China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
If you want a glimpse into the future of Moscow’s proxy statelets in eastern Ukraine, come to Bender, a so-called “demilitarized” city on the border between the Republic of Moldova and the breakaway entity of Transnistria. The city sits only about 60 miles from the nearest European Union border with Romania and provides important lessons about the risks of allowing festering conflicts to freeze on Europe’s borders. If the statuses of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics likewise remain unresolved, those territories are poised to be plagued by corruption, criminality, and dysfunctional politics.
Bender became a demilitarized city in 1992. A year earlier, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a military conflict broke out between Moldova and the Russian-backed region of Transnistria, which sought independence. In July 1992, the two sides concluded a ceasefire agreement, which included the establishment of a Joint Control Commission to supervise security arrangements in a demilitarized zone consisting of 20 towns on both sides of the river. One of those is Bender.
In Bender, Russian soldiers, officially known as “peacekeepers,” share facilities with Moldovan and Transnistrian law enforcement officials in charge of security. According to the treaty, the Moldovans police villages around the area’s main city, while the Transnistrians cover the city center itself. But the parallel authorities sometimes clash. In one particularly farcical episode described to us by Moldovan officials, Moldovan police who were arresting a suspected trafficker were themselves detained and interrogated by Transnistrian militia who happened upon the scene. In the meantime, the trafficker continued on his journey unimpeded. Indeed, Transnistria’s unresolved status has led to no shortage of criminal impunity in Europe’s borderlands.
Moldovan politicians are divided between those who look to the West and those oriented toward Moscow.
Tiraspol, the self-styled capital of Transnistria, is a Soviet time warp with a stagnant economy dependent on Russian subsidies. It features monuments to Vladimir Lenin and hosts diplomatic missions from sister breakaway regions, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Whereas the Republic of Moldova has signed an Association Agreement with the EU and harmonized many laws with EU norms, Transnistrians look to Russia for support and have a parallel legal system based on the Russian one. Russian flags flying above Transnistrian government buildings leave little doubt as to where the breakaway republic’s loyalties lay.
Dysfunction and mafia-style politics have been the status quo in Transnistria for at least 25 years. Despite years of international mediation efforts on the part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international actors, progress on final status negotiations is minimal. In 1997, the Moldovan and Transnistrian presidents signed a memorandum attempting to normalize relations further, but the two sides interpreted the memorandum’s provisions somewhat differently. Internationally mediated talks over Transnistria's status are now resuming, but with little hope of any progress. As a result, Transnistria has remained among the world’s “frozen” conflicts, several which can be found in the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Moldovan politicians are divided between those who look to the West and those oriented toward Moscow. In November 2016, Moldova elected a pro-Moscow candidate, Igor Dodon, to the country’s largely symbolic presidency. The divide between the presidency and Moldova’s pro-Western parliament has deepened, with the latter calling for the removal of Russian troops from the Transnistrian entity and Dodon refusing to sign off on the Moldovan Army’s participation in NATO exercises in Ukraine. Yet, despite such high-profile political showdowns between parliament and the presidency, corrupt politicians across the country’s political spectrum benefit from continued ambiguity relating to Transnistria’s status. Transnistrian oligarchs, for instance, depend on Moldova as a hub for money laundering. Allegations linking senior officials in Moldova’s pro-EU parliamentary government to money laundering are rife.
On the “Left Bank,” as Transnistria is often called by Moldovans, most exports are directed toward the EU, not the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. This is because Moldova allows Transnistria to benefit from the terms of Chisinau’s 2014 Association Agreement with the EU under the condition that Transnistrian firms register in Chisinau. Such selective acceptance of Moldovan sovereignty highlights the ways in which territorial ambiguity allows Transnistria to avoid the acceptance of EU norms in areas such as human rights while simultaneously benefiting from access to EU markets.
Indeed, maintaining the status quo is in the economic interest of some political and economic elites on both sides, even as it hurts ordinary people on both banks. So long as such interests remain and Russia continues to prop up the separatist government, the conflict is unlikely to boil over into violence, but neither are stability and peace within reach.
There is little reason to expect that the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk will be any different from that in Transnistria five, ten, or 20 years from now. Why? The answer lies in a combination of Russian designs on its “near abroad,” a lack of political will on the part of the EU to exert leverage in its borderlands, and the political economy of frozen conflicts.
Analysts such as Karen Dawisha, Pavel Felgenhauer, and Dmitri Trenin have argued that Russia prefers the status quo. Although it might seem logical that Russia would eventually want to annex separatist territories outright, the reality is that Transnistria's unresolved final status serves Moscow’s interests. The 1992 ceasefire left a de facto permanent Russian army garrison on Moldovan territory, ironically “protecting” a pitiful Moldovan state presence in the demilitarized zone. For Russia, the messy arrangements of ceasefires that pay some lip serve to territorial integrity while in practice undermining state sovereignty at every step give Moscow a permanent foothold in what Russia argues is its privileged zone of influence. The Kremlin thus retains leverage and influence without having to fully take responsibility for state-building and without assuming the costs of absorbing an economic basket case.
Dysfunction and mafia-style politics have been the status quo in Transnistria for at least 25 years.
Second, frozen conflicts are a profitable enterprise for oligarchs, traffickers, money launderers, and the politicians in cahoots with them. Sheriff, a financial group whose brand is ubiquitous in the breakaway entity (there are, among other businesses, Sheriff supermarkets and gas stations), was established in the early 1990s by shadowy figures from the ex-Soviet security services and eventually extended its reach into all parts of the Transnistrian economy. Victor Gusan, the Transnistrian oligarch who runs Sheriff, has profited immensely from its close relationship with separatist authorities and even built a football stadium in Tiraspol that dwarfs the stadium in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. In an ironic twist, Yevgeni Shevchuk, a former Transnistrian president and Sheriff insider who turned against Gusan and his political allies, fled to none other than Chisinau when his rivals in Tiraspol threatened to prosecute him. Moldovan prosecutors, meanwhile, have made no move to prosecute him either.
Consider also profiteering in the energy sector and how it feeds off the unresolved status quo. The Republic of Moldova is largely dependent on electricity produced at a plant in Transnistria. But Transnistria does not pay for the gas it receives from Russia’s state-owned Gazprom to fuel the power plant; rather, Gazprom charges Moldova for those gas deliveries. Transnistria then sells the electricity produced at the station to Moldova’s state-run Energocom. There is, further, a sizeable disparity between processing costs and the amount Moldova pays for the power, leading to suspicions of collusion between Moldovan and Transnistrian figures who profit handsomely from the scheme. Media reports have suggested that the intermediary company Energokapital was connected to a bank fraud in which up to $1 billion (about a fifth of Moldova’s annual GDP) went missing. All of this depends on a healthy amount of collusion between figures in Moldova and Transnistria.
The efforts of Kiev’s pro-Western government to restore Moldovan government control over the Transnistrian-Ukrainian border through a Moldovan-Ukrainian staffed border checkpoint could check smuggling and other types of profiteering that stem from the area’s unresolved status, but they could also increase tensions. Transnistrians long accustomed to free movement across Ukraine are now confronting a reality in which their landlocked enclave will be effectively cut off from the Russian Federation.
This is why both the United States and the European Union must resolve to pressure the two sides and Russia to reach a final status settlement on the Transnistrian conflict. A shortage of such willpower to date has only emboldened the separatists and those on the Moldovan side who seek to profit from permanent ambiguity. It has also increased Russia's leverage over the conflict and allowed Moscow to co-opt individual Moldovan politicians.
Any approach must start with a recognition of how Moscow’s geopolitical goals for the EU’s borders and those of criminal enterprises coincide. And it should be motivated by the goal of fully integrating Moldova into Western structures, including the European Union. The United States has valuable experience on final status negotiations from Kosovo, and it should match its diplomatic engagement to the level it used in that and other Balkan conflicts, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. The alternative is the indefinite continuation of frozen conflicts that increase Russian influence and perpetuate criminality, corruption, and poor governance.