Russian media have been reporting claims by figures including a former minister from Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region that EU and Nato member Romania is preparing to take Moldova’s pro-Russian Transnistria region by force.
The bizarre claims were widely reported in the Russian media following the first of a series of as yet unexplained attacks on targets within Transnistria, a Russia-backed separatist region in the east of Moldova, bordering Ukraine. There is no evidence to support them, yet they raise some worrying questions about Russia's future intentions towards Transnistria.
As reported by bne IntelliNews, after news broke of an attack from a grenade launcher later identified as a RPG-27 Tavolga on the empty headquarters of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) in Tiraspol, the Russian public were inundated with propaganda claiming that Romania has nearly invaded Moldova and is preparing to oppress Russian-speaking nationals in Transnistria.
“Romania, with the support of Nato and with the participation of the Ukrainian army, plans to seize Transnistria and carry out massive political repressions against all supporters of Russia,” Russian daily Pravda announced immediately after the incident in Tiraspol, quoting politologist Sergei Markov.
The so-called expert claimed that the Romanian army has already been deployed in Moldova and forces are being built up.
Earlier, the former minister of defence of the unrecognised Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine, Igor Strelkov, claimed that Romania was conducting covert preparations to capture Moldova.
According to him, a significant part of the Moldovan officers in all headquarters in all key positions have been replaced by officers of the Romanian army.
The unfounded claims have not yet received any official response from Romania, a staunch backer of Ukraine in the war against Russia, as well as a supporter of Moldova, whose economy has been hard hit by the war on its eastern border.
While they are unlikely to carry any weight in either Moldova or Transnistria, set against observations on the ground, they may help convince some of the Russian public should Moscow be gearing up for action in Moldova.
Moldova is seen as the most vulnerable country to a potential spillover from the conflict, given its status as a small post-Soviet state, close to the fighting and with part of its territory occupied by Russia-backed separatists.
Officials in both Chisinau and Tiraspol have so far largely refrained from comments that could lead to an escalation of the situation. While condemning the invasion, the Moldovan government has insisted on maintaining its neutrality and unlike Ukraine, has not been pursuing Nato membership, although it recently applied to join the EU.
For its part, the government of Transnistria has linked the attacks to Ukraine. The unrecognised republic's President Vadim Krasnoselsky commented on April 26: "I assume that those who organised this attack have the goal of dragging Pridnestrovie into the conflict."
Tensions between Chisinau and Moscow increase
However, tensions between Chisinau and Moscow have increased in the last week, after Russian Brigadier General Rustam Minnekayev said on April 22 that the Russian army plans to take Ukraine's Donbas region, then create land corridors to both the Crimea and Transnistria.
"Since the beginning of the second phase of the special operation, which has already begun, literally two days ago, one of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine," said Minnekayev, the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, as reported by Tass.
"Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Pridnestrovie [Transnistria], where there are also facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population. Apparently, we are now at war with the whole world, as it was in the Great Patriotic War, all of Europe, the whole world was against us. And now the same thing, they never liked Russia," added Minnekayev.
The Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration responded later on April 22 by summoning the Russian ambassador in Chisinau, Oleg Vasnetov. The ministry said it had taken note of the statements from the “representative of Russia’s Ministry of Defence”.
“These statements are unfounded and contradict the position of the Russian Federation supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova, within its internationally recognised borders,” the statement read.
Minnekayev’s worrying and controversial comment was made on the same day that Moldova submitted its first questionnaire for EU membership.
At the same time, some Ukrainian officials have criticised the Moldovan government for its neutrality while war rages next door.
Old dreams of reunification
The claims made in the Russian media hark back to events around the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, when there were calls in both Chisinau and Bucharest for reunification of Moldova and Romania.
That alarmed citizens of the part of Moldova east of the Dneiper river, which unlike the rest of the country had not been part of the inter-war Romanian state and whose population was mainly Russian and Ukrainian.
Laws adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR in August 1989 worried Transnistria’s population by making Moldovan (rather than Russian) the official language and stipulating a return to the Latin alphabet used in Romania. This was followed by changing state symbols, adopting Romania’s tricolour flag and national anthem.
Just as Chisinau was seeking to assert its independence from the Soviet Union, secessionist movements emerged in both Transnistria and Gagauzia. They initially wanted more autonomy within Moldova but went on to declare independence from Chisinau. Fighting initially broke out in November 1990, but the conflict between forces controlled by Chisinau and the Russia-backed separatists intensified in spring 1992 until a ceasefire was declared in July that year.
After the ceasefire, Russia deployed ‘peacekeeping’ troops along the de facto border with Transnistria. They have remained there ever since, despite diplomatic efforts by Moldova to have them removed.
These days reunification is not a goal bring pursued by the government of either country – for Moldova it would most likely result in the permanent loss of Transnistria – although the concept sporadically resurfaces.
A poll published in early February, a few weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, put support for reunification at over 74% in Romania but just 38.4% in Moldova. However, as reported by bne IntelliNews at the time, reunification is not high on the political agenda in Romania, and the result should be interpreted as meaning the Romanian respondents would not object to Moldova joining Romania.
In Moldova, the issue is higher on the political agenda, as shown by the thousand-strong rallies in favour of reunification in 2018, and those Moldovans who responded positively can be seen as “unionists”.
A more relevant question with some worrying possible answers is why the attacks took place and why Russian pundits are accusing Romania.
Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has been quietly re-asserting control over the lost parts of its former empire by backing separatists, thereby carving out territory from western-leaning Georgia and Ukraine, as well as Moldova.
Russia has a history of using threats to its nationals – and the citizens of breakaway regions of fellow post-soviet states tend to have been issued Russian passports en masse – to justify military action in such conflicts.
Currently the focus of the war in Ukraine is on the battle for the Donbas region. However, Moscow may be preparing for a push through to Transnistria should Russia prevail against Ukrainian resistance in the Donbas, and go on to take Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.