinau plays a key role in any Ukrainian setup.
Kiev’s plan suggests that it is Moldova that should take the initiative into its own hands and use the set of opportunities and tools, which it received from Ukraine and Western partners, to get back the region, have the Russian troops withdrawn and weapons removed. This would allow the Ukrainian president to tell the population about the colossal foreign policy success and its possible extrapolation to the territory of Donbass, and, more globally, to the final removal of the Russian threat from the western direction.
Another thing is that Chisinau is not particularly up to this task so far. Apparently, Maia Sandu and the Gavrilita-led government still don’t fully understand what to do with this conflict and, being focused on more pressing problems, primarily in the energy sector, are not willing to get involved in serious negotiations. Delays in appointing a vice prime minister for reintegration is a vivid proof. The country’s leadership has chosen to temporarily abandon the process and fully rely on Bucharest’s recommendations, which somewhat unravels Ukrainian ambitious plans.
It is unclear how long Kiev will tolerate its allies’ inaction. But the point is also that political negotiations on the Transdniestrian issue may develop unpredictably and have unexpected consequences. The final role model may not suit Kiev in relation to the Donbass. If it were not for the internal political need to have an enemy that Ukraine can handle, the Ukrainian diplomacy would rather prefer not “to stir the waters”. But, most likely, tough electoral factors outweigh foreign policy pragmatism. Where persistent invasion of the Transdniestrian issue will take Kiev is still hard to predict.