Thirty years ago, after Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Moldova’s Mircea Snegur on 21 June 1992 signed the Agreement on the Principles of the Peaceful Settlement of the Armed Conflict in Transnistria, a joint peacekeeping mission on the Nistru River was set up which exists to the present day. It is composed of military contingents of Russia, the Republic of Moldova and the separatist Transnistria.
Thirty years ago, 3,100 Russian peacekeepers, 1,200 Moldavian troops and 1,200 Transnistrian paramilitaries were deployed to enforce the so-called Security Zone (a buffer area between the breakaway region and Moldova proper). In 1998, Ukraine also joined the mission with ten military observers.
Today, after gradual reductions, Russia, Transnistria and Moldova each deploy one battalion in the Security Zone. The number of peacekeeping posts and checkpoints was also gradually reduced from 65 to 15. Because of Russia’s military aggression, Ukraine has temporarily pulled out its military observers.
Poacher turned peacekeeper
In international practice, peacekeeping missions are usually carried out by UN forces with a specific peacekeeping mandate that respects the armistice or cease-fire agreement that preceded the deployment of these forces.
Therefore, a peacekeeping operation is an interim agreement, aimed at maintaining the necessary conditions of peace and security and preventing a return to hostilities, in order to allow negotiations leading to the settlement of the dispute. The idea is that the physical presence of a multinational, neutral and impartial force should have an important deterrent effect on the belligerents.
But these fundamental principles were not respected in the case of separatist conflicts in the post-Soviet space when, in the case of both Moldova and Georgia (South Ossetia), the Russian Federation unilaterally imposed itself as a peacekeeper, in the absence of powers granted by the UN, the world organization in charge of maintaining international peace and security.
Moreover, in the conflict on the Nistru, the Russian troops stationed in Moldova participated directly in the fighting on the separatists’ side, a fact confirmed by several sources, including the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
From a position of strength…
The engagement of the Russian army in the 1992 Nistru war on the side of the Tiraspol separatists led to the military defeat of Moldova in the latter’s attempt to restore constitutional order in the Transnistrian area. Against this background, the main provisions of the 1992 Moldovan-Russian Agreement were dictated by the Russian side, the winner of the Nistru war.
Russia’s belligerent status was confirmed once more when Russia’s Boris Yeltsin signed a ceasefire agreement with Moldova’s Mircea Snegur. In its capacity as the victorious party, Moscow dictated the terms, imposing an internationally unprecedented peacekeeping mission model, among other conditions.
The uniqueness of the Russian peacekeeping model used in the Transnistrian conflict is not only in the absence of an international mandate, but also in the involvement of belligerent parties in the war as peacekeepers. And the fact Russian troops fought alongside the separatist paramilitary forces against the Moldovan army made the trilateral peacekeeping mission unfair and biased from the very beginning, putting Russian-Transnistrian complicity in opposition to Chisinau.
Bearing this in mind, the Russian model was ab initio intended not so much to maintain peace on the banks of the Nistru River as to create a screen behind which the separatist regime in Tiraspol could be strengthened in its capacity as a promoter of Moscow’s geopolitical interests in the region.
... and to its own advantage
The peacekeeping mission in Transnistria pursued yet another extremely important goal for Moscow’s geopolitical interests. The 1992 Agreement partially legitimized the stationing of Russian troops within Moldovan territory, with the most absurd effect that that legitimacy was also extended to the separatist paramilitaries that became Tiraspol’s peacekeeper troops.
At the same time, Chisinau witnessed on many occasions failures to enforce the 1992 Agreement. Notably, the peacekeeping mission has failed in ensuring a complete demilitarization of the Security Zone and the elimination of all barriers to the free movement of people, goods and services between the two banks of the Nistru.
Over the years, there were multiple incidents in the Security Zone, such as the engagement in the mission of the so-called Operative Group of Russian Troops, stationed within Moldovan territory without the consent of the Moldovan authorities, or the participation of Russian troops in joint drills with the forces Transnistrian paramilitaries, among many other examples.
All these failures of the peacekeeping mission have determined Chisinau to seek its transformation into a civilian multinational mission with an international mandate.
But this initiative of Chisinau is adamantly opposed by Moscow and Tiraspol. Russian officials stated on many occasions that they find the current mission to be “one of the most effective peacekeeping operations carried out in recent international practice”. Tiraspol agrees.
Obviously, it is precisely this “exclusivity and efficiency” in the Russian formula that transformed the current mission into a shield behind which the Tiraspol regime can thrive.
Under its protection, the separatist regime is seeking – and this has been recently reconfirmed by Transnistria’s so-called foreign minister Vitali Ignatiev – to secure its independence and subsequently become part of Russia. According to him, Transnistria’s independence is a non-negotiable priority for the leadership in Tiraspol.
Over its entire 30-year history, the mission demonstrated time and again that its main purpose is to freeze the Transnistrian conflict and blockade any comprehensive political settlement.
Trapped in this arrangement dominated by Russia in political and military complicity with the separatist regime, Moldova will be able to make any progress towards a political solution of the Transnistrian conflict only by dramatically reviewing the peacekeeping mission, in particular by seeking to turn it into a civilian one and pull it out of Moscow’s influence.
Obviously, the Kremlin will vehemently oppose such replacement plans, leaving Chisinau only the option of withdrawing from the 1992 Agreement. But today, with the war in Ukraine raging on, such a dramatic step is fraught with risks of destabilization and would be politically unacceptable.
However, this doesn’t mean that Chisinau should not plan ahead for when circumstances change, by using diplomatic consultancy for the most part to accumulate international synergy with a view to replacing the current peacekeeping mission in Transnistria.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.