In the first two parts of this series, I outlined Russian foreign-policy priorities as each relates to the state’s national interests. I have examined how those drivers have converged to begin impacting conflict zones in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the past 12 months. Over the last few months, I have focused most of my contributions on a series of conflict zones I have categorized as fracture points. Generally, these areas constitute pressure points in the intensifying conflict between the West and its adversary, Russia. Among the fracture points I have examined are Donbas (Ukraine), Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan and Armenia), and the Georgian breakaway separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

These fracture points represent valuable terrain for Russian policy strategists. Among the geopolitical battlegrounds where Russia and the West are wrestling for control are areas in which external forces could easily catalyze another war in Eastern Europe. Many of these areas have been characterized as “frozen conflicts.” Frozen conflicts, loosely defined, are places where ongoing separatist campaigns have been drawn out and, while ceasefires may have limited recent violence, the territorial conflicts remain unresolved. These frozen conflicts are, in large part, byproducts of the Cold War era. The failure of Western and Russian leaders to anticipate potential ethnic and political conflicts as borders were redrawn in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union contributed to the present-day conflicts already plaguing or threatening to erupt in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

In part one of this series, I laid out the case for how Russia’s policy of interference in regions where ethnic and political divisions have broken out into open warfare could be duplicated elsewhere. In examining the war in Ukraine, I noted that Russian intelligence and military intervention, unacknowledged by Moscow, has exacerbated the conflict. This interference has led to months of bloodletting on both sides of the war, and has increasingly destabilized the entire eastern portion of the country.

I made the case that Russia’s policy of interference in Donbas and Moscow’s persistent support for insurrectionist groups fighting forces loyal to Kiev is likely to be duplicated in a number of other separatist regions, especially those in Moldova and Georgia. In part two, I examined Russian foreign policy regionally, specifically highlighting how Eastern Europe and Central Asia could be impacted by continued Russian interference. In this article, I examine Moldova, its breakaway region, Transnistria, and the geopolitical value the country has for both the West and Russia.

On Sunday, I posted an article that examined the geopolitical issues affecting the election in Moldova. In “Fracture Points: Moldova (Transnistria), I made the case for why the continued integration of Moldova into the European community is an important part of European strategic interests and, by extension, the interests of the United States. In terms of economic and geopolitical interests, the election in Moldova and the choice of the Moldovan people to decide which direction the country should embrace, east or west, is an historical moment in the post-Cold War world. Conversely, I explained why Russian strategists value the opportunity to pull Moldova back within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. Accordingly, I explained the conflict over Moldova within the more general battle between the West and Russia:

Parliamentary elections in Moldova, scheduled for November 30, represent a watershed moment in the recent history of Western-Russian relations. In the context of the most recent conflict between the former Cold War foes, the elections will likely foreshadow the return of intensified separatist conflict to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. (Fracture Points: Moldova {Transnistria}, November 30)

Transnistria: A frozen breakaway

Situated along Moldova’s eastern border and separating the country from Ukraine, Transnistria remains largely outside the control of Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova. A breakaway state not unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the former Soviet republic state of Georgia, Transnistria originally declared its independence in 1990 but has not been recognized as a state, remaining administratively under the auspices of Chisinau and maintaining an uneasy peace between itself and the Moldovan government.

Conflicts and incidents flared as the Moldovan government attempted to assert control over the breakaway region, with notable clashes occurring between late 1990 and early 1992. In 1992, the government in Chisinau fought a months-long war against separatists in Transnistria. The war ended with a ceasefire signed on July 21, 1992, but the conflict itself has only continued to fester. It is in Transnistria that many observers have found a likely target for Russian strategists gainfully pursuing policies designed to prevent further integration of states in the post-Soviet space into the European community.

Russian military officers were noted to have openly participated in the 1992 war, supporting the separatists against Moldovan military forces. However, the Russian military itself officially remained neutral. Today, Transnistria remains a frozen conflict, a breakaway region that is often referenced as a potential new front in the Kremlin’s war to assert its dominance over its near abroad in Eastern Europe. While largely unknown throughout most of the West, any reignited conflict in Transnistria would be an important indicator that Russian interference in the affairs of its near abroad remains the dominant policy in Moscow’s playbook for ensuring complicity of former Soviet states that remain recalcitrant in pursuing membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In particular, Georgian government officials are watching events in Ukraine and Moldova with increasing anxiety, carefully examining the actions of both the West and Russia, and assessing the likelihood that war could be coming to the Caucasus. Many observers now assert that reinvigorated efforts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to assert their independence from Georgia could be burgeoned by a similar effort in Transnistria.

Moldova and the autonomous regions of Transnistria (Stanga Nistrului) and Gagauzia.

Parliamentary elections

As the elections in Moldova elapse, the results of the polls will provide the world a glimpse into where the next Russo-Western conflict zone could develop. Any obvious lean towards the EU will entice Russian strategists to weigh options in ensuring another former Soviet republic is not easily integrated into the European community. In geopolitical terms, the continued integration of Moldova into the European community would represent a significant loss to Russian influence over its near abroad. As of this writing, election results have not been officially determined and the outcome of the election remains unknown.

In its short post-Soviet history as an independent state, Moldova has had very few moments that compare to the election held on November 30. Moldovan voters had, within their capacity, the power to significantly sway the geopolitical advantage for the West or for Russia. In the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the suddenly renewed fears of separatist violence and insurrection in the Caucasus, the election in Moldova represents in large measure a watershed moment for the future of democracy and economic modernization in the post-Soviet space of Eastern Europe.

The Way Ahead

Observers in both the West and Russia will be watching this weekend’s elections warily, anxiously awaiting results that could serve as the spark that ignites anew the conflict in Transnistria. Many will be watching the results and anticipating the inevitability of war in Transnistria, a conflict in a largely forgotten former Soviet republic that has remained frozen for over two decades. Others will have already concluded that, regardless of the outcome of elections, Moscow will continue to implement policies of clandestine interference in its near-abroad states.

Russia’s insistence on exacerbating separatist conflicts, especially in states pursuing integration in the EU and NATO, will continue unabated. Unfortunately for the people of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, much of the near-term future is reliant on the outcome of the elections this past Sunday in Moldova. A slight tipping of the balance east or west or, perhaps worse, a contested election rife with accusations of fraud and external interference, could cast a large shadow over the future of Eastern Europe and signal renewed violent conflict in places such as Transnistria, Găgăuzia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

Those paying attention to the events in Eastern Europe during the past year await the results of the election with anticipation and apprehension.