Pridnestrovian Diary, Part #2: Behind Russian Lines, the Future of Bessarabia is at Stake
Since his arrival in Tiraspol recently, the Pridnestrovians have been overwhelmingly courteous and helpful to this author, who as a British citizen being left free to wonder round a sliver of Bessarabian territory under military occupation by the armed forces of the Russian Federation is in an unusual situation. This author cannot complain that he is being mistreated, discriminated against or that any information about the internationally unrecognised self-declared Republic of Pridnestrovia is being kept back from him. If anything, quite the opposite is taking place; the Pridnestrovians are eager to reveal everything they can to him about their situation, both the attractive elements (that are very evident in contrast with Moldova and Romania from were he had previously been travelling) and the problems and difficulties associated with being a self-declared country that nobody else recognises. She is one of a number of such states dotted around the former Soviet Union and created by the Union's collapse in the midst of tragic conflicts, all of which have to live with certain difficulties. These problems appear similar to many of her sister-quasi-states, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea (albeit that the latter is in a somewhat different position because the political events creating Crimea as a separate region came later - in 2014 rather than in 1992), and others. So this author keeps on looking around, and keeps on talking to people. An ever clearer impression becomes apparent of the politics of Bessarabia as the war in Ukraine plays out.
The Pridnestrovians are predominantly ethnically Ukrainian, but with Russian as their first or only language. In this they are ethnically much the same as the people of southern Ukraine, from cities such as Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Mariupol and Donetsk. They are also much the same as the people of the Budzhak region, a peninsula of the Odessa oblast of Ukraine that hangs from the southwest of that country and comprises territory to the east of the Dniestr River and also the delta of the Dniestr River as she arrives at the Black Sea. The unofficial capital of Budzhak is Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi (also known as Akkerman), that sits on the west of the Dniestr (i.e. in the eastern part of the delta). Bilhorod-Dniestrovskyi is the port town for Pridnestrovia's access to the Black Sea via to Dniestr River. So Pridnestrovia, a Russian-Ukrainian territory, has (or had) her access to the Black Sea guaranteed via a port in the Budzhak region of Ukraine. To the west of the Dniestr River delta, the people are Molodovan (west of Pridnestrovia) or Gaugaz (Turkic people) west of Budzhak. Hence there is a Gaugaz autonomous region of Moldova (Gaugazia) to the west of the Dniestr river where Budzhak is to the east. If one looks at the topography of the region, this is logical: the Ukrainian people historically advanced as far as the Dniestr River, while the Moldovan (i.e. Romanian - there is no ethnic difference) people of Bessarabia advanced to the west of the Dniestr River, as did the Turkic people of the region who now form a distinctive national identity in Gaugazia, an autonomous region of Moldova.
There are a few more geographical remarks one needs to make, to round out the picture and hence to understand how the war in Ukraine is unfolding in this complex and little-understood region. Firstly Pridnestrovia has no land access to her Black Sea port Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi a mere 100km away, which is in a different country; in fact you have to drive across two borders (Pridnestrovia-Moldova and Moldova-Ukraine). By reason of political tensions between Tiraspol and Chinisnau creating trade barriers, traditionally the way people have travelled from Tiraspol to Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi is via Odessa. Secondly, Odessa has no land continuity between the principal part of Odessa oblast where the capital Odessa sits, and the Budzhak region that hangs off it for administrative reasons. The land route between Odessa and Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi is via Zatoka bridge, a large bridge across the Dniestr estuary to a sand spit upon which Zatoka, to the west of the estuary, sits. Odessa (population one million) is about 60km northeast of this bridge and its associated beach village (Zatoka is about 1,200 people); whereas Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi is about 18km north of Zatoka, up the western edge of the Dniestr. In modern times it seems hard not to draw a parallel between the Zatoka bridge that connects the Budzhak region of Ukraine to the rest of the country, with the Kerch Bridge that connects the Crimean peninsula to ("the rest of") Russia.
Finally, Izmail (population 70,000) is the southernmost town in the Budzhak region of Ukraine, and this is the town where the Budzhak region meets the Danube River and Ukraine comes to an end following that natural border. On the other side is Romania, and Romania's Black Sea city of Constanta, where the Danube meets the Black Sea, is about 60km south. Nevertheless Izmail has no proximate bridge over the Danube at this point. Therefore progress must be made using a ferry. Izmail has a Turkic feel, as does Akkerman, as these cities represented the extent of historical Turkish political domination of the Budzhak region.
Pridnestrovia was, until World War II, part of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, being its own autonomous republic within Ukraine. (The USSR had a multi-layered federal constitution.) After World War II, the territory was transferred to the Moldovan Socialist Soviet Republic, for the purpose of diluting perceived Moldovan fascism. The Romanians fought with the Nazis, for the most part; the territory of Romanian / Moldovan people was therefore divided in two at the end of the war, Romania being a separate buffer states of pre-war fascists (to put it crudely) while Moldova was a territory of more sympathetic pro-Moscow socialists; and to bump up the numbers for Moldova, Pridnestrovia was joined to Moldova as a loyal adjacent Russian-Ukrainian territory of people of different ethnicities and more emphatically pro-Soviet political views. That, in short, was the case of Pridnestrovia for independence from Moldova in the 1992 Transnistrian war. If anything, said Pridnestrovia, she should be part of socialist Ukraine, Ukraine herself joined with Russia; she should not be left to the whims of the newly independent Moldova with different people and with differing political perspectives. Nevertheless because Ukraine was herself pursuing a course of independence, joining Ukraine was not a practical option and the Pridnestrovians went it alone, inviting in Russian peacekeeping troops to preserve the independence of this sliver state.
Armed with all these facts about the shifting historical political geography of the region and a very good map, one starts to understand what went wrong in Bessarabia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet period, the fact that Budzhak lay upon a string from her mother oblast and capital city Odessa did not much matter because she had a long border with Moldova, which was also in the Soviet Union. A bridge was never built at Izmail because that would be tantamount to creating a commercial connection between the Soviet Union and socialist Romania under the Ceaucescu family who were somewhat beyond the pale. The fact that reaching Tiraspol's principal port, Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, involved crossing two borders did not matter because they were internal borders. Now the internal borders became real ones; regions become isolated and cut off; and the political map of Bessarabia appears a terrible mess. Whenever the European Union chooses to press Pridnestrovia to form stronger links with Moldova, they have done so either via their influence in Ukraine, either asking the Ukrainians to increase their border controls towards Odessa; or via their influence in Moldova, asking the Moldovans to ban Transnistrian road traffic typically by not permitting cars with Pridnestrovian licence plates to transit Moldova. Hence it becomes difficult to drive from Tiraspol to her port Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, because that involves transiting both Moldovan and Ukrainian territory, things that the European Union have been trying to make increasingly difficult for the Pridnestrovians as part of their efforts to end the Pridnestrovian frozen conflict and incorporate Pridnestrovia into Moldova proper in a way perhaps similar to the way that Gaugazia has been so incorporated: as a semi-autonomous unit. However the Pridnestrovians are much wealthier than the Gaugazians, and see themselves as being potentially net contributors to the impoverished Moldovan budget: something they do not want. In the meantime Izmail has become the single greatest point of smuggling between the CIS and the European Union. Sanctioned products pass in both directions across the unbridged, unguarded Danube river at this point. There are no customs authorities of significance to check what is going on, because it is not supposed to be a border at all. If you are sitting in Moscow still drinking sanctioned French champagne, it may well have come from Izmail. The same is true if you are sitting in Germany driving your car with sanctioned Russian oil.
It might be obvious from the explanations so far that one of the Russian goals in the Odessa region is to re-assimilate all these pieces of territory that were once Soviet into a single political bloc of a kind, so as to re-procure the advantages of single nationhood of the Soviet Union in this volatile and complicated region. Odessa is essential for this, as it is the principal Russian-Ukrainian city and also the principal provincial capital for all the places we have been talking about. It is a far more developed city than Chisinau, for example. Hence the Russian armed forces will be doing everything they can to take Odessa without securing the city's comprehensive destruction. That is why Odessa remains the least damaged city in Ukraine, and why Russia appears to be according the city low military priority. That appearance however is wrong, because Russian troops have in fact encircled Odessa in substantial part; and the Russian navy sits off the coast of Odessa, in the Black Sea, awaiting instructions.
The way that Odessa has been encircled is principally through the Russian garrison in Pridnestrovia, that seems to have been built up surreptitiously over the last couple of years and particularly during the COVID era of 2020-2021 when nobody was looking. Russia likes to plan her military operations long in advance. The number of Russian troops in Pridnestrovia as of this very day is unclear; but the short answer appears to be: not many. The greater bulk of them, plus their armour, have slipped quietly into Ukraine, both to encircle Odessa and to occupy the roads and infrastructure of Budzhak. The remaining Russian troops in Pridnestrovia exist to guard the borders against undesirables like mercenaries. Public order in Pridnestrovia is kept, to the extent necessary, by the Pridnestrovian Armed Forces, that are present in substantial numbers in Tiraspol. In the intervening period, while Russian troops in the region make preparations for political unification of the region after the fall of Odessa, the instruction has come from Moscow to close Pridnestrovia to foreign trade, travel and intervention. That explains why there are no trains in any direction; the buses have been cut; travel to Chisinau has become tricky (comprising just a few marshrutkas - Soviet regional minibuses - each day); and there are concerns about food shortages. Although some luxury items have ceased to be quite so available as they once were, food stocks are holding up; Pridnestrovia is a mostly rural place. However her agricultural economy is having to shift to autarky, because the majority of her food came from Ukraine and the instruction has been received to close Pridnestrovia to Ukraine - at least for now. Pridnestrovians experienced this situation of closure to the outside world before, in 2020, during the COVID crisis, so they are used to it. But a sense of anxiety is creeping amongst them.
Meanwhile the people of Budhzak, also Russian-Ukrainians, stay absolutely quiet. They are totally cut off from their Ukrainian compatriots and from the Ukrainian Armed Forces who might supply them with weapons, propaganda and morale, because the only point of entry to the rest of Ukraine goes via the city of Odessa and that road is now under Russian control. This region is predominantly under Russian Armed Forces governance, and this seems likely to remain the case because the Ukrainian Armed Forces simply can't get to this part of Ukraine unless they would like to go via both Pridnestrovia and Moldova: something that seems rather unlikely. In the meantime, refugees from south Ukraine are free to flee to Moldova and Romania via these routes. However the numbers doing this appear relatively small, even though the route is relatively speaking extremely safe because there is no fighting and as a practical matter there is no obstacle to driving around the ring road of Odessa and out of the city to safety, provided that one does not carry any of the tools of a Ukrainian Armed Forces member or volunteer. Odessa is encircled in circumstances of peace, because taking her peacefully is critical to reunification of the Bess arabian region.
This may also explain why the Russians are trying to avoid the annihilation of Nikolaev, a city some 130 kilometres to the east. That might create a flood of refugees headed to west to Odessa, that might cause the citizens of Odessa to panic and themselves to flee; this might place abnormal pressures upon the Bessarabia region that the Russian government is trying to keep calm and orderly, so far with substantial success. By contrast the news message being emitted here, behind Russian front lines, is that the Ukrainians are trying to provoke a massacre in Nikolaev, precisely to destabilise Odessa and to bring the Ukrainian war to the European Union's doorstep in Romania and Moldova (an accession candidate state).
That is what the picture looks like behind Russian front lines. Things are calm, and the intention is to keep them so. This area is so cut off from the greater body of Ukraine, not just geographically and militarily but mentally and in terms of news access, that it is extremely difficult for Kyiv to provoke war here. Russia appears to have a fairly clear plan for the future of southwest Ukraine and the various satellite pieces of territory that encompasses. The key is Odessa, and hence her proxy Nikolaev where at the current time it seems that only warm war is being fought, not the hottest kind. If the Russians or the Ukrainians succeed in provoking hot war in Odessa, then this entire region may begin to fall apart with all sorts of unforeseeable consequences. Hence the message for now is that Pridnestrovia, the Russian-occupied territory at the centre of a potential future Bessarabian crisis, is a sanctuary of peace and calm. That, no doubt, explains in substantial part the exceptionally warm welcome this author has received. Long may these matters stay as they currently are, notwithstanding the chaos currently enveloping the cities to the southeast of Ukraine. The fear is of a domino effect, with one Ukrainian city after another along the southern corridor exploding into violence, each creating a chain reaction affecting the next city and ending up with the military defenestration of Odessa. Odessa remains the place to watch. Let us pray that the people of Odessa continue to live in calm, and that slaughter is not visited upon them. There is a lot more at stake just than the people of Odessa, in this goal remaining solid.