Russian Troops In Transnistria Squeezed By Ukraine And Moldova
Ukraine and Moldova are restricting Russian military access to the breakaway territory of Transnistria, where Russia maintains about 1,500 troops.
Last week Ukraine's parliament voted to suspend military cooperation with Russia. And while much cooperation was of course already suspended, throughout the current crisis Russia has been able to use Ukrainian territory to supply its troops in Transnistria, a slender territory on Ukraine's western border. No longer.
Russia responded defiantly: "The Ministry of Defense is left with no other option than to supply Russian forces with all the necessities by air bridge, with military-transport aircraft," said Yuriy Yakubov, a senior Russian MoD official in an interview with Interfax after the Ukrainian vote. "The Russian contingent will be supplied under any circumstances."
A member of the Russian Duma committee on defense, Vladimir Komoedev, added: "We have to think now how to act, to find ways. We shouldn't throw out Transnistria and Moldova."
Further complicating Russia's predicament, on May 25 the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Moldova has quietly been arresting and deporting Russian soldiers who try to fly into Moldova en route to Transnistria. Moldova hasn't stopped all Russian soldiers from traveling through its territory -- only those not in the Moldova-supported peacekeeping mission, and only those who don't give a month's notice that they will be traveling to Moldova. (Of the roughly 1,500 Russian troops stationed in Moldova, about 1,000 are in the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova, which Moldova does not support; the rest are peacekeepers regulated by the Joint Control Commission, which includes authorities from Moldova, Transnistria, and Russia.)
Moldovan officials told Kommersant that there have been "hundreds" of Russian soldiers sent back under those circumstances; the Russian MoD told the newspaper it had "no information" about that.
Russia is hamstrung by the fact that Transnistria has land borders only with Ukraine and Moldova and has no usable airports, which is why Russian troops fly through Moldova's main international airport at Chisinau. But Russia may be planning to reopen the long-abandoned airport in Tiraspol, the de facto capital of the separatist territory, said Moldovan military expert Iurie Pantea in an interview with RFE/RL:
"The Russian Federation has already taken the necessary efforts to make the Tiraspol airport active, by means of which cargo deliveries could be made without Chisinau's control," Pantea said. "Two years ago this airport in Tiraspol was renovated and now has all it needs to accept military cargo.... I think that's what Russian generals have in mind when they announce that the contingent in Transnistria will be supplied under any circumstances."
Moldova has been cracking down on Russian troops transiting through its territory because of the crisis in Ukraine, and reports that Russia has been recruiting Moldovans to fight in eastern Ukraine, said Oazu Nantoi, a Moldovan political analyst in another interview with RFE/RL. The government in Chisinau fears that Russia is thus "trying to carry out a scenario here similar to the one in eastern Ukraine. And this has caused a big burst of emotion here in Moldova."
It's perhaps noteworthy that Russia had not been making a big deal about its troops being turned back at the Chisinau airport (an MoD official told Kommersant that the last such case was just "a misunderstanding"). Moscow likely sees that it has enough on its plate to want to avoid more troubles with neighbors. But how will it now supply its troops in Transnistria?
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.