It’s really deplorable how, over the last decades, we’ve all had to become students in a kind of “military geography”, remembering the names of regions and provinces, of cities, towns, and villages because those have become a war zone, a battlefield, an area of instability, etc. Was it Mark Twain who said that “God created war so that Americans would learn geography”? Or is it, rather, the Devil that’s giving us all those unwanted lessons?
A new international conflict seems to be brewing. Now it’s Transnistria, a strip of land and a state, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (Pridnestrovie), located to the East of the Dniester River, where it borders Ukraine. In 1990 the region declared its independence and broke away from Moldova, thereby getting tightly wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. To maintain peace and security in the area, a joint military command structure and a tri-lateral peacekeeping force, comprised of Russian, Moldovan, and Transnistrian units, were established in 1992, with 10 Ukrainian observers joining in 1998. Ukraine was also a party to a number of negotiating formats over Transnistria, including the latest one of 2006.
So far so good, but a few days ago Kiev scrapped its 1995 agreement with Russia on military transit to Transnistria via Ukraine. With Moldova not obliging too, what this means is that the Russian peacekeeping units are kind of trapped there. Time will show whether it’s a “no in/no out” situation or a compromise is still possible, but the development seems to be extremely dangerous. To understand why this is so, here is a bit of history.
Since the Soviet era, Transnistria is home to three major ethnic groups: Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians, with the Slavic element of Russians plus Ukrainians constituting quite a sizable majority of something about 60%. These people have spoken Russian or Ukrainian, or both, since the time immemorial, so when the Moldavian Parliament ruled in 1989 that the official language of the republic was to be Romanian (Moldavian) written in the Latin script, with 5 years given to non-Romanian citizens to learn it, this immediately created widespread insecurity amongst Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking population of Pridnestrovie.
In the meantime, pan-Romanian nationalism in Moldova, with the idea of re-uniting with Romania becoming almost a national obsession, reached its highest. That’s when, amidst suspicions and claims that “the Romanians were coming back to their fascist past”, Transnistria declared its independence from Moldova. What followed was a series of clashes between the sides, culminating with a most violent armed conflict, into which the Russian Moldova-based 14th Army was soon drawn on the side of the breakaway republic.
This is how General Alexander Lebed, the then commander of the 14th Army, described the situation in 1992: “650 people had already been killed and 4,000 wounded on the Transdnestrian side alone. The number of refuges was between 120,000 and 150,000. Factories, including an oil-refinery, a bio-chemical plant and a brewery, had been set on fire in Bendery, where over 50 per cent of the housing had been destroyed. In the same town, almost all the schools, kindergartens and medical facilities had been severely damaged and were no longer in use.”
“I can confirm officially”, he went on, “that here on the territory of Transdnister, there is no post-Communists, pro-Communists, neo-Communists nor any other kind of regime. There are simply people living here, who are being systematically, thoroughly and brutally annihilated. Moreover, they are being annihilated in such a way that the SS of fifty years ago look like schoolboys in comparison… The shadow of fascism hangs over this land of plenty. I think that our formerly great country should know about that. And it should remember how much it cost to break the back of fascism forty-seven years ago. It should stir its historical memory and remember what concessions to fascism can turn into.” (Quoted in Harold Elletson’s “The General Against the Kremlin.”)
But back to the current situation. What makes the latest developments over Transnistria too ominous is the fact that, controlled by the authorities of Transnistria and guarded by Russian troops, there’s a huge Russian, formerly Soviet, ammunition depot there, located some 2 km from the Ukrainian border. With 22,000 or even more tons of military equipment and ammunition, it’s reported to be one of the largest in Europe. A gigantic powder keg, a sleeping volcano… What will happen, if it explodes? I don’t know.
Yury Nickulichev is a professor at the Russian Academy for National Economy and Civil Service.