Now that Crimea has been saved by Vladimir Putin's benevolent decision to legally annex it, observers are trying to figure out what to make of a Russian troop build-up on its border with Ukraine. Of particular note in these discussions has been the republic of Transnistria.
Never heard of Transnistria? That's okay, because not only have most people never heard of it, there are several different ways in which people have never heard of it. For instance, it's sometimes known as Transdniestria. Or, for wonks who want to have never heard of it on a more formal basis, it's called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or Pridnestrovie. But no matter what name you use when shrugging your shoulders and looking confused because you've never heard of it, Transnistria is a breakaway region of Moldova — a country situated between Romania and Ukraine — that makes up much of what would otherwise be the border between Moldova and Ukraine.
Interest in Transnistria ticked up sharply Sunday thanks in part to remarks made by General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, during a Q&A session at the Brussels Forum. "There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that," Breedlove said. "And that's very worrisome."
A quote like that was all the ammo journalists needed to, in that finest of journalistic traditions, gin up readers by scaring the shit out of them. The Russians are massing on the border of Ukraine in preparation for a blitzkrieg through the country in order to reach the breakaway state of Transnistria! In reality, however, Breedlove went on to speak about the difference between capabilities and intent. As he said, the capability is clearly there for Russia to carry out such an operation, but Russia's intent is far more difficult to determine.
Maybe Putin is playing one of his nine-dimensional chess games and Transnistria would fill an unforeseeable role. Or maybe annexing it would simply suit his sense of humor.
Transnistria broke away from Moldova in 1990 because people there thought Moldova was going to become part of Romania, and the citizens of Transnistria apparently had a huge aversion to becoming Romanian. Bitter fighting ensued, and in 1992 peace was achieved thanks in part to a contingent of 1,500 Russian peacekeepers. The country hasn’t been widely recognized internationally, making it another one of those conflict leftovers, the frozen state. And like a lot of frozen states, the region has become a thoroughfare for smuggling; Transnistria in particular is home to a robust organized crime presence.
While people in Transnistria appear to be super eager to become a part of Russia, they're also fans of controlling their own destiny, as evidenced by all of the voting they do about it: A 1989 vote to rejigger borders and create a Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. A 1991 vote to stay in the Soviet Union. A 1991 vote to become a fully independent state outside the Soviet Union. A 1995 vote to allow Russian troops to remain in the country. A 1995 vote that addressed some aspects of independence. A 2006 independence referendum that addressed others.
That’s six votes for independence, dependence, interdependence, and/or codependence in 25 years.
Anyway, this is all great news as far as the world of pundits and speculation is concerned. Lots of Russian speakers? Check! A breakaway republic populated by Cold War enthusiasts? Check! Russian troops already there? Check! Vlad Putin feeling like a Russian Chuck Norris with tanks? Check!
Plus, if Russia took Transnistria, Ukraine would have Russian troops on three borders instead of two. That could mean the Russians would then grab Odessa and get what remains of Ukraine’s fashionable beach-front real estate.
Conclusion: Transnistria is Crimea Jr.
There are three problems with that analysis. First, looking at a map, it's plain to see that it'd be a real pain in the ass for Russian forces to get there. Transnistria is bordered by Moldova and Ukraine and doesn’t have any access to the Black Sea. Russia is not on the best of terms with Ukraine right now, which means Ukraine would no doubt make transportation to and supply of Transnistria an unholy pain for Russia. Moldova would flip out if Russia were to take over and wouldn’t be much help either. So even if the Russians could somehow get to the region, it would be very difficult to keep Transnistria fully supplied with fur hats and Lenin statues.
Secondly, the place is basically just the east bank of a river, meaning it lacks what military folks call “strategic depth." The territory is slightly larger than Rhode Island if you took Rhode Island and rolled it out into one of those long, skinny clay snakes kids make in grade school. The clay snake that is Transnistria is about 120 miles long and on average about 8 miles wide, and is home to about half a million people.
In other words, if a Russian soldier got out of his transport to take a leak, he might accidentally violate an international border — there’s no room for units to maneuver, back up, turn around, etc. So if it came down to a fight, Russia might have serious trouble holding onto Transnistria. As it stands now, military planners there probably live in fear of a Ukrainian soldier forgetting to set the parking break on his tank and accidentally conquering them.
Third, what on Earth is Putin supposed to do with Transnistria? All he'd have at the end of the day is a skinny stretch of riverfront property sandwiched between a panicked Moldova and a bitter Ukraine. Crimea, on the other hand, offered military, nationalistic, and natural-resource value. Maybe Putin is playing one of his nine-dimensional chess games and Transnistria would fill an as-yet unforeseeable role. Or maybe annexing it would simply suit his sense of humor. Regardless, he has the capability to take Transnistria, but as Breedlove pointed out, there's no telling what his intent is.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan