The West is closely watching Putin’s next move after the breakaway region asks Moscow to “protect” it from Moldova

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with his confidantes for the 2024 elections at Gostiny Dvor in Moscow, Russia on January 31, 2024.

Maxim Semetov | Reuters

Speculation is mounting that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use his annual address to Russian lawmakers on Thursday to announce that Russian troops will be sent to “protect” the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova.

That could happen after officials in the breakaway region appealed to Russia on Wednesday for “protection” against Moldova’s pro-Western government. Russia’s foreign ministry responded by saying that protecting the interests of Transnistrians — calling them Russia’s “compatriots” — was one of Russia’s priorities and would carefully consider the request, the ministry told RIA Novosti.

Analysts said Putin could now use his state of the nation address – an overview of the current situation in the country and Russia’s goals at home and abroad – to make an announcement about Transnistria, a region in eastern Moldova which Russia has supported since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late December 1991;

“One sign to watch for this year is whether Putin makes any references to Transnistria, an internationally recognized part of Moldova that has been controlled by Russia since 1992,” said Andrius Tursa, Central and Eastern Europe adviser at risk consultancy Teneo, on a note. week.

Transnistria’s self-proclaimed pro-Russian authorities held a conference of top officials on Wednesday, calling on Moscow to implement measures to protect Transnistria — a region also known as Transnistria or Pridnestrovie — and its economy against an alleged threat from Moldova, which aimed at the reintegration of the region.

“There is social and economic pressure on Transnistria, which directly contradicts European principles and approaches to the protection of human rights and free trade,” the text of a resolution from the meeting said, Reuters reported.

The document addressed the Russian parliament, the Federal Assembly, asking it to “implement measures to protect Pridnestrovie [Transnistria] in the context of increasing pressure from Moldova”, Tass news agency reported.

The request, officials said, was submitted “taking into account the fact of permanent residence on the territory of the Moldavian Republic of Pridestrian [the official name of Transnistria] of more than 220,000 Russian citizens and the unique positive experience of Russian peacekeeping in the Dniester, as well as the guarantor and mediator status in the negotiation process,” the resolution states.

The Moldovan government dismissed the statement yesterday as “propaganda”. with a government spokesman stating that “at this point, we want to say clearly and decisively – there are no risks of escalation and destabilization of the situation in the Transnistrian region of Moldova.”

“We closely monitor and reiterate that the Transnistrian region is aligned with the goal of peace and security of Moldova. This is another propaganda event,” said spokesman Daniel Voda.

The White House said it noted the development with State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, saying on Wednesday that “Given Russia’s increasingly aggressive role in Europe, we are watching very closely Russia’s actions in Transnistria and the broader situation there.”

Concerns are growing

While Transnistria’s self-proclaimed authorities have made similar calls in the past, the latest request, amid Russia’s ongoing incursion into Ukraineis bound to heighten “concerns about Moscow’s broader territorial ambitions in Europe,” Tursa said in emailed comments on Tuesday.

“As a result, repeated rumors of Russia’s alleged plans to annex the region could be part of Moscow’s efforts to heighten political tensions in Moldova ahead of crucial presidential elections in the fall of 2024, which may be held along with referendum on the pursuit of EU membership”. write down.

A map of Moldova, including the breakaway region of Transnistria.

Lonely Planet Images | Getty

Russia already has a small military presence in Transnistria and on Ukraine’s western border. No member of the United Nations (including Russia) recognizes Transnistria’s sovereignty, and most of the United Nations considers the region part of Moldova. which has expressed a desire to reintegrate the area.

The latest call for aid gives Russia a feasible excuse to bolster those numbers, although it would be “extremely difficult” to do so, Tursa noted, because of its landlocked location.

Russia is likely to justify the move by saying it is acting to protect its citizens. The same tactic has been used in eastern Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the case of the Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.

“Transnistria is a focal point for Putin’s games because he can easily escalate a crisis due to the presence of Russian troops and Russian citizens there,” said Ivana Stradner, a researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. in email comments.

“Putin understands that as the West gets distracted in Ukraine, the Middle East, EU and US elections, he can escalate the crisis in Transnistria through his proxies and show that the West will not protect Moldova.”

CNBC has reached out to the Kremlin for comment and is awaiting a response.

Putin's ambitions go beyond holding Ukrainian territory, says ex-German ambassador

The move could also be a precursor to a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, said analysts at the Institute for the Study of Waror to Russian troops not only entering but annexing Transnistria, amid speculation that Russia wants the occupied territory’s “land bridge” in a region of southern Ukraine to reach Transnistria.

So far, however, Russian forces have not taken all of southern Ukraine, with Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa still in Ukrainian hands.

A woman sells candles and incense at the central market in Chisinau, Moldova, on April 29, 2022.

Daniel Mihailescu Afp | Getty Images

Like Ukraine, both Moldova and Georgia have pro-Western governments and want to join the EU, meaning relations with Russia remain strained.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, there were strong concerns that Georgia and Moldova could be next on the list, given Putin’s apparent ambition to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and the emergence of a Russian empire.

Any move by Russia to boost its military presence in Moldova could put it in direct conflict with the Moldovan government and armed forces, potentially opening another front in Russia’s war of expansion.

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