The Russian demand for Ukraine’s recognition of territorial losses in Crimea and Donbas is key to ending our eastern neighbor’s conflict. What risks and opportunities appear before Moldova in such a likely scenario?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for almost three weeks. Despite the destruction of a huge number of military facilities, as well as heavy losses in equipment and personnel, the Ukrainian army is fiercely resisting. A persistent echeloned defense of large cities has been organized, including Mariupol, an industrially developed port city on the Azov Sea, located in the zone of territorial claims of the so-called “DPR”.
Meanwhile Moldova maintains military neutrality, which it brings up at every opportunity, emphasizing that the issue of joining NATO is also not being considered. The authorities are particularly cautious about the developments in the Security Zone, narrow down criticism of the peacekeeping mission and avoiding violations in the activities of the control commission. Chisinau is trying to maintain even security relations with Russia, and it seems that the latter is completely satisfied with this in light of the lack of intention to open a “second front”.
At the same time, Moldova actively accepts refugees and provides Ukraine with information and diplomatic support, despite the specific pro-Russian nature of public sentiment, often expressed by citizens in public.
The Russian offensive is advancing moderately, which creates uncertainty that allows Ukraine to refuse to surrender, especially given the multidirectional assistance from a number of countries, such as weapons, mercenaries, equipment and anti-Russian sanctions, which, by the way, Moldova wisely refused to join.
The negotiation process between the delegations of Russia and Ukraine, which began with face-to-face meetings in Belarus, has not yet produced particular results or even detente. The situation has not been impacted by the contacts of the foreign ministers in Antalya on March 10, nor the transition to constant online communication, nor the encouraging statements of individual members of the Russian and Ukrainian delegations. Yesterday’s negotiation round eventually failed, and at night Kharkiv, Kyiv and Avdiivka came under intense artillery shelling.
Kyiv continues to insist on organizing a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky and until that moment is not going to discuss anything other than humanitarian corridors, temporary suspension of hostilities and withdrawal of troops, which is obviously not good enough for Moscow in any way.
The AFU missile strike at the center of Donetsk at the beginning of the next round of negotiations additionally created the impression of Ukraine’s disinterest in reaching an agreement at the current stage. The air defense in Kyiv also shot down shells over the center of the Ukrainian capital. The belligerents continue to raise the stakes and demonstrate both their military capacity and their willingness to fight to the bitter end. In these circumstances, the chances of diplomatic success seem minimal, and the negotiations alone are useless.
Meanwhile, as a result of clearly non-random leaks, some of the requirements imposed by Moscow have gone public. And that’s where a key topic arises for Chisinau, which is already experiencing enormous difficulties due to the crisis in the neighboring country – the influx of refugees, problems with law enforcement and public security, as well as with the supply of goods and transportation. Shortages are expected in some product categories, prices for goods, including fuel, and services are rising, transport companies are incurring losses, and public sentiment is being polarized. No less serious long-term risks in the Transnistrian issue may arise along the road.
After all, one of the key points of a possible cessation of hostilities in Ukraine is its hypothetical agreement with Russian sovereignty over Crimea, as well as recognition of the independence of the “LDPR” in the regions’ former borders. Ukraine is not ready to make such concessions yet, but Moscow will not give up either – according to published information, during yesterday’s negotiations, Russia threatened Ukraine with the loss of all southern regions.
The position of our authorities seems ambiguous. It is quite obvious that the administration and the team of President Maia Sandu are on the Ukrainian side, and Moldova would be satisfied with a complete victory of the AFU and the defeat of Russian units. However, this scenario can hardly be considered realistic.
The fulfillment of Moscow’s demands and the cessation/suspension of hostilities seems more likely. Or, on the contrary, strengthening the attack and activating military operations in all directions in case of Kiev’s intractability.
The first option involves the recognition of Donbass “republics” by Ukraine. Theoretical recognition of the separatist region’s former capital is an exceptional case in current practice. Although Serbia agreed 15 years ago to release Montenegro, which joined NATO in 2017, the same Serbia did not do this with respect to Kosovo. Not to mention Georgia, which does not de facto recognize the loss of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The new reality in Ukraine’s relations with the “LDPR” will certainly affect the political resolution of the Transdniestrian conflict, becoming a precedent for separation. With the Russian factor in the Transdniestrian settlement multiplied, we may face a situation of very limited choice – either to agree to Tiraspol’s maximum requirements of for the reintegration of the country, or to let the region float freely.
The second Ukrainian scenario may bring about a full-fledged functional corridor from Russia to Transdniestria. The day before yesterday, Russia has already secured a land corridor through Ukraine from Donetsk to Crimea. At least, the offensive announced yesterday in the south – on Mykolaiv and Odessa – may suggest the possibility of a breakthrough up to Transdniestria.
In this scenario, it is impossible to rule out the reanimation of the 2006 referendum topic, according to the results of which the residents of the left bank spoke in favor of “independence and free accession to Russia”. Tiraspol’s negotiating positions will be significantly strengthened due to the potential revision of restrictions by Ukraine on the entry of cars with Pridnestrovian license plates, the inability to ensure the presence of Moldovan customs officers in Cuciurgan and through the removal of previously introduced special customs and economic regimes. Moldova will not be able to filter the entry and exit from the region of both local officials and various Russian and other international representatives.
The impact of the scenario with the continuation of the military campaign on the Transdniestrian settlement may turn out to be even more radical and unpredictable, and, in the end, Tiraspol’s motivation to negotiate amicably will be minimal. In addition, both banks are now suffering extreme economic damage on a daily basis, which only reduces the potential for a subsequent conflict resolution.