Russian troops in Transnistria – a threat to the security of the Republic of Moldova

Russian troops in Transnistria – a threat to the security of the Republic of Moldova

decembrie 05
15:57 2006
Russian troops in Transnistria  – a threat to the security of the Republic of Moldova

By Dr. Mihai Gribincea, Institute of Political and Military Studies, Chişinău, Moldova
Besides Transnistrian separatism, a source of threat to the security and independence of the Republic of Moldova is the Russian troops located in the eastern part of the country.

The history of Russian military presence on the territory which today is part of the Moldovan Republic spans more than 200 years. Russian troops were first deployed as part of a permanent regime on certain areas of the Republic’s territories (in Transnistria) as a result of the Peace Treaty of Iaşi in 1791. The distribution of troops in the districts to the east of the Nistru River was a result of Russian expansion policy, which the leaders in the Kremlin have not yet abandoned, even today. The long history of the spread of Russian troops on Moldova’s territory began as a tool used by the Russian tsars, and later by the Soviet authorities to promote the expansion policy. Since the beginning of 1991, after the break up of the USSR, their deployment became an instrument to promote Russian foreign policy in accordance with the current view that the newly independent former Soviet states form a sphere of influence of Russia.

Today, Russian military presence on the territory of the Republic of Moldova manifests itself in the form of the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) and “peacekeeping forces”. The Operational Group was established as a result of a directive (No. 314/2/0296)[1] from the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, and is considered to be the successor to the 14th Army. The history of this Army began  in the second half of November 1956. It was established by merging the 10th and 24th Army Corps of the Odessa Military District, which had been dissolved by a directive (dated 15th of October 1956) from the Main Headquarters of the Ground Troops of the USSR. In the course of the Soviet era, the 14th Army underwent more changes but maintained a constant military presence on Moldova’s territory.

The "peacekeeping" forces presently active on the territory of the Republic of Moldova were established there on 27th July 1992 on the decision of the Joint Control Commission (JCC), which had been set up in order to ensure the practical realization of the “Agreement between the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation on the principles of a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict in the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova”, signed in Moscow on 21 July 1992. Bearing in mind that the role and the significance of these peacekeeping forces (PF) has already been discussed in other specialized literature[2], and because it is not the subject of this article, we will refrain here from going into detail about their history and activities. Nevertheless, we would just like to emphasize the fact that the Russian “peacekeeping” forces in Transnistria have been, and will be again, used by Moscow as a defence shield for the separatist authorities in Tiraspol.

By August 1991, according to different sources, there were approximately 23,000 to 30,000 Soviet soldiers on the territory of the Republic of Moldova[3]. They were based in 36 military garrisons in Moldova, the biggest of them being the Chişinău and Tiraspol garrisons. Most of the units consisted of troops from the 14th Army. However, there were also 5th Air Army units in Moldova, directly subordinate to the Odessa Military District, and shore-based divisions of the Black Sea Fleet. The 5th Air Army contingent on Moldovan territory included the 36th Helicopter and the 5th Reconnaissance Squadrons, while the 86th Combat Aircraft Regiment was deployed in Mărculeşti as part of the 119th Infrastructure unit of the Black Sea Fleet and the 300th Paratroops Regiment in the centre of Chişinău as part of the 98th Airborne Division deployed in Bolgrad.

During the "Cold War" in the case of conflict, it was the mission of Soviet troops of the Odessa Military District (including the 14th Army) to carry out strategic offensive action against the Balkans on the south western military operations front, while the Suez Canal and the northern coast of Africa constituted the second objective. In this context, Moldova and the Soviet military forces on its territory, were of global strategic significance[4]. Although after the disintegration of the USSR, Moldova lost this significance Russia nevertheless continued to view Moldova as an extremely important strategic point in south east Europe. General Lebed, former commander of the 14th Army, called Transnistria "the key to the Balkans", and considered that Russia would loose this advantage and its influence in the area if it were to pull out its troops from Moldova[5]. Nowadays, more and more observers believe that Russia sustains Transnistrian separatism and wants to keep the troops in the region, wishing to make Transnistria a second Kalinigrad.

The 14th Army’s implication in the armed conflict in Transnistria came to the attention of the international community in the summer of 1992. Although the Russian Government insistently denied any culpability in the conflict, some senior Russian officials have however admitted Russian troop’s participation in the war in Transnistria. For example, Sergey Stankevich, Adviser to President Yeltsin, stated that the tanks of the 14th Army had taken part in driving Moldovan troops out of Bendery, and that Transnistrian troops had been installed in the town[6]. General A. Lebed, who was in command of the 14th Army during the armed conflict, recalled the following concerning his own role in the support provided to the separatist forces of Transnistria, “I recruited 12,000 soldiers and officers myself. I armed them with everything they required, then I declared all armaments as lost or captured”.[7] As far as human and material losses of the 14th Army during the war were concerned, in a letter dated 9 September 1992 sent to Pavel Grachev (by that time Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation), General Lebed mentioned that human casualties amounted to 7 dead and 48 wounded. The material damage suffered by the 14th Army units was estimated to have been 65.8 million roubles.[8]

The implication of the 14th Army in the creation of the “Moldovan Transnistrian Republic ("RMN”/ "PMR") and in the Transnistrian conflict was also cited in the decision of the European Court for Human Rights, on 8 July 2004, in the case of “Ilascu and others v. Moldova and Russia”. Among other things, the Decision stated that During the Moldovan conflict in 1991-92, forces of the former Fourteenth Army (which had owed allegiance to the USSR, the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS] and the Russian Federation in turn) stationed in Transniestria, had fought with and on behalf of the Transniestrian separatist forces. Large quantities of weapons from the stores of the Fourteenth Army had been voluntarily transferred to the separatists, who had also been able to seize possession of other weapons unopposed by Russian soldiers. In addition, throughout the clashes between the Moldovan authorities and the Transniestrian separatists the Russian leaders had, through their political declarations, supported the separatist authorities. The Russian authorities had therefore contributed both militarily and politically to the creation of a separatist regime in the region of Transniestria, part of the territory of the Republic of Moldova. Even after the cease-fire agreement of 21 July 1992, Russia had continued to provide military, political and economic support to the separatist regime, thus enabling it to survive by strengthening itself and by acquiring a certain amount of autonomy vis-à-vis Moldova.”[9]

An example of an indirect admission, and perhaps the most significant of Russia’s “direct” admissions of complicity in the Transnistrian conflict: implicitly with troops in the military phase, was the signing in Moscow of the Convention regarding the principles of a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict in the Transnistrian Region of the Republic of Moldova, known as the “Yeltsin-Snegur Convention” of 21 July 1992. Article 1 of this Convention states that “From the moment of signing the Convention, the parties in conflict commit themselves to undertake all the necessary measures for a total cease-fire and halt to any armed actions, one against the other.” [10] This inter-state document was signed by the leaders of the two states of the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation, without there being any specific mention throughout the whole of its text of the existence of a secessionist regime in Tiraspol. In fact, from a judicial point of view the “Yeltsin-Snegur Convention” is about the cease-fire between two parties in military conflict – the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation. The European Court for Human Rights’ decision in the case of “Ilascu and others v. Moldova and Russia”, mentioned above, indicates that Russia not only supported Transnistrian separatism militarily, politically and economically, but also “drafted the main lines of the ceasefire agreement of 21 July 1992, and moreover signed it as a party."[11]

After the cease of military hostilities on the Nistru, Moldova carried on difficult negotiations with Russia regarding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova, which resulted in Moscow consenting to sign an agreement with the Moldovan Government in Chisinau on 21 October 1994. According to Article 2 of the Agreement, “The Russian side, taking into account the technical aspects and the time necessary to relocate troops to other sites” committed itself to the removal of its troops within three years of the date when the Agreement came into effect. At the same time, “The practical aspects of moving the military units of the Russian Federation from the Republic of Moldova’s territory within the limits of the established term” had to be “synchronized” with “the political settlement of the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova”.[12]

The Moldovan Government approved the October 1994 Agreement on 9 November of the same year, but Russia sought various excuses for not putting it into effect. Consequently, Moldovan diplomats, realizing that Russia did not intend to ratify or carry out the Agreement, looked for new ways and possibilities to achieve Russian withdrawal of troops from the territory of the Republic of Moldova. Moldovan diplomacy took particular advantage of the negotiations concerning The Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (The Adaptation of the CFE Treaty) and managed to ensure that a special paragraph about the removal of Russian troops from Moldova’s territory was introduced into the text of the OSCE Summit Declaration of Istanbul (1999). Russia had committed itself in Istanbul to pulling out its troops from the Transnistrian region of the Moldovan Republic by 2002.[13]

After the Summit in Istanbul, at which the Russian Federation reaffirmed its commitment to the withdrawal of its troops from Moldova by the end of 2002, Russia continued to ignore the agreements made with the government in Chisinau and with the international community regarding the removal of its troops from Moldova. However, being mindful of the effects and implementation of The Adaptation of the CFE Treaty (President Vladimir Putin eventually signed the Law on the ratification of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe on 19 July 2004[14]), Russia could no longer evade its commitments regarding Moldova made within the framework of the Final Act of Participating-States in the CFE Treaty, namely to remove from Moldova the heavy armaments limited by this Treaty by the end of 2001. As a result, during the two years following the 1999 Istanbul Summit, Moscow withdrew 125 pieces of Treaty Limited Equipment (TLE) and 60 railway wagons containing ammunition from Moldova.

In 2002 Russia withdrew just 3 military equipment trains (118 railway wagons) and 2 of ammunition (43 wagons) from Moldova, a clear flaunting by Moscow of its obligations made at the OSCE Istanbul Summit. Consequently, at the Ministerial Council of the OSCE in Porto (Portugal, 7 December 2002) the member states of the OSCE adopted a new decision regarding Moldova, in which they “extended” the term by which the Russian Federation had to pull out its troops from Transnistria to 31 December 2003, “provided necessary conditions are in place".[15]

The granting of an extension to the deadline for the withdrawal process under the “necessary conditions” was another example of the international community giving in to Russia on the whole question of Russian troops on Moldovan territory, and highlighted a weakening of the OSCE’s role as an organization for security in Europe on the one hand, and a strengthening of  Russia’s influence in the OSCE on the other.

In the course of 2003, 11 rail convoys transporting military equipment and 31 transporting ammunitions left Moldova. These “efforts” did not, however, lead to the end of Russian military presence on the Republic of Moldova’s territory, as the 2002 Decision of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Porto had stipulated. At present, the districts on the east bank of the Nistru River in the Republic of Moldova are still occupied by Russian troops, and over 20,000 tons of ammunitions remain stored in the depots of Colbasna. According to the OSCE Mission to Moldova, of a total of 42,000 tons of ammunitions stored in Transnistria, 1,153 tons (3%) was transported back to Russia in 2001, 2,405 tons (6%) in 2002 and 16,573 tons (39%) in 2003.[16]

In 2003, as in previous years, Moscow blamed the separatist leaders in Tiraspol for not respecting Russia’s commitments (it should pointed out that they are all citizens of the Russian Federation) who, allegedly, prevented the removal and/or destruction of Russian military equipment and ammunition. In fact, Russia was employing delaying tactics in the hope that by applying economic and political pressure, the pro-Russian communist regime in Chisinau would accept the legalization of the Russian military presence on the Republic of Moldova’s territory.

This became very clear in the so-called “Kozak Memorandum”, a document drafted by Dmitri Kozak, the Russian Federation president’s representative, and approved by Vladimir Voronin, the Moldovan Republic’s president, and Igor Smirnov, the Tiraspol separatists’ leader. It was only the intervention of Moldova’s civil society, which protested vehemently, and western organizations and governments that prevented the document from being signed on 25 November 2003, the day when the president of the Russian Federation was due to arrive in Chisinau. The Kozak Memorandum, if it had been signed, would have led to the sanctioning of the presence of Russian troops on Moldova’s territory until 2020.[17]

The Kozak Memorandum is eloquent proof of Moscow’s duplicitous policy on the question of the removal of its troops from Moldova. On the one hand, within the framework set out by international bodies, Russia declares its commitment to the withdrawal of their troops from Moldova agreed to at the 1999 Istanbul Summit, while on the other, in bilateral plans using economic and political pressure, attempts to secure an agreement with the communist regime in Chisinau, perpetuating the presence of their troops in Moldova.

On 28-29 June 2004, the 17th NATO Summit took place in Istanbul. It was the first convening of the Alliance in its extended form (26 members), with the 7 new members, (including Romania) attending for the first time in their capacity as full members. The Summit made a number of important decisions, not only for the further evolution of the Organization, but also for the Republic of Moldova. In the final official statement of the North Atlantic Council, the member states of the Alliance made it clear that The Adaptation of the CFE Treaty would only be ratified once Russia has fulfilled its obligations towards Georgia and Moldova, assumed earlier in 1999.[18]

In his speech at the Summit, Serghei Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, attempted to blame the Moldovan Government for Russia not fulfilling its commitments regarding the removal of Russian troops from Moldova (President Vladimir Voronin did not sign the so-called Kozak Memorandum, mentioned above); he also blamed the Western countries and organisations, who “applied” pressure on the Government in Chisinau not to sign the memorandum. While President Voronin in his speech, pronounced openly for the first time that he was in favour of the removal of Russian troops from Moldova. He declared that "he entirely supports NATO’s requests to Russia regarding the removal, under the terms established, of the Russian troops and weapons from the territory of the Republic of Moldova", adding that "the complete and unconditional fulfilment of the decisions of the 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit, regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops and ammunition from the territory of the Moldovan Republic, represents the most important premise for a change for the good in the situation in the eastern region of the country”.[19]

On the eve of and during the 12th OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting in Sofia on 6-7 December 2004, the Moldovan Government’s position on the presence of Russian troops on Moldova’s territory was voiced more clearly than ever before. In his speech in Sofia, Andrei Stratan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Moldova, inter alia, stated that "The presence of Russian troops on the territory of the Republic of Moldova is against the political will of Moldovan constitutional authorities and defies the unanimously recognized international norms and principles, being qualified by Moldovan authorities as a foreign military occupation illegally deployed on the territory of the state…"[20]

On 11 December 2004, President Vladimir Voronin called Russian military presence in Moldova "insulting". "What could be the reason for preserving Russia‘s presence in Moldova, especially taking into account its symbolic scale? Are we capable of being friends with Moscow only under the threat of a thousand of Russian gunmen? Or maybe these soldiers are resolving Russia‘s global strategic tasks in the Balkans?". Addressing the congress of the Party of Communists of Moldova, which he leads, Voronin said, “This military presence is insulting our people and our neutral state, which sincerely believes in friendship and strategic partnership with Russia without military mediation and without humiliating ultimatums,…" [21]

In 2005-2006 no significant changes have occurred in the position of the Governments of Moldova and Russia with regard to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. Moldovan Government has continued to insist on the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Moldovan territory, while Moscow, on the other hand, has insisted that the states supporting the Adaptation of the CFE Treaty should ratify this document before Russia withdraws its troops from Moldova and Georgia. Moreover, Moscow has continued to provide political, economic and military support to the so-called "PMR" and refused any international monitoring of its troops and ammunition depots in Transnistria. At the same time, Russia has continued to push Chişinau to accept Russian military presence on Moldovan territory. The danger that  weak Moldova will be "persuaded" to accept Russia’s terms still exist.  However, to avoid a such ending Chisinau needs strong support of US and EU states, as well as a consolidated Moldovan Civil Society rejecting Russian imperialism.    Precisely the factors that prevented the signing of the Kozak Memorandum in November 2003 and saved the Republic of Moldova from becoming a Russian enclave on the new eastern border of NATO.

[1] Operativnaya Gruppa Rossiyskih Voisk v Pridnestrovskom Regione Respubliki Moldova (Istorya, traditsiy, preemstvennost’), Tiraspol, 1996, p.1.
[2] See: Gribincea, M., The Russian Policy on Military Bases: Georgia and Moldova, "Cogito", Oradea, 2001, pp. 198-217.
[3] Socor, V., Russian Forces in Moldova. – RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 1, No. 34, 28 August 1992, p.38; Gribincea,  M.,  The Russian Policy on Military Bases…  p.144.
[4] Instabilities in Post-Communist Europe. Moldova. Conflict Studies Research Centre. RMA Sandhurst Paper prepared by Dr. T. Waters (January 1995), p.14-15.
[5] Waters, T., Moldova: continuing recipe for instability - Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 1996, p. 401
[6] „Nezavisimaya gazeta”, 1, 9 iulie 1992.
[7] Creangă, P., Ya khochu rasskazati…  Kishinev, 1998, p.127
[8] Aleksandr Lebed,  Za derzhavu obidno…  Moscow, 1995, p. 460.
[9] Press release No. 349 of 8 July 2004, issued by the Registrar of the Grand Chamber.  Judgment in the Case of Ilascu and others v. Moldova and Russia  –
[10] Sovereign Moldova, 23 July 1992.
[11] Mihai Grecu, Anatol Ţăranu, Trupele ruse în Republica Moldova (Culegere de documente şi materiale) [Russian Troops in the Republic of Moldova (Collection of documents and materials)] Chişinău, "Litera Internaţional", p. 837.
[12] "Nezavisimaya Moldova", 25 October 1994; Informative Report of FAM of RM, nr.2, October 1994, pp. 5-6.
[13] Mihai Grecu, Anatol Ţăranu, Trupele Ruse în Republica Moldova (Culegere de documente şi materiale). Chişinău, 2004 , p. 600.
[14] "Interfax", Moscow, in Russian,  0850 gmt, 7 July 2004. 
[15] MC.DOC/1/02. 7 December 2002.
[16] Mihai Grecu, Anatol Ţăranu, Trupele ruse în Republica Moldova (Culegere de documente şi materiale) [Russian Troops in the Republic of Moldova (Collection of documents and materials)] Chişinău, "Litera Internaţional", pp. 717-724; 766-770.
[17] BASA-PRESS news Agency, 27 November 2003. 
[19] AP FLUX, nt. 1245, 30 June 2004.
[20] MC.DEL/21/04, 6 December 2004.
[21] Moldpres,  nr.14169,11 decembrie 2004; Interfax-Ukraine news agency, Kiev, in Russian 1300 gmt 11 Dec 04

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