As discussed in an earlier article, the Bessarabian region of Europe, that historically comprised regions of the territories we now call Romania, Moldova, Pridnestrovia, the Odessa region of Ukraine and Budzhak (a peninsula of land hanging down from the tri-point of Palanca, Budzhak being formally part of Ukraine and reaching as far as the Danube river in the south), is important to understand to fully comprehend Russian war objectives. At the same time, it is a key transit locus for both refugees and for commerce that may keep Ukrainians and their neighbours with food and medical supplies during the war. It also is, or should be, an essential part of Europe for management of Ukraine's refugee crisis. However there is one important mystery: the refugees aren't there. This calls for explanation, and it will turn out to tell us much about Ukraine's war that many contemporary international media sources have missed.
The village of Palanca in far southern Moldova is the beginnings of any understanding of the logistics involved in relieving the refugee and food crises of the war in Ukraine, at least insofar as the south of Ukraine is concerned. That is because at this point, Moldova dissects Ukraine into two parts, and only a few kilometres to the north the internationally unrecognised but relatively wealthy territory of Pridnestrovia begins. However before we continue, we must emphasise something about this region: the concepts of borders and nationhood that derive from them are relatively intangible affairs. The first thing to learn is that there is a limited amount of value in the various electronic maps we all peruse these days; and there are no accurate physical maps either. Someone has drawn a line that is supposed to represent the extent of Pridnestrovian territory in her dispute with Moldova, upon some of the electronic maps. But that line is not only inaccurate but almost conceptually wrong. Pridnestrovia (Transniestr) does not really have a border per se. Outside its capital Tiraspol it consists of a series of settlements that are notionally under Pridnestrovian government control. However the issue is tenuous. There is a Pridnestrovian border point between two settlements named Hinaia and Rascaieti; but that is the only such border post in southern Pridnestrovia. It is unclear who drew the remainder of the border's demarcation, full of zigs and zags; the issue seems lost in the mists of time.
The same issues apply to northern Pridnestrovia. The Pridnestrovians consider Dubassari to be part of their northern territory, and there are Pridnestrovian border posts on the road heading southwest out of that town, with only one road of any size connecting it to the southern parts of Transniestr. The Moldovans claim Dubassari it to be part of Moldova 'proper', but there is no evidence of Moldovan administration of that territory. There is a road to the Ukrainian border northeast from Dubassari, that heads towards the Ukrainian settlements of Malaivtsi and Okny. The Pridnestrovians control the road and they have closed the border crossing. The other, more major, Ukrainian border crossing that the Pridnestrovians have also closed is at Kuchurhan, which this author was shown to be closed. Pridnestrovia says that all its borders with Ukraine have been closed by Ukraine, although it seems more likely that those borders have been closed by Pridnestrovia (although there is no real way of knowing).
There are also informal borders between Pridnestrovia and Ukraine, the exact locations of which are known only to select local people and they do not appear to have been closed. In the north of Pridnestrovia, there is a closed Ukrainian border from Kodyma (Ukraine) to Caterinovca (Pridnestrovia). However there is an open border between Pschanka (Ukraine) and Hrustovaya (Moldova), and heading south from there one will reach the settlement of Camenca (Pridnestrovia) from where one can head south to Caterinovca and Ribnita. The main border between Tiraspol (capital of Pridnestrovia) and Chisinau (capital of Moldova) is to the west of the city of Bender. Like Dubassi, this is a city that the Moldovans claim to control but that in fact appears to be controlled by the Pridnestrovians (and indeed a regionally famous Pridnestrovian nightclub is in Bender). That border is open but only vaguely manned, to the best of this author's impressions.
To round out the picture, although Palanca is a tri-point between Moldova and the two parts of Ukraine (Odessa oblast and beyond to the northeast, and Budzhak to the southwest), and it looks from any map as though the only way to get between the two parts of Ukraine is to walk along the beach of the Lower Dniepr Natural Park, in fact the Ukrainians have built a highway bypass for traffic that runs almost straight through the centre of Palanca and can easily be seen from the village. This bypass appears on no maps at all that this author has seen. At the time of writing that road is busy with traffic running from Odessa to Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi (the capital of Budzhak) including commercial trucking and cars in both directions without border controls. Alternatively one may transit from the one part of Ukraine to the other by traversing both open Ukrainian borders in Palanca, entering Moldova from the eastern Palanca crossing (Ukraine to Moldova) and then exiting Moldova to Ukraine using the western Palanca border (a distance of about five kilometres between the two). The eastern Palanca border is the busiest of all the various open borders with Ukraine that Moldova has.
Although almost every open border between Ukraine and Moldova has a western media presence, apparent humanitarian workers ready to put refugees arriving at the border on foot into minibuses, and aggressive Moldovan guards who do not appreciate photography, there are in fact virtually no refugee flows in the conventional sense. To give an example, the Palanca east border has a lot more traffic entering Ukraine from Moldova (mostly cars with Ukrainian licence plates) than leaving Ukraine. A policy of intentional delays appears to be being applied by one or the other side on some of these borders, although it is hard to say really who is more at fault. A substantial refugee camp, ready to accept several hundred refugees, exists at Palanca; it is tent-based. However there are no refugees staying there; it would appear to be an EU funding junket. There are also a series of informal taxis at the various open borders, who will take people wherever they are paid to go. (Each one may be offering different sorts of and standards of refugee accommodation.) The borders are open and all you need is a passport and a story; crossing the borders on foot is advisable, as is having a car pre-prepared to collect you having crossed the border. Ukrainian border formalities are slow but are essentially functional. One UNHCR food truck was observed crossing the border. But various other commercial lorries were also seen crossing the Ukrainian border without anything other than delay. The number of cars per hour crossing each open border was perhaps in the region of three to ten. The Ukrainian borders are very quiet indeed. At least in southwestern Ukraine, headed towards Moldova, there is very little movement of people or goods although no appreciable impediment to such movements save moderate delays. The purpose of such delays may simply to be to make the borders look more busy than they really are, a bit like a line outside a nightclub in the rain.
Refugee facilities in both Romania and Moldova appear to be tent-based, in fields, with food and running water supplied. Although it would be a stretch to describe those facilities as primitive, they are not comfortable and there is no obvious access to activities, exercise or medical care. They look as though they are refugee camps in some remote part of Africa. Pridnestrovia has been accepting refugees with Ukrainian passports or identity documents into three of its Soviet-era sanitoriums. Their locations will not be provided in this article because there is a wish not to overflow them. Suffice it to say that the facilities are extremely high, with en suite rooms being provided for each family, three meals a day being provided, education and games for children, and comprehensive access to medical facilities. The total number of refugees in Pridnestrovia is about 500, a relatively wealthy territory that is funding the support for these refugees from its own budget and without international assistance (because no international organisations provide Pridnestrovia with assistance, the territory not being recognised by the international community).
Understanding all of these details requires a good map of the region, which as already observed does not exist and hence the details above have only been learned through practical experience. However a number of lessons may be drawn. Firstly, travel around southwestern Ukraine appears not to be significantly restricted. Odessa is at peace. Nikolaev is peaceful in the centre, although Russian artillery and missiles are being used immediately to attack any Ukrainian Armed Forces units who attempt to move into the city. The Russian Army appears determined to avoid the mistake they made in Mariupol, which was to permit infiltration of the city centre with a radical unit of troops who were not from the city or the region, namely the Azov Brigades. Now the Azov Brigades have decided to fight until the Russians flatten the city, something a defending army can do to a city if they decide not to surrender, they have no care for their own lives nor for those of the occupants of the city they are defending. Russia does not want Nikolaev to go the same way so is acting aggressively against incoming Ukrainian soldiers while otherwise trying to leave the city in peace. Odessa remains a haven of calm, one of the few cities in which life goes on normally. This author has also received intelligence that western Ukraine is now awash with refugees, with the result that food and accommodation prices are skyrocketing. However Western Ukraine is otherwise mostly peaceful. Moldova and Romania are not popular refugee destinations for Ukrainians who decide that they have to flee, because they offer only tent-like accommodation and they are difficult countries to move on from in the direction of the west, where better quality accommodation may be available. Several western European countries are running schemes where people take in Ukrainian refugees to their homes, something that is surely far better than a tent.
More generally, this author has heard reports of refugee inflation. Moldova and Romania have inflated their refugee numbers in order to obtain the EU subsidies being offered to construct and maintain refugee camps. Hence this author has seen several tent-like structures in those countries, plus venues providing free food from tents, albeit with no refugees as customers and the facilities generally abandoned and loosely guarded by the domestic Police. The Pridnestrovian refugee facilities are little-known, highly superior and totally unadvertised. No journalists have reached these facilities and hence they are simply unreported. This is probably intentional; Pridnestrovia is too small to accept large numbers of refugees (which it would probably receive if people knew of the existence and whereabouts of the facilities) particularly without access to international funding.
While Odessa remains quiet and Nikolaev a tolerable if not a pleasant place to live, the flood of refugees through the Palanca tri-point - and also onto Budzhak, where there is no conflict and minimal disruption of everyday life, and there is ample space for refugee accommodation - will not take place. Those refugees who have decided to use the Palanca tri-point under current conditions in the south of the country appear already to have used it, for the most part relatively early in the war, and now they are moving on. Perhaps the most critical hidden part of the conflict is the amassing of refugees in western Ukraine, where food and accommodation are both at risk of running out. Poland has already taken substantial numbers of refugees and it would be undesirable to move internally displaced persons in western Ukraine abroad if their needs can be met while they remain situated in western Ukraine. This will require substantially larger quantities of aid and better organisation of accommodation. This should be the refugee agencies' medium-term objectives, for as long as the Russian military does not turn its fire towards western Ukrainian cities in heavy quantities: something that would drive the internally displaced peoples over borders.
In conclusion, the international community needs to keep a watching brief on Odessa and in particular Nikolaev, keeping the Palanca tri-point corridor open but not investing excessive resources in it until attacks upon those cities might lead to a horrendous flood of refugees. Some sort of dialogue should be opened with internationally non-recognised Pridnestrovia, simply because it remains the wealthiest territory in the region and therefore, proportionate to size, the most able to assist to the highest standards. Moreover its people are ethnically the same as those who would be fleeing southern Ukrainian cities.
There has been some speculation that the Kremlin's intentions may now be to create a greater Russia absorbing eastern, southeastern and southern Ukraine, including the Bessarabian Budzhak, but there is a desire that this be done rather than by destroying each and every city in the style of Mariupol (as occurred after Ukrainian troops infiltrated the city from elsewhere) but rather using the Kherson model (also seen to a degree in Nikolaev) in which local civilian leaders negotiate with the Russians to prevent Russian troops from entering the city, in exchange for the city staying at peace as Russian forces progress west. If that model can be pursued effectively, then the massive exodus of refugees through Palanca and beyond may never take place. If it cannot, and refugee flows are created through intense city centre street fighting (and remember it is a cardinal rule of refugee crises that refugees run not because they believe in causes but because they are in fear of death), then the Bessarabian region, including the Budzhak region of Ukraine itself, are going to need to get used to the prospect of an impending refugee crisis of monumental proportions.