martes, 26 de marzo de 2013

Transnistria: the geostrategic importance of Russia’s “second Kaliningrad”

Yesterday, US Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to the Moldovan capital Chisinau, after a stop in Moscow earlier in the week. In a meeting with Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, Biden called for the resumption of negotiations with the representatives of the breakaway republic of Transnistria, stating that such talks must be aimed at “a settlement that preserves Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, which occupies a narrow strip of land between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border, proclaimed independence from the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990. After a brief war fought with the help of Russian and Ukrainian troops, including Don and Kuban Cossacks, the Russian-speaking republic consolidated its de facto independence on July 21, 1992, when a ceasefire was finally signed by Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his Moldovan counterpart Mircea Snegur. Since then, Transnistria has been considered as one of the post-Soviet space’s “frozen conflicts,” as Moscow has continued to provide military, political and economic support to what has been described as “a second Kaliningrad”.

Facing the threat Transnistria poses to national integrity, Moldovan Defense Minister Valeriu Marinuta has recently expressed his belief that Moldova may abandon its neutral status and join NATO. In an interview on February 23, Marinuta told that the Alliance is a security organization that is able to take part in conflict resolution and “peace enforcement” operations, stating that it is “no longer something to be afraid of.” Marinuta pointed out that Moldova’s neutral status is enshrined in the constitution and precludes joining a military bloc, the reason why, he explained, for the past decade neutrality and NATO have been taboo subjects in Moldova, with an estimated 60 percent of the population supporting European integration, but only 25 percent in favour of joining NATO. The Moldovan official said the people of Moldova should decide whether or not to “preserve our neutral status.”

In the meantime, the pro-Western turn in Chisinau has already provoked a stiffening of Moscow’s position on Transnistria, as the Kremlin and Tiraspol seem intent on stonewalling the negotiations on the issue indefinitely. Following a meeting with Lithuanian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Audronius Azubalis, Transnistrian Foreign Minister Vladimir Yastrebchak recently declared that a resumption of negotiations would be “premature.” Yastrebchak also added that the resolution of the Kosovo and Sudan conflicts should be acknowledged as possible “precedents” to resolution of the Transnistria conflict, while any negotiation on the issue “must take the expressed view of the people into account,” with the possibility of promoting plebiscites for Tiraspol’s “independence” from Moldova “with subsequent integration of Transnistria with the Russian Federation.”

From the Russian point of view, maintaining a military presence in Transnistria is a means to avoid, or at least to post-pone, any possible adhesion of Moldova to NATO; nevertheless, the Transnistrian territory may also be useful for another task: to put pressure on NATO’s southern flank in case the Alliance decides to proceed with deploying of a new missile defense system without active Russian participation. Last week, Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin criticised plans to site US missiles in Poland and Romania as being “a potential threat to Russia”, calling the planned system “a US anti-missile system in disguise”. “The third and the fourth phases of the proposed US missile shield in Europe bear a potential threat to Russia,” Rogozin said, after US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski confirmed that the US will be stationing a defensive rocket system in Poland as part of Barack Obama’s European missile shield. The ambassador said that Russia agreed at the NATO summit in December to cooperate with a fully integrated European missile system and not two different systems run by Russia and NATO separately.

Moscow has warned many times Washington that any plan to deploy missile defense facilities in Poland would force Russia to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. In this sense, the identification of Transnistria as “a second Kaliningrad” acquires a new dramatic meaning: whether the Russian exclave in the Baltic may welcome Iskander missiles directed at Poland, the separatist republic may be used as a missile base against US military facilities on Romanian soil. Despite Obama’s “reset” policy toward Russia, Washington and Moscow remain similar to two chess players, which are moving their pawns in a chessboard stretching from the Black Sea to the Tien Shan Mountains. Transnistria, not differently from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is one of these pawns.

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