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WWIII? Transnistria? How a Frozen Soviet Conflict could Escalate the War in Ukraine

Posted by Conrad Franz ● Apr 29, 2022 1:48:11 PM

30 years before WWI German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” Sure enough, in 1911 Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and the spark that lit the fire that would consume the empires and monarchies of Europe was ignited. As the war in Ukraine continues and the unipolar world order unravels, a frozen soviet conflict zone and unrecognized, yet functionally autonomous and independent, breakaway state in the east of Moldova could be what brings other great powers and entangled alliances into the current conflict. Transnistria is a breakaway region of Moldova internationally recognized by no UN member states yet acts with its own police, military, legislative institutions, and other infrastructure with help from Russian troops and bases in the territory. Formed during the collapse of the Soviet Union the area has a large Russian plurality and had hoped to stay in the Soviet Union as the other members fled the sinking ship. Moldova is ethnically and linguistically very similar to Romania so those in Transnistria hoped to remain with Ukraine and Russia in the event of a Moldova-Romania union (which is currently quite popular in Moldova). In the past few days, as April winds to a close and the war in Ukraine continues, there have been attacks on Transnistrian government buildings, high level Russian sources claiming Polish troops are planning to enter western Ukraine, and Romanian forces near Moldova/Ukraine. If Romanian troops encounter any of the Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria this would constitute a direct NATO-Russia clash. The US State Department claims to be watching Transnistria “like a hawk”. Could Transnistria be the 21st century powder keg that shifts this war from a localized conflict to a continental and possibly global one? 

Many maps and reports are going around positing that the result of the conflict in Ukraine will be a landlocked Ukraine with Russia and Russian backed separatists taking the entire Black Sea coast and connecting with Transnistria. This would likely involve referendums on independence in the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions of Ukraine which were heavy resistors to the Western backed Maidan coup in 2014. In fact the Kherson region is now paying its citizens pensions and buying/selling in rubles as are other parts of Russian occupied territory. The Western border of Ukraine and Moldova/Hungary/Poland is an interesting demographic situation as certain areas have well established Hungarian, Polish, and Moldovan/Romanian populations. If Russia were to take cities like Odessa and connect to Transnistria then the possibility of Hungary, Poland, and others reasserting their du jure claims in western Ukraine becomes more and more likely. In fact after the huge victory for Viktor Orban’s conservative Fidesz Party in Hungary the Hungarian Secretary of State tweeted a “special greeting to the Hungarians of Transcarpathia” (the Hungarian region of Ukraine) telling them their “mother country is with them”. Since Hungary is one of the most willing European nations to pay for gas from Russia in Rubles and not lobby for western European participation in the conflict it raises questions. Is Hungary hoping to have a seat at the drawing board for the future map of eastern Europe?

The President of Moldova has been trying to downplay the escalations in Transnistria as concrete barriers are set and conscription ramps up in the breakaway territory. She has tried to assuage rumors of Romanian troops in Moldova but has also recently admitted that Moldova has effectively no functional military. If there are increased troop movements and sightings of uniformed servicemen, however, it calls into question both of these statements being simultaneously true. While the Romanian government has denied the presence of their troops in Moldova, certain Ukrainian officials near the Transnistrian border have offered to assist in a military operation to reintegrate Transnistria with the rest of Moldova. Some reports from Russian sources are claiming knowledge of an impending military campaign against Transnistria sourced from the Ukrainian General Staff. France, Bulgaria, Canada, and other nations with citizens in or near the Transnistria region have already called on their people to leave/avoid the territory and even Moldova altogether. These developments create a much more precarious environment as more NATO countries consider military options. The possibility of Article 5 of the NATO charter being triggered goes up and as Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russian intelligence, credibly claims that Poland plans to occupy and annex parts of western Ukraine the questions of what Ukrainian statehood will look like when the dust clears grow more and more interesting. 

While outside of Transnistria the prospect of reunification of Moldova with Romania hovers around a 45/55 split in popularity with the people, the rapidly changing military situation eastward makes a black swan event, or surprise development, more likely. It may seem silly that an unrecognized territory with a population of less than 350,000 people that resembles a strange squiggle could be the catalyst for WWIII but as the world returns to great power politics and the politics of ethnicity, language, and religion it is only fitting. 



Topics: WWIII, Transnistria, How a Frozen Soviet Conflict, could Escalate the War in Ukraine

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