Is the Fate of Southern Bessarabia Going to Change?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The region, which is an issue of long-standing territorial disputes between Ukraine and Romania/Moldova, could become an important strategic point in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict
Amid the actual failure of diplomatic efforts, the military conflict between Ukraine and Russia is taking on the outlines of a tough positional confrontation and a protracted war of attrition. Russian forces keep launching missile strikes against Ukrainian strategic facilities almost daily, amplifying the infrastructural and logistical disintegration of the Kyiv-controlled Ukrainian regions. In April we observed how the Kremlin was gradually changing its tactical goals in Ukraine due to the failed first phase of the military invasion which seemingly sought to quickly force to surrender. Presently, according to military experts, Moscow’s main efforts will be focused on seizing the southeastern regions of Ukraine. At the same time, it appears that Russia is not giving up on its strategic goals which include the complete military and political defeat of the Ukrainian state and prompting the United States to enter into negotiations to define spheres of influence. In addition, experts have recently noted a significant increase in the risks of spillover from the armed conflict, meaning it might go beyond the territory of Ukraine and involve several Russian regions and other countries, including Moldova, in active hostilities. The last weeks have witnessed a growing intensity of sabotage operations conducted by the Ukrainian military in the border regions of Russia, as well as a gradual aggravation of the situation on the left bank of the Dniester. It is natural that under such conditions the countries bordering Ukraine are already estimating the full extent of military and political risks that the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian confrontation entails. One of the worst scenarios, possible in the event of Kyiv’s complete defeat, suggests that Russian armed forces can closely approach the eastern borders of the European Union and NATO. It is no coincidence that for several weeks now the press and Telegram channels have been actively debating the formation of a coalition strike group from among Eastern European states. Its main task will be to implement preventive military measures to create a protective buffer, first of all at the expense of the territory of Ukraine’s western regions. Moscow publicly cites its intelligence that the Polish Armed Forces are seriously considering sending a national contingent to Ukraine after the idea to set up a NATO peacekeeping mission failed to find the necessary support among the alliance members. Another notable fact is Poland and Romania’s announcement late April to hold military exercises as part of measures to strengthen the security of NATO’s eastern flank. Such developments suggest that alongside the creation of a strike force, the process of forming a common arc of resistance to a possible Russian invasion, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, is underway. It should be understood that complete control of the Baltic-Black Sea line is one of the key factors in the strategic advantage over Russia. If Kyiv had taken the threat seriously and hadn’t ignored the warnings of a possible Russian invasion, neighboring countries would have helped preempt the Kremlin’s actions and repel the offensive on certain areas of the same northern Black Sea region, which is of great military and historical significance not only to Ukraine. In this sense, we can recall a banner outside the Ukrainian embassy in Chisinau at the end of April reading “Ukraine, when will you return the Romanian territories?”. There is no point in hiding that Romania and Moldova have territorial claims against Ukraine, which until recently have been more of a historical and theoretical nature, without no open political support. On the other hand, certain considerations about a part of the Odessa region, specifically Southern Bessarabia, were voiced in Chisinau back in 2014. In particular, it was proposed that the Moldovan parliament urgently form a special state commission to prepare a legal opinion on whether the transfer of a part of the former Bessarabia to the Ukrainian SSR was legitimate. It is clear that the current state of play relegates the problem of Ukrainian-Moldovan/Romanian territorial disputes to the sidelines. Moreover, an open manifestation of such ideas amid the aggression against Ukraine would indeed look traitorous towards the Ukrainian leadership. Meanwhile, it would be a big mistake to completely remove these topics from the agenda. Various scenarios should be envisaged, so in the event Kyiv may lose administrative control over certain regions, proactive actions on the part of neighboring countries, primarily on security grounds, will be more than expected. And we should be prepared for that. It should be recalled that attempts to redress historical injustices in relation to the southern territories of Moldova were made by Chisinau already in the Soviet period. Initiatives to revise the administrative boundaries repeatedly came from the party nomenclature and public figures. Their appeals centered on the need to restore the Izmail oblast within the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic or create a Bessarabian autonomous region as part of Ukraine. However, all attempts were in vain. Even the appeal of an initiative group of the Gagauz people to create a Gagauz autonomous national district within the Odessa region was rejected. No doubt, the MSSR leadership’s stance was actively supported primarily in Bucharest who repeatedly made appeals to Moscow to return Southern Bessarabia to the Moldavian SSR. However, because Ukrainian natives enjoyed very influential positions in the Soviet leadership from the middle of the 1950s and up until the last days of the USSR, there were no prospects for the territorial issue to be resolved. In recent weeks, it has become very obvious that Moscow is taking steps to “demilitarize” and cut off the southern part of the Odessa region by destroying a key infrastructure facility - the bridge in Zatoka - that connects the former Izmail oblast with the rest of the Odessa region. It might indicate that this territory, located in the underbelly of Moldova, is being carefully prepared as a bridgehead for various kinds of military activities, especially when the Odessa and Nikolayev regions are crammed with defensive weapons. Historically, the pro-Ukrainian sentiments are not so strong in Southern Bessarabia, where the population is mainly oriented toward Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. In some places protest traditions are quite solid, mainly in the Tatarbunar district. The whole situation unfolding on our southern borders should be treated with the utmost seriousness, both in Chisinau and in Bucharest, because there is still enough time to be proactive and take the lead.