Between two fires: Ukraine amidst Transdniestria and the Donbas – Analysis

Among the many scenarios threatening Ukraine, a most serious one is a resurgent Donbas conflict that expands west toward Transdniestria, a separatist region in eastern Moldova. A 1992 conflict there left some 200 kilometers of Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine under the control of the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. A westward-expanding Donbas conflict could reignite the one between pro-Western Moldova and Russian-supported Transdniestria where a truce has held, if at times uneasily, for a decade. Its graphic effect would be to reduce Ukraine to a near rump state.

One question with great bearing on whether the Donbas conflict re-erupts is whether the principles agreed to in Minsk suffer the same fate as the 2010 Meseberg Memorandum. It, too, was the product of a German initiative, in the instance to form a joint European Union–Russia council to resolve the Transdniestrian conflict. It was not coordinated with other European Union member-states or with the European Commission. And as it turned out, neither Germany nor Russia was prepared to deliver on its Meseberg commitments. One assessment asked a question that bears repeating today, viz., “Why did Germany abandon the traditional German negotiating method for a meeting of unprepared and uncoordinated principals?” It also posed a longer, perhaps more important one:

“[W]hy did Merkel assume that a Russian leader could deliver on personal commitments in the same way that Soviet leaders up to Brezhnev did—just by giving the order? […] Modern Russia is a collection of satrapies, all owing nominal allegiance to the ‘power vertical’ but all jostling against one another to protect their institutional, political, and financial interests. A Russian leader—whether Medvedev or Putin—cannot just issue a fiat. To keep the system running he must also ensure that satrapies are compensated for any damages their interests suffer.”

A recent commentary on the Russian think tank portal Materik[6] declared “Transdniestria-in-the Donbas” would be a compromise, not a victory, for Moscow, especially in the context of a federal Ukraine. Paul Goble suggests it may signal the Russian government’s judgment about the best practicable outcome, thus its preemptive use of “compromise” as a concession to Ukrainian (and Western) sensibilities. Another commentator wrote that paradoxically, what President Putin said in Minsk was meant to signal the opposite, viz., that he wants a “Transdniestria-II variant [in order] to retreat with a triumphant look on his face.” Consistent with those readings, President Putin within days highlighted Kyev’s commitment in Minsk to undertake “deep constitutional reform in order to satisfy demands for independence—call it what you will, devolution, autonomy, federalization—by certain parts of the country.”

Germany, presuming to speak for Europe, demonstrated at Minsk its imperative to maintain relations with Russia for fear of leaving a nuclear-armed Putin without any alternatives. Russia, some analysts believe, will exploit this “to demonstrate that NATO is not relevant” to resolving the situation in Ukraine. President Putin’s purpose in supporting separatist forces in the Donbas is to “punish Ukraine,” and in so doing, “to send a message to other post Soviet territories.”This is, of course, an extension of the argument John Mearsheimer made in his much-debated Foreign Affairs essay: “The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.”

It can be argued that NATO expansion was a continuation in the security realm of one in the civil realm—European Union (EU) expansion—that transformed “even technical issues of border management into highly politicized dilemmas.” For example, while Ukraine and Moldova agreed at end of 2001 to control their common border jointly under a stricter border-crossing regime, Transdniestria did not support the agreement causing it to fail.

This illustrates a larger point with direct bearing on the Donbas conflict. The political regimes that emerged in Moldova, Ukraine, and Transdniestria were each formed in conditions of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The loss of the Soviet Union’s managing role forced “a cardinal restructuring of political power in the post-Soviet space.” A result was a “fast process of ethno-politicization.”In Moldova, that process gave rise to the “Romanianization of Moldovan society” and a military conflict in anti-Romania Transdniestria. In Ukraine, it manifested as nationalism that defined itself in contradistinction to Russian interests.

It was foreordained that Russia’s reentry into these now-restructured, ethno-politicized spaces would conflict with how political power had restructured there. Moldova eventually found an uneasy stasis, a “cold peace” described as “neither war not peace.”[16] While it is too early in Ukraine’s hot conflict to tell, a “cold peace” seems likely there as well. Thus the central questions: (1) is the Transdniestria conflict a useful lens to assess the one in the Donbas; and (2) could a metastasizing Donbas wreck Transdniestria’s cold peace?

The Donbas’ many crosscurrents raise analogies to the Moldova-Transdniestria-Ukraine triangle. It is possible that a metastatic conflict in eastern Ukraine might spread west to reignite smoldering separatism in the eastern Moldovan territory. It is worthwhile, therefore, reassessing Transdniestria as a guide and an admonition for conflict resolution (or protraction) in Russia’s near abroad.

Transdniestria and the Donbas: Similarities & Differences

Deterritorialization originated in French psychoanalytic theory but has come to be more commonly associated with the concept of territorial sovereignty, anchored in (and fixed to) the framework and geographical space of the sovereign state. Geopolitical concepts that deterritorialize—Aleksandr Dugin’s highly influential Eurasianism for one—do so by intentionally blurring traditional rationales for borders and directly challenging the concept of territoriality. Eurasianism cannot be understood by reference to territorial sovereignty because it does not require a clearly demarcated geographical space. So while Dugin may speak of Eurasianism as “the ideological foundation of the Republic of Novorossiya,” its basis is not geographic but abstract, e.g., “the projective logic of opposition to the West”[18] and “against Ukrainian nationalism.”

That being said, territorialized and geographically delineated state borders are still important for legal stability and military security. Thus a paradox: every deterritorialization creates the conditions for reterritorialization by what one scholar calls “the fetishism of the parochial”—separatist movements that destroy a nation-state’s territorial integrity—that makes ideas of culturally and ethnically distinct places even more pronounced.

There is, if nothing else, an abiding consistency in Russia’s assertion of interests in its near abroad, which is mistakenly (if nonetheless frequently) ascribed to factors ranging from a hazy nostalgia for the Soviet period to abject revanchism. It instead reflects the increased prominence of an ethnic dimension of Russian foreign policy since 1991. Transdniestria and the Donbas depart somewhat from this trend. Russian foreign policy there is animated more by political considerations—preventing the westward integration of Moldova and Ukraine—and lacks the abject ethnic dimension of, for example, separatism in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.

This does not mean Russia’s preferred outcome is an independent Transdniestria and Donbas, since the burden of supporting these irredentist states would fall immediately and heavily upon Moscow. Rather, it is to force Moldova and Ukraine to accept a constitutionally grounded federal structure (modeled on the earlier Kirov Agreement) that grants Transdniestria and the Donbas the conditional right to seek independence, e.g., upon Moldova’s unification with Romania or Ukraine’s accession to NATO and/or the European Union.

Transdniestria and the Donbas are useful to Russia only for so long as they remain part of their respective national territory and provide leverage against the national governments in, respectively, Chișinău and Kyev. Despite resistance to reintegration in both Transdniestria and the Donbas, Russia has persisted in seeking special legal status for the territories while engaging their respective national governments on strategic issues. So far, the Moldovan and Ukrainian governments have only tentatively embraced an indefinite “decentralization” policy.

While there is an undoubted ethnic dimension to the Transdniestrian conflict— the same might be said of all conflicts in the former Soviet Union—its essential character is political. It is not primarily an ethnic conflict between Moldovans and assorted Russophones. It is more accurate to say that Transdniestria was the only post-Soviet ethno-territorial controversy that was not only a matter of territorial re-distribution among former Soviet nationalities but also a question of an irredenta of another European state, Romania.

The Donbas differs in some significant ways from Transdniestria. Historical imaginings of Novorossiya notwithstanding, the Donbas as a whole has been part of Ukraine continuously since 1922. It neither shares Transdniestria’s historical and territorial identity nor its (albeit-brief) legacy as an autonomous area. Nor does the Donbas appear likely to yield Russia the same leverage in negotiations with the West. At the 1999 Istanbul Summit, Russia bartered a promised withdrawal from Transdniestria (and Georgia) for NATO member-states’ consent to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe; so, too, the instrumental role of Transdniestria under the 2010 Meseburg Memorandum. From an economic perspective, the Donbas poses a potentially serious burden for Russia, something complicated by several considerations: the territory’s sheer size; the extensive war damage to property and infrastructure; and the direct economic cost to sustain the Donbas as well as the indirect one to Russia from the sanctions regime. Moreover, the Donbas porous shared borders with Russia exposes the latter to the security risks of criminal and other illicit activities made possible by existence of a political “black hole.”

The Lessons of Transdniestria

The roots of the Transdniestrian conflict trace to the Soviet era. Industrialization (especially defense) and the consequent inflow of mainly Russian and Ukrainian workers to the eastern or “left” bank of the Dniester River (formerly part of the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic[29]) meant Transdniestria’s effective integration into the Soviet Union was far greater than rural western or “right” bank Moldova.

Seeking to distance “right bank” Moldovans from their historic, language and cultural ties to Romania, the Soviet Union attempted to propagate a new Moldovan culture and identity. This extended to declaring “Moldovan” written in Cyrillic as the national language. While Moldovans speak what linguistically is a Romanian dialect, “Soviet policymakers strenuously maintained that Moldovans were culturally and linguistically separate from Romanians.” As the Soviet Union faltered in the late 1980s, the pro-Romanian Moldovan Popular Front demanded adoption of Latin-script Moldovan as the only national language, to which the Moldovan Supreme Soviet responded by declaring Russian to be “the language of inter-ethic communication.” By 1989, however, Latin-script Moldovan was declared the national language, something interpreted by many Transdniestrians (and Russian leaders) as the leading edge of Moldovan-Romanian unification.

Transdniestria assumed a different, instrumental value to Russia once Moldova declared itself sovereign (though still part of the Soviet Union) in September 1990 by raising the prospect that Moldova would suffer territorial losses if it left the Soviet Union. Left unresolved after the latter’s dissolution and Moldova’s August 1991 declaration of independence, the question of ethnic Russians living in Transdniestria led to the conflict escalating in early 1992.

Moldova’s newly elected president, Mircea Snegur, declared martial law in March 1992 when the self-declared “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union” openly refused his ultimatum to accept the authority of the Chișinău government. This led to an outbreak of fighting in central Transdniestria’s Dubăsari District, which by June expanded to Bendery near the Transdniestrian capital, Tirasopol, where the Soviet 14th Army was stationed.

Russia’s June 1992 military intervention on the side of Transdniestria led to a political settlement and ceasefire the following month. Russia was motivated more by domestic considerations than geostrategic ones. This changed, however, over the next year, as Russia sought to keep Moldova within the nascent Commonwealth of Independent States and to prevent its unification with Romania. Russia went so far as to break off official contacts with Transdniestria in April 1993 as an inducement for Moldova to sign the Alma-Alta Protocol, which formally dissolved the Soviet Union and established the CIS.

The principle of synchronization—withdrawing Russian armed forces concurrent with a political settlement—was incorporated into an October 1994 agreement, under which Russia agreed to leave Transdniestria within three years. Russia immediately began to press Moldova to grant Russian armed forces a peacekeeping mandate, the effect of which would allow Russia to sidestep certain provisions of the Conventional Armed Forces treaty. The Russian force declined in size between 1992 and 1999, from 9250 to 2000 troops, due to a mix of budgetary considerations and Russian perceptions that Transdniestria’s strategic value was declining. In 1996, Russia initiated negotiations with a document known as the “Primakov Memorandum” (for Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov); it stipulated that Moldova and Transdniestria would build a “common state.” Russia and Moldova signed it in Moscow in May 1997.

While some commentaries claim the Primakov Memorandum de facto federalized Moldova, this judgment may well conflate the 1997 memorandum and a later effort also led by Primakov. In August 2000, he presented Moldova and Transdniestria with an official but relatively vague proposal to establish a loose federation, one that resembled a confederation in important respects. Transdniestria would gain extensive influence over Moldovan government policy and Russia was guaranteed an important role in Moldova’s internal affairs. While Primakov’s proposal ultimately stalled by the end of 2000 after an internal Moldovan political crisis (and the use of dilatory tactics by both Moldovan and Transdniestrian officials), Russia persuaded Transdniestria to accede to the withdrawal of CFE-limited military equipment by the end of 2001. In exchange, Russia forgave a USD100 million debt for the purchase of Russian natural gas.

In early 2001, a customs dispute emerged between Moldova and Transdniestria, in partial response to Russia’s refusal to end its practice of selling discounted natural gas to Transdniestria and allowing these deliveries to go unpaid. Transdniestria’s debt to Russia for unpaid natural gas deliveries amounted to more than three times the territory’s annual gross domestic product. As the dispute continued without resolution into the second half of 2002, Moldova backed off earlier concessions over the use of the Russian language, and a commitment to join the Russia-Belarus customs union. Moldova also insisted Russia immediately withdraw all “peacekeeping” forces from Transdniestria.

It is against this background that Russia along with Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) proposed a July 2002 plan to federalize Moldova under a three-party guarantee (the so-called “Kyiv Document”). In February 2003, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin proposed to collaborate with Transdniestria to draft a new federal constitution. His counterpart, Igor Smirnov, rejected Voronin’s proposal, claiming it would create an asymmetric federation. Smirnov instead demanded a confederation between two equal states.

An OSCE-sponsored Joint Constitutional Commission (JCC) started work by midyear with representatives from Chişinău and Tiraspol. The JCC members—the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Transdniestria—were also known as the “OSCE-5,” and their discussions quickly stalled by October 2003. The United States insisted during this process that NATO members refrain from ratifying the 1999 amendment to the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty until Russian armed forces withdrew completely from both Transdniestria and Georgia.

Amidst the OCSE-5 JCC process, Russia in mid-2003 secretly initiated negotiations between Chișinău and Tiraspol. The intermediary was Dmitry Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative. Inexplicably, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry declined an OSCE request to include Kozak in the OSCE-5 discussions, and by 11 October, Kozak declared his effort a failure. By early November, the OSCE, Ukraine, and Russia (again, represented by the Foreign Affairs Ministry) reached agreement on a new federalization proposal.

When the OSCE presented it to Kozak on 14 November, he disclosed a heretofore-secret plan later known as the Kozak Memorandum. It called for the formation of a “Federal Republic of Moldova,” a loose confederation of two sovereign territories modeled on Serbia and Montenegro. Moldova’s Voronin formally endorsed the plan on 17 November, declaring that it “provides an unique opportunity” to settle the Transdniestria conflict. By most estimates, the Kozak Memorandum was an attempt by Russia to cement its domination of Moldova, and to ensure that it remained within the Russian sphere of influence by imposing a distorted political and economic system on a fragmented country.

Under the terms of the Kozak Memorandum, the two “parties”—Moldova and Transdniestria—agreed to “the transformation of the state structure of the Republic of Moldova” into a new Federal Republic of Moldova. It would be comprised of two sovereign territories, the “subjects of the federation” and the “federal territory,” respectively. The “subjects” consisted of the Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic and Găgăuzia (a so-called autonomous territorial formation), each of which would have its own parliament, government, and judiciary. The balance of Moldovan national territory (basically, historic Bessarabia) would comprise the “federal territory,” and would be governed from Chișinău. Its parliament, government and judiciary would be federal institutions in which the two “subjects” would have representation. In the case of the federal parliament, the “subjects” would have a blocking minority in what were referred to as “joint competencies,” e.g., matters involving both the “subjects” and the “federal territory.”

A key question in November 2003 was the status of the Russian “peacekeeping” force scheduled to withdraw from Transdniestria the following month. For its part, Transdniestria demanded the Russian force remain in place for at least thirty years as “guarantor” of the intended federation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov agreed to maintain a peacekeeping force of 2000 troops for a period of twenty years, which was made part of the Kozak Memorandum. Within a week, a coalition of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary parties formed the “Committee for Defending Republic of Moldova’s Independence and Constitution.” These parties collectively represented more than a third (35 percent) of votes cast in Moldova’s last local elections.

On 23 November, the OSCE rejected the Kozak Memorandum based largely on the previously undisclosed provision for a 20-year armed Russian presence and the “joint competencies” provision. The following day, Moldova’s Voronin acceded to pressure from the OSCE and the United States, and from domestic opponents of Kozak’s federalization plan. He cancelled President Putin’s planned visit to Chișinău during which the two were to sign the Kozak Memorandum.

OSCE opposition to the Kozak Memorandum’s plan focused on three objections: 1) the plan lacked clarity regarding the proposed division of powers between central government and federal “subjects”; 2) one “subject,” the Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic, would have an effective veto over joint competencies for at least ten years; and 3) it lacked an acceptable system of international guarantees, i.e., a multilateral peacekeeping force with an international mandate. If the Kozak Memorandum was moribund by November 2003, it officially died in May 2004 when the Baltic nations—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—entered NATO without its member-states ratifying the CFR-II treaty.

The European Court of Human Rights dealt a further blow in July 2004, when it held both Moldova and Russia responsible for the continuing conflict in Transdniestria. This ruling ended a period during which much of Europe acquiesced in Russian policies and practices there. The Transdniestrian regime, the court concluded:

“[S]et up in 1991-1992 with the support of the Russian Federation…remains under the effective authority, or at the very least under the decisive influence, of the Russian Federation, and in any event…survives by virtue of the military, economic, financial and political support given to it by the Russian Federation.”The ruling condemned both Moldova and Russia for their failure to protect human rights in Transdniestria, and concluded Moldova had “the obligation to re-establish control over that territory” and “to refrain from supporting the separatist regime.”

Ukraine cautiously approached the question of the political status of Transdniestria given longstanding political-cum-ethnic tensions in its own borderlands—notably Crimea and Transcarpathia, and of course, the Donbas—as well as long-held Romanian territorial ambitions in Ukrainian northern Bukovina and southern Bessarabia. At the time, many Ukrainians interpreted the strong odor of revanchism that hung over Romania’s June 1991 declaration on the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact as an expression of Romanian territorial ambitions. It was reinforced when the Romanian parliament protested Ukraine’s December 1991 independence referendum on the grounds that it was held in “disputed territories,” going so far as to call on other states to exclude northern Bukovina and southern Bessarabia when extending recognition to the new Ukrainian state. There were suggestions in Romania that irredentist claims to northern Bukovina could be settled if Ukraine traded the territory to Romania in exchange for Transdniestria, which of course presumed the antecedent of Romanian-Moldovan unification.

Kyev signaled in early 1992 that it was open to Romanian participation in talks to resolve the status of Transdniestria. That changed, however, by midyear after which Ukraine’s position largely paralleled Russia’s. Ukraine found the Transdniestrian conflict increasingly jeopardized its territorial integrity. Ukraine’s border was routinely violated by Transdniestrian and Găgăuz volunteers and paramilitary, and Moldovan security services alike. Ukraine also faced a mounting refugee crisis as upwards of 100,000 people crossed into its territory to escape the escalating conflict. Ukraine responded in mid-1992 with a 50km border security zone.

Again in early 1992, the Transdniestrian government organized a front organization called the “Union of Ukrainians in Pridnestrovie.” While its main purpose was to encourage Kyev to end its “one-sided” approach to the crisis, its secondary effect was to popularize (at least among Transdniestria’s Ukrainians) the idea of annexing Transdniestria to Ukraine. In June 1992, Ukraine declared support for Transdniestrian autonomy within the framework of a united Moldovan state. Its interest in resolving Transdniestria’s status reflected interests that were tactical—the status of the estimated 600,000 Ukrainians living in Moldova who comprised 28 percent of Transdniestria’s population (another one-quarter of which is Russian) and the existence of an unregulated border—as well as strategic ones—the withdrawal of Russian “peacekeepers” and lessening Russian influence in Transdniestria.While Ukrainian foreign policy overall vis-à-vis Transdniestria was driven more by the former’s strategic relationship with Russia than either Romania or Moldova, one commentary described Ukraine’s stance on Transdniestria as “a pendulum movement, from an initially greater skepticism towards the Romanian position, to an even greater skepticism towards the leadership in Moscow, and back to the first position.”

Moldova claimed that illegal trade and trafficking across the Transdniestria-Ukraine border caused it to suffer substantial financial (from custom evasion) and unspecified economic losses throughout the 1990s. In mid-2001, Moldova required the use of a new custom stamp at all border crossings, including those between Transdniestria and Ukraine. Transdniestria immediately declared this an attempt to establish an economic blockade, and when Moldova requested Ukraine’s permission to deploy customs officers on the Ukrainian side of the border, Ukraine hesitated. Moldova in early 2000 submitted a memorandum on the border matter to several European institutions that accused Ukraine and Transdniestria of promoting smuggling. It declared Ukraine was reluctant to establish joint Moldovan-Ukrainian customs controls solely because corrupt Ukrainian officials profited from illegal trade, something Ukraine dismissed as “unfriendly.” While Ukraine conceded the custom stamp matter was a Moldovan internal affair, it declared it inconsistent with a 1997 bilateral agreement that required Moldova to obtain Ukraine’s consent. The old custom stamps—which were in the possession of Transdniestrian customs officials—“remain valid according to international law,” declared Ukraine.

In sharp contrast, Ukraine resisted repeat calls by Transdniestria’s Smirnov for Ukraine also to establish a military presence in the so-called security area in which Russian “peacekeeping” forces were already deployed. As one commentary put it:

“After the withdrawal of Russian militaries stationed in the conflict zone, Ukrainian ‘Slavic brothers’ would serve as a reliable force to protect predominantly Slavic population of the PMR against the possible military aggression from Chisinau.”

The counterpoint was made by a Ukrainian think tank:

“Ukraine, however, does not share this approach. On the contrary, its concept consists in reducing the level of military saturation in the security area after a mechanism to ensure the political and military guarantees of security is worked out, reduction in the level of military presence should go hand in hand with increase of the role of military observers.”

Delimiting the Russian-Ukraine Border: A Contentious Past

It is perhaps unsurprising that the earliest recorded use (1187CE) of ukraina was to name the modern-day state’s northwest and north central borderlands state. That perspective—Ukraine as a subordinate borderland, defined by its relationship to Russia—remains widely held among Russians (and some Russian-speaking Ukrainians).

The Russian government’s North Caucasus policy circa 1990s specified that ethnic Russians should comprise no less than 40 to 50 percent of the population in each constituent republic (and its cities, towns and districts) so as to preserve Russia’s presence and ensure its continued influence. It is conceivable (though, the author believes, unlikely for reasons discussed later) that an element of Russian territorial ambitions in Ukraine’s borderlands may be to amalgamate select non-Russian areas with contiguous, predominantly ethnic Russian regions. Russian regions from time to time revise geographic borders: for example, central Russia’s Sverdlovsk Oblast organized an inter-regional working group earlier this year to review and revise borders. President Putin has cautioned, however, that any re-division of constituent borders must considered in the larger context of Russia’s many inter-territorial disputes.

The practice is certainly not unknown in Russia history: when Ukraine’s Donbas region was first formed in 1920, several Russian territories including the Azov Sea port city of Taranrog were added in. The border issue reemerged in 1922 when Ukraine claimed two Russian borderlands—the Kursk Oblast north of Kharkiv, and the Voronezh Oblast north of Luhansk—parts of which were inhabited by predominantly Ukrainian-speaking populations. Russia eventually ceded Ukraine approximately one-third of the claimed territories while Taganrog and Shakhty reverted to Russia.

The post-Soviet period’s Tuzla Crisis foreshadowed border disputes to come. In September 2003, Russia commenced construction of a bridge to connect the Taman Peninsula with Tuzla, a Ukrainian-claimed island in the Azov Sea. Russia countered that Tuzla was not an island until the 1920s, prior to which it was connected with the Taman peninsula and therefore originally Russian. Ukraine answered that Tuzla has been officially attached to Crimea some years before the latter became Ukrainian territory in 1954. After open demonstrations of military force by both sides and intensive consultations between their foreign ministries, the crisis resolved in December 2004 when Russia and Ukraine signed a cooperation agreement to govern exploitation of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait, which links the Azov and the Black Seas.

The Kerch Agreement confirmed the Azov Sea’s status as “inland waters” of both countries. Anticipating Ukraine might seek NATO membership, Russia sought the inland-waters status because it prohibits third-country military vessels from entering the waterway. Ukraine sought unsuccessfully to define the Azov Sea as international waters. It also refused to consent to Russian plans to build a bridge across the strait that would link Crimea’s Kerch Peninsula and the Taman Peninsula on the Russian mainland. That issue remained unresolved until March 2014, when the Russian government approved the project the day after it signed the Crimea accession treaty.

Resolution of the 2003 Tuzla crisis cleared the way for the Russian and Ukrainian parliaments to ratify an earlier one to “delimit” the boundary that defined the geographic limit of their sovereign territory (that process took until April 2004). Ukraine and Moldova earlier went through a process of border delimitation and demarcation. With the November 1940 Soviet-era administrative border as the starting point, it took from June 1996 until June 2001 to delimit the border, and another four years to fully demarcate it.

The Ukrainian-Russian Commission for Border Delimitation delimited all but 5 percent of that land border by mid-2001, completing the rest in 2003. Russia’s position was that the border should be delimited but not demarcated, and by October 2003 reopened its delimitation when it laid claim to the island of Tuzla. Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych politically instrumentalized the issue during his 2004 presidential campaign, pledging his opposition to border demarcation and support for Russian as an official language. What some in the Ukrainian media called a “parade of language separatism” continued into the 2006 parliamentary elections, coinciding with an anti-NATO campaign in Crimea.

In October 2008, Ukraine declared that it might demarcate the border unilaterally, and threatened to take the Azov Sea matter to the International Court of Justice. Fast-forward to March 2014, Ukraine excavated a two-meter ditch along the Donets’k region’s border with Russia and raised a two-meter wall; and later in the month, did the same along the border with Crimea and erected watchtowers. In July 2014, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council disclosed its plan to demarcate the border, the initial proposal for which consisted of an electrified, wire-topped 2000km fence protected by ditches and anti-personnel mines. A month earlier, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had dubbed it Proekt Stina (“Project Wall”) and called for a new military doctrine condemning Russia as “an aggressor nation.” Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff, quickly condemned the demarcation as “a low budget Mannerheim Line,” adding:

“The construction of a wall, to my mind, will make impossible the very restoration of any kind of relations… I am sure there will be no wall in the end. Rhetoric is rhetoric and life is life.”

Ukraine was unmoved. By mid-October 2014 it excavated a 62km-long anti-tank ditch along the Russian border; a month later, it had erected 136km of fencing along with antitank ditches, artificial barriers, and checkpoints. Concurrently, the Ukrainian parliament authorized the Kyev government to change administrative borders in the Luhansk oblast unilaterally. It sought to dismember separatist-controlled districts and integrate them into districts controlled by Ukrainian authorities. Igor Plotnitsky, head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, dismissed the effort, responding that “[Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko may dream of anything he wants.”

What is Russia’s End Game?

“To the Russian mind, contradiction is part of life itself.”

The Transdniestria experience is instructive for Russia in some non-obvious ways. One is an economic lesson, summarized in the pithy observation that “Transdniestrian leaders promised in the early 1990s that it would become Switzerland, but the reality is closer to Somalia.” Whether or not it overstates the case, it nevertheless makes the point that Transdniestria is economically untenable. The commentary continues:

“With a 70 percent budget deficit, Transdniestria’s economic situation is, to put it mildly, volatile. The region appears deserted: at least half the 700 thousand people who lived here in the early 1990s have left, and of those who stayed, some 60% are pensioners. Economic problems are increasingly evident: social benefits like free passes for pensioners in public transportation are canceled; and employees of state enterprises work part-time. Russia, which supplies free natural gas to the region, pays for most pension allowances, social assistance, and so on.

“Russia spends at least $1 billion each year to support Transdniestria. Now imagine that Russia has to pay even more on account of its occupation of the Donbass, the population of which is almost ten times greater than Transdniestria’s. It would cost Russia at least $10 billion a year just to maintain a minimum living standard living, not to mention the cost to develop the region.”

Russia is determined to avoid this scenario in the Donbas. So it comes as no surprise that Russia sought (and, perhaps surprisingly, obtained) Ukraine’s agreement under the February 2015 Minsk-II agreement to “full restoration of social and economic connections, including social transfers, such as payments of pensions and other payments.” Ukraine last year suspended the payment of public sector wages, social security pensions, and other social benefits in the Donbas, claiming that doing so was impossible to do so since it did not control the region. A commentary in the pro-Ukraine Euromaidan Press questions whether it is possible to do so now: “With crime rampant in the separatist-controlled Donbas, will it be safe to transfer funds for social payments and pensions from Kiev to the region and for taxes to be transferred back to the central government?”

Russia has gained both strategically and tactically under Minsk-II. Its strategic gain consists of an incipient rapprochement with Germany, which “has tired of the Ukraine ‘problem’,” and sidestepping a “fiscal Transdniestria” in the Donbas. Its tactical gain is less obvious:

“Moscow suddenly metamorphoses into a supporter of Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’…Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov [are intent on] turning this issue into a test of Ukraine’s adherence to its own territorial integrity. If Ukraine is serious about this, they routinely argue, Ukraine should then re-start social payments to residents of that that territory—they are Ukraine’s citizens after all.”

The inability of Ukraine to fulfill this commitment would feed the Russian narrative that the Kyev government is either incompetent or acting in bad faith, unwilling to fulfill its Minsk-II commitments and intent on punishing the hapless residents of the Donbas. Minsk-II imposes an obligation on Ukraine (and political responsibility) to resume these payments; it does not, however, specify a date by which they must resume or any payment mechanism. Many analysts question Ukraine’s ability (and some, its intent) to fulfill its Minsk-II commitments:

“Most of the provisions in today’s declaration have very little to no chance of being implemented. […] Poroshenko [is not] in a position to convince the Rada to resume payments of pensions and other ‘social transfers’ or to restore the banking system even if he wants to, which he clearly doesn’t.”

Minsk-II expanded the original Minsk contact group and charged it with establishing “working groups to fulfill the various aspects of the Minsk agreements.” The operational intent was to shift the negotiation of specific issues away from the so-called “Normandy group” comprised of state-level representatives from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. It also allowed Germany and France to downgrade their participation to the ministerial level. An overlooked but important aspect of the Minsk-II agreement:

“[I]nvites Russia into negotiations about implementing the European Union’s free trade agreement with Ukraine (hitherto a bilateral EU-Ukraine matter). It also refloats the idea of creating a common economic space of Europe with Russia (‘from the Atlantic to the [Russian] Pacific’), an idea that Germany had temporarily shelved in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.”

To the west, the situation in Transdniestria is bleak. What Russia’s influential Nezavisimaia Gazeta calls “Russia’s unsinkable aircraft carrier on the banks on the Dniester” may “be on the verge of a humanitarian disaster.” A recent commentary in that newspaper accuses Ukraine and Moldova of conspiring to encircle Transdniestria with an economic blockade intended “to push Transdniestria over the edge.” It also accuses the two of a series of provocations, the claimed intent of which is to establish a pretense for military action against Transdniestria:

“Ukraine must find a solution to ‘the Transdniestria problem,’ which Kyev believes jeopardizes its security to the south. It also fears that a Transdniestria scenario is developing in its east.”

The commentary maintains that once Ukraine’s trade agreement with the European Union goes into effect in January 2016, Transdniestria’s door to EU and Russia will close, thereby exposing its exports to Moldova’s punitive customs regime.

Another story in Nezavisimaia Gazeta (gleefully reprinted by Moldovan media portals) detailed Russia’s refusal, for the first time, to fulfill Transdniestria’s request for financial assistance. Transdniestrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk, asked for USD100 million to cover pension payments and other expenses. Political analyst Anatol Tsaranu[80] wrote, “Russia is in a difficult situation due to the situations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as well as the economic crisis in Russia itself.” Thus, another Nezavisimaia Gazeta headline: “Unlike Transdniestria, there will be no decade-long Donetsk People’s Republic: it cannot survive as independent.”

Much has been made about Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Grigory Karasin referring to Transdniestria as a “district.” Heretofore, only Moldovan officials used that term to refer to Transdniestria. Some contend Karasin was signaling a shift in Russian policy, the logic of which is that reintegrating Transdniestria into a newly federal Moldova would increase the proportion of Moldova’s pro-Russia population (which Karasin claimed is already half). The implication is clear: Russia sees Transdniestrian reintegration as instrumental to arresting Moldova’s figurative drift westward, toward Romanian unification and accession to the European Union and NATO, all of which are anathema to Russia.

This factor—foreclosing further NATO and European Union accessions in its near abroad—animates the Russian policy imperative to impose a federal structure on Moldova and Ukraine, willingly or otherwise. The presence of putatively pro-Russia territories within a federal Moldova and Ukraine is seen to accomplish two ends. First, it would strengthen Russia’’s hand in both countries’ internal affairs, especially if Russia extracts something along the lines of the Kirov Memorandum proposal to enshrine a constitution right to secession, this time around the matter of NATO/EU accession. Second, it would definitively shift the economic burden of supporting Transdniestria and the Donbas to the federal governments in Chișinău and Kyev. It is not likely Russia would reopen the question of delimiting borders. While it has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate exchanges of territory when it serves Russian self-interests—witness the current negotiation with Kazakhstan to exchange borderland territory as part of demarcation—this does not apply to Transdniestria, where Russia has no common border, and for reasons discussed is antithetical to its objectives in the Donbas.

“Although, of course, we will win in the end. And then we all lose.”

Russian adamance over maintaining a Cold War-era territorial status quo in its near abroad is no less adamantly disputed by Moldova and Ukraine, neither of which is perceived—by Russia, nor it must be said, some Europeans—as it wishes. Both are flanked by conflicts fueled by “policy, lapses of sobriety, and deficiencies of understanding.”

Western fatigue with the one in Ukraine (and, by extension, the delitescent one in eastern Moldova) and fears that the Donbas conflict’s sequela may further depress European economies both are rising perceptibly. Europeans may come to see the geopolitical prism as the only interpretive model worth applying, American ideational prodding notwithstanding. If so, we should expect a quiet shift toward Moldova and Ukraine as a de facto cordon sanitaire, with notions of European integration quietly shelved in favor of geopolitical self-interest. If so, it would resemble (albeit more benignant) Russian policy since neither would be prompted by concern for Moldovan or Ukrainian national interests. It would reflect plus ça change of Russia’s near-abroad policy:

“[S]ecurity through creeping buffer zones combined with astutely coordinated diplomacy and military operations against weak neighbors to ingest their territory at opportune moments. Russia surrounded itself with buffer zones and failing states. […] Such areas generally contained non-Russian populations and bordered on foreign lands.

“Russia repeatedly applied the Polish model to its neighbors. Under Catherine the Great, Russia partitioned Poland three times in the late eighteenth century, creating a country even less capable of administering its affairs as Russia in combination with Prussia and Austria gradually ate it alive. Great and even middling powers on their borders were dangerous. So they must be divided, a fate shared by Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, China, and, post World War II, Germany and Korea. It is no coincidence that so many divided states border on Russia. Nor is it coincidence that so many unstable states sit on its periphery.”

Pavel Felgenhauer believes Russia seeks dominion over Ukraine to ensure Kyev honors its constitutional commitment to “non-alignment” (what Sherr calls “the strategic emptiness of non-bloc status”) and to give Russia an effective veto over its actions.[89] For Russia, maintaining influence is more than a foreign policy priority; it is an existential imperative.[90] Thus, it “is less concerned about controlling the Donbass than controlling Kyev,”given such priorities as the security of Russian energy pipelines that transit Ukraine. One acerbic commentary argues that President Putin “does not want the Donbass or even the mythical ‘New Russia’.” Instead, he wants to restore Russian suzerainty through “a ‘Second Yanukovych’.”

While dominion likely overstates Russian ambitions in Moldova, it would not invest significant effort into projecting power over another state if not guided by a firm conviction that significant interests were at stake: virtually all Russian natural gas bound for Europe is transported in pipelines that cross Transdniestrian territory. Russia would contentedly accept Europe abandoning Moldova to the fate of a defense-in-depth buffer between NATO member Romania and a non-aligned Ukraine. Russian actions in Ukraine, and earlier, Transdniestria, have certainly had unintended effects. In early January, for example, Russia’s stalwart ally, Belarus, redefined what constitutes a foreign invasion under its statue authorizing the imposition of martial law. Belarus’ new statutory definition is intentionally descriptive of Russian actions in Transdniestria and eastern Ukraine, e.g., massing troops on the border, mobilizing troops in preparation for an invasion, and supporting insurgent forces.

That being said, critics of President Putin’s “improvisation” bring to mind Mike Tyson’s oft-quoted “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” It is an error of analysis to conflate activity and improvisation: with unintended application to modern Russia, Stonewall Jackson wrote “Only thus can a weaker country cope with a stronger; it must make up in activity what it lacks in strength.” One might dispute General Jackson’s conclusion, but Russian activism exemplifies the aphorism.

And if President Putin is prone to improvisation, it is not necessarily without instrumental effect. Take the re-centralization of political power we are witnessing in Russia. On 24 February, the Russian government released a transcript of President Putin’s remarks to a State Council Presidium meeting on the socio-economic status of the regions. He addressed the implementation of so-called “anti-crisis measures” in Russia’s “federal subjects” or regions. These include “a mechanism to co-finance” the region’s budgets. This means federal loans will be substituted for regional governments’ practice of accessing credit markets. Described in press reports as a “bailout plan,” the proposed “consolidation of inter-budgetary subsidies and exclusion of violations of the terms under which subsidies are distributed” translates as substantially greater federal control over the fiscal affairs of regional governments. And among its practical effects, the move would give the Kremlin direct control of regional government reserve funds, if remarks toward the end of President Putin’s statement can be taken at face value.

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