With Ukrainian "Blockade," Drums Of War Sounding In Transnistria
Alarms about the threat of war in Transnistria, the breakaway territory of Moldova, have been repeatedly sounded in recent days by government officials and media in Transnistria, as well as the de facto state's main sponsor, Russia.
Two weeks ago Ukraine canceled the agreement that allowed Russia to supply its roughly 1,500 troops stationed in Transnistria through Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian route was the only way by which Russian forces in Transnistria could be reached by land; the territory's only other land border is with Moldova, which also has been restricting what limited access it was giving Russian forces to Transnistria.
While Ukraine insists that its move solely affected the agreement to supply the Russian military, many Russian and Transnistrian sources claim that Transnistria is now the subject of a full "blockade" and that Ukraine and Moldova, backed by the United States, are preparing a military assault.
Transnistria's de facto foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, said on June 1 that Ukrainian troops were massing at the border with Transnistria. "It's clear to everyone what is on the Transnistrian border: they are building tent camps, deploying soldiers. Imagine what panic this is causing among Transnistrians and especially people who live on the border with Ukraine," she said.
"On the border with Ukraine they are digging a trench, as a symbol of the separation of the neighboring people, armed Ukrainian border guards have been deployed to checkpoints, Odessa is flooded with people in uniform, and the deployment of S-300 [air defense] batteries also has caused alarm," wrote a coalition of Transnistrian activist groups in an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to defend the territory.
The recent appointment of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa has been seen, in this scenario, as a crucial step in uniting the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Western powers against Transnistria. "Does the Kiev-Kishinev alliance have a chance of success under the leadership of Saakashvili? If Russia continues to pretend that nothing unusual is happening around Transnistria, and limits itself to foreign ministry statements, then yes," wrote the newspaper Pridnestrovaya Pravda. "Ukrainian armed forces 'Grad' rocket fire is capable of completely destroying the city of Tiraspol, founded by Alexander Suvorov, and then the cutthroats of the Aydar, Azov and other such battalions will raise above the ruins the flag of the European Union. The appointment of Saakashvili as governor of Odessa isn't just a signal to Russia. It's an alarm bell, a siren, a thunder. It's practically a declaration of war."
The claims have been repeated in the Russian press, as well. "The events of the last few months suggest that the governments of Ukraine and Moldova with, of course, support from the United States, are preparing something bad for Transnistria and Novorossiya," wrote journalist Aleksandr Chalenko in the Russian newspaper Izvestia. "In addition, there is information that in Kishinev several weeks ago about 300 Americans reportedly arrived, deploying to a television broadcasting center. The pieces are coming together in an alarming way..."
And the head of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, Leonid Reshetnikov, wrote: "We need to defend Transnistria. There are Russian people in Transnistria, but I call all of them Russian -- no matter if by origin they are Moldovans, Ukrainians, Bulgarians or Russians. With a struggle, with blood they won their independence. And we need to take decisive steps. First, to recognize the independence of Transnistria; second, to sign an agreement on mutual aid and cooperation in case of attack on Transnistria. There is no other option."
Meanwhile, as if on cue, the NATO Partnership and Cooperative Security Committee made what an alliance official called a "historic and unique visit" to Kishinev on June 2-3. "We are here to demonstrate our commitment to Moldova and to our partnership. This is a historic and unique visit. We came here because circumstances are unique," said James Appathurai, deputy assistant secretary general for political affairs. "In today's geopolitical circumstances, with an assertive Russia exerting pressure on countries in the region, only cooperation makes us stronger and only together we can address security challenges."
So what is all this about? Ukraine obviously already has more on its plate than it can handle, so the prospect of it invading Transnistria is nil. Most likely, this is an attempt to heighten the sense of panic in the Russia-sympathetic world for internal purposes. But the tenor and volume of the rhetoric is hard to ignore.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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