What Are the Threats of Ukraine’s Withdrawal from the Dniester Peacekeeping Operation for Moldova?

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On March 7, Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree recalling Ukrainian peacekeepers involved in missions abroad. Despite the minimal impact of this decision on Ukraine’s defense capabilities, it will have far-reaching consequences for Moldova.
Three days ago, Volodymyr Zelensky’s decree recalled 324 Ukrainian peacekeepers from various regions of the world in order to “protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” The absolute majority of them participated in United Nations missions in African countries, as well as in the UN and NATO operations in Kosovo. Among other things, Zelensky’s decree provides for the withdrawal of the Ukrainian contingent of ten military observers from Moldova who have been working in the Security Zone (on the line of contact between Moldova and Transdniestria) without interruptions since 1998. Their appearance in the Transdniestrian region is based on a joint appeal in 1995 by the leaders of the parties to the conflict, Mircea Snegur and Igor Smirnov, to the then President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma. Kyiv was also invited to become a guarantor of the agreement on the maintenance of peace and security guarantees between the Republic of Moldova and Transdniestria. Kuchma eventually appointed his representative in the Joint Control Commission, the peacekeeping operation’s governing body, and Ukraine was actively engaged in the conflict settlement, providing corridors to enable supplies for the Russian peacekeepers, export of Russian military equipment and withdrawal of troops. In 1998, an agreement was reached in Odessa on confidence-building measures and promoting Moldova-Transdniestria contacts which envisaged a reduction in peacekeeping contingents and lower number of peacekeeping and border posts in the Security Zone. In a joint statement, the President of Ukraine and the Prime Minister of Russia demanded to step up the settlement by “elaborating concrete measures to restore the common economic, social and legal space, to enable delimitation and delegation of powers as an integral part of the future status, to increase mutual trust and create a system of guarantees”. In the autumn of 1998, under the JCC decision, military observers from Ukraine took up their functions in the Security Zone. However, the Russian-Ukrainian coordination did not last long and was rather occasional. For example, it was given a boost by Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Viktor Yanukovych who stated in 2010 the need “to solve the Transdniestrian problem exclusively by peaceful political means through an equitable dialogue in order to determine the special reliably guaranteed status of Transdniestria based on respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova.” The joint statement stressed the important stabilizing role of the peacekeeping operation in the region and the need for a “constructive interaction” of all its components. Meanwhile, since 2014, Ukraine has grown noticeably weary of its own participation in the peacekeeping process. This was directly due to the ambivalent situation with the need to serve together with the Russian military amid Ukraine accusing Russia of occupying Crimea and Donbass. Ukraine’s blocking of military transit since 2015, demands for the unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Transdniestria and elimination of weapons depots in Cobasna, the ban to cross the border of Ukraine by Russian citizens did not fully correlate with the daily activities of the Ukrainian military observers connected with the monitoring of the situation in the Security Zone. The situation became even more complicated after Russia announcing the start of the so-called “special military operation” on February 24 this year. From the same moment, the military observers of Ukraine stopped performing their tasks. In this sense, Volodymyr Zelensky’s decree arrived in time, since there’s no need to explain the termination of Ukraine’s participation in the peacekeeping mission on the Dniester. Now it is obvious – this is the order of the Ukrainian Supreme Commander. In addition, from the very start of hostilities, the Ukrainian General Staff and the media are trying to drag Transdniestria into the conflict. The border with the rebellious region is blocked, representatives of the border authorities have been replaced by National Guard soldiers at all checkpoints. At the railway crossing in the Cuciurgan area, a bridge was blown up on the second attempt. The rumor has it that Kyiv’s planning to completely block all roads and blow up bridges connecting the Odessa region with the Transdniestrian region. In recent weeks, accusations have been made against the left bank of using military aircraft in Ukrainian airspace, of rocket and bomb attacks on the territory of Vinnytsia, neighboring with the north of Transdniestria, of the mobilization of eight hundred people for the war in Ukraine. All these fakes were refuted by the Ministry of Defense and local authorities. It is clearly quite problematic to involve Transdniestria in the conflict or even seriously talk about its threats, while your own servicemen work there safely every day. Any signs of military preparations would theoretically have to be immediately detected by a team of Ukrainian military observers, which would lead to the refutation of “concerns” replicated by the Ukrainian General Staff. Perhaps that is why Ukraine’s participation in the peacekeeping mission, at least, has been put on pause, and what will happen next is unclear. Now the question arises about how exactly to continue the peacekeeping operation on the Dniester without the participation of Kyiv’s representatives. This problem is probably being discussed at the JCC level. However, Ukraine’s involvement is not vital, the format of its participation has always been truncated both in terms of the powers of its representatives and the number of military observers in the absence of a full-fledged peacekeeping contingent. On the other hand, Kyiv’s refusal to participate in the settlement of the Transdniestrian security problem may affect the political component in the future, for example, Ukraine’s activities in the 5+2 format. The question of Kyiv’s participation in the resolution of the conflict is likely to be raised in the very near future, which may weaken the possibilities and negotiating positions of Moldova. After all, it is the very loyal attitude of Kyiv that has allowed Chisinau in recent years to put pressure on Tiraspol quite effectively and slowly regain control both over the border with Ukraine in the Transdniestrian section and over the region’s economic activity.