Will Moldova and Ukraine Go Their Separate Ways?

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Victor ENI
Despite the apparent serenity of Moldovan-Ukrainian relations, they are likely to face a very challenging period and a test of strength next year. Judging by the situation around the Transnistrian region, Kyiv is already planning some kind of game with regard to Moldova
When Moldova, largely thanks to Kyiv, was granted a candidate status followed by the opening of negotiations on accession to the European Union, it seemed to many that the geopolitical destinies of Moldova and Ukraine were intertwined for decades to come. Especially since Brussels is unlikely to abandon its package approach to the two post-Soviet countries. Something similar happened to our Romanian neighbors, who went through a difficult path of European integration together with Bulgaria. At the same time, Bucharest often considered (and still considers) such a conditional linkage more as a burden that leaves the country outside the Schengen Area. In our case, there are also forecasts that the authorities will try to move towards the EU independently and ahead of schedule, without looking back at Kyiv, which is stuck in war and problems. Such branching of foreign policy paths is, in a sense, quite natural. It is worth recalling the “Association Trio” that faded into oblivion. It later turned into a Moldovan-Ukrainian duo, which now, as it seems, is about to disintegrate into “solo” projects. Obviously, both capitals are predicting this development and are prepping to take it into account in bilateral relations. And even though we continue to thank Ukraine fervently and immensely in words for the opportunity to ride on their shoulders for negotiations with Brussels, political egoism and national interest, one way or another, push the Moldovan authorities to gradually distance themselves from their eastern neighbors. Kyiv is also well aware of this, so it will be extremely interesting to see its reaction and response. After all, our country has its own pain points, of which Ukrainians are well aware. Kyiv also knows how to cool down the ardor of Moldovan politicians. Maybe this is the reason for the unexpected visit of the special envoy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Paun Rohovei to Tiraspol, who is responsible for the Transnistrian settlement. Obviously, this trip to the left bank was not an ordinary one. After all, judging by open sources, Kyiv’s official emissaries have not appeared in the Transnistrian region since 2021. And all of a sudden a Ukrainian diplomat arrives in a tightly locked Transnistria. Is it a coincidence? I don’t think so. If we recall the events of a year ago, the situation around the left bank was extremely fragile, literally on the verge of military scenarios. Ukraine voiced the most rigid and bellicose statements, and by the end of 2022 an article appeared in one of the Ukrainian outlets with the title “It Is Time to Eliminate Transnistria. What Ukraine Should and Cannot Do for This”. It could be considered a concentrated expression of Kyiv’s position and its potential intentions with regard to the region. Despite the shift in focus from the left bank of the Dniester in the first half of the year, Ukrainian officials continued to express concerns of a militaristic nature from time to time. For example, back in the spring, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called Transnistria a “risk for Ukraine,” forcing it to keep troops on the Moldovan border to be ready to contain the danger from a region with Russian troops. Representatives of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDCU), for their part, signaled their full readiness to consider supporting Moldova, including militarily, in solving the Transnistrian problem if our leadership made such a request. However, the Moldovan authorities, of course, did not plan it, and after the opening of negotiations with the EU, they do not even consider the possibility of such an appeal to Kyiv. The risks of becoming the second Ukraine are very high. If we even theoretically allow a military conflict on our territory, in which, most likely, the armies of several states will be involved, Moldova risks becoming a quasi-state entity under the control of a group of countries, deprived of any development prospects for decades to come. Therefore, under all seemingly favorable circumstances, Chisinau has maintained a cautious tactic in reintegrating the country. Meanwhile, by the end of summer – beginning of autumn, Kyiv markedly toned down its rhetoric regarding Transnistria. We cannot rule out that an additional reason for such softening was Tiraspol’s flexibility, which made it possible to restore a reserve railway corridor through the Transnistrian region for the export of Ukrainian agricultural products. Compromises and agreements proved so strong that even the fall of Ukrainian missile debris in several Transnistrian villages could not disrupt negotiations on the “railway deal”. The debris issue was let slide and quickly hushed up so as not to provoke tension and panic moods among the population. As for the Ukrainian diplomat’s trip to Moldova, including the left bank, we can assume that it is part of some kind of diplomatic game towards Moldova to keep our authorities from “ill-considered” steps. Chisinau’s high loyalty is of great importance for Ukraine, given its complicated relations with almost all other neighbors. And the messages voiced by Rohovei at his meetings on both banks of the Dniester are very interesting. For instance, that Kyiv is in favor of a peaceful settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. This may indicate a change in the official position of the Ukrainian authorities with the military options taken out of brackets. At the same time, the speakers of the Ukrainian presidential office abruptly “changed their tune” and began to offer Chisinau not military assistance, but almost a softening of the reintegration policy, as well as demonstrate “a clear model of the future and prospects” to the left-bank citizens. Of course, we should consider Ukraine’s further plans not by official statements, but by particular cases and decisions. No sooner had the Ukrainian diplomat left Moldova than the two countries signed a protocol on setting up joint customs and border control not only at open checkpoints, but also at the Transnistrian section of the Moldovan-Ukrainian state border (“Cuciurgan – Pervomaisk” and “Platonovo - Goianul Nou”). At the same time, the official message notes that their operation will be resumed by a separate decision of the Ukrainian government, based on security considerations. Thus, Chisinau is being made to understand that the removal of the left bank from under Moldova’s total export-import control depends solely on the will and unilateral decisions of Kyiv. Despite all the external gloss and cordiality of Moldovan-Ukrainian relations, we can assume that in 2024 they will face a very difficult period. As we can see, the authorities of the neighboring country have decided to play a game in relation to Moldova for some subjective internal and external political reasons, which may significantly change the situation around the left bank of the Dniester.