Squeezing the Buffer Zone between NATO and Russia

According to confidential sources leaked to the media, Russia is currently consolidating its military forces in Transdniestria. The Bucharest TV station Realitatea announced that Russia modernized, militarized, and expanded the Tiraspol Airport. Tiraspol is the capital of this republic. The landing strip of the airport was lengthened to 2,500 meters to accommodate big military planes while many new military barracks were built in the area.

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By Nicholas Dima | March 16, 2016

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Demonstrators carry a Russian flag (center), a flag with a portrait of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reading “We are for Putin!” in Tiraspol, the main city of the Transdniestr separatist republic of Moldova, and a red-green Transdniestr flag with the Soviet hammer and cycle symbol. Photo: AFP

Cooperation between Russia and the West has been limited since the war in eastern Ukraine and since Moscow annexed Crimea. Currently, there is an uneasy peace between the two sides. Yet, while Europe is divided and accommodating toward Russia and America is focusing on the election year, Moscow is expanding its influence from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

In Eastern Europe, Russia’s goal is to keep the Baltic republics under threat, to maintain Ukraine in a state of impotence, and to gain full control over Moldova. This republic represents a grey zone between Russia and NATO. Until 1989 it belonged to the USSR, but its recent aspirations have been to join Europe.

Moldova, formerly a Romanian province, is the poorest country of Europe, is divided ethnically and politically, and is extremely corrupt. Last year, for example, 1 billion dollars disappeared from the country’s three main banks (Unibank, Banca de Economii, and Banca Sociala). This is a very large amount for a country whose annual PIB is 7-to-8 billion dollars. The Romanian ProTV station called the fraud “the theft of the century.”  According to AFP, the mission chief of the EU in Moldova, Pirkka Tapiola, asked himself in disbelief: “How is it possible to steal such a huge amount of money from such a small country?” And he demanded a full investigation, justice, and the recovery of as much as possible of the lost money.

Faced with a public scandal and anti-governmental demonstrations, Moldova’s government commissioned an investigation that was conducted by the American firm Kroll. The result of the investigation was leaked to the press and showed that a number of Moldovan leaders held stock in the banks involved. The investigation confirmed the fraud, but could not say where the money went. The press believes that it went most likely to Russia and to various offshore banks.

Revelation of the fraud triggered huge anti-corruption rallies. The demonstrators demanded the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators.  Last October, former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was arrested for allegedly receiving $250 million in bribes for his part in the fraud. The event is complicating Moldova’s already confused political scene.

According to RFE/RL, many international observers are convinced that Russia is exploiting the protests to weaken Moldova’s pro-European tilt. In fact, many Moldovans see no way out of this conundrum and demand reunion with Romania. However, the fraud boosted the pro- Russian political parties and made some of their leaders accuse the West of fomenting the crisis. To some observers, the scenario recalls the Kiev protests of two years ago.

Expressing a Russian point of view, Moscow Times of 28 October 2015 stressed that this fraud by a pro-Western coalition led to the disappointment of many Moldovans. However, it added that the local electorate is already split and will continue to remain split. In fact, Moscow controls Moldova through the local Russian minority, the former Communist Party, a number of front organizations, and a network of highly-paid agents. On one hand, Moscow is working hard to destabilize Moldova, and on the other, it is preparing some opposition groups to take over and to bring the republic back in Russia’s fold.

Moscow is also manipulating Moldova through the self-proclaimed Republic of Transdniestria (Dnestr Republic). While this small republic is a bone of contention between Russia and Moldova behind the back of Ukraine, Moldova itself is a battleground between Russia and NATO. Given its location, Transdniestria could be used against Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and NATO.

Russia has already challenged NATO and the United States in the Baltic and Black Sea basin. With regard to Eastern Europe, it is said that NATO’s eastern flank could not resist a Russian attack. Nevertheless, as reported by the AP, at a February 10 NATO meeting in Brussels, the alliance secretary general, Jens Soltenberg, acknowledged Russia’s aggression and made some clarifications. He said that he wanted “to reassure skittish allies and to deter Moscow without completely alienating the Russians in the process.” It is a step by step process, but is it achievable?

Previously, on February 2, Washington announced that it would quadruple spending on U.S. troops in Europe. Among others, America will store tanks and other military equipment in Western Europe to be airlifted and used anywhere on the continent in case of a crisis. At the Brussels meeting NATO also decided to boost “the defenses of front-line alliance members most at risk from Russia.” In this regard, NATO mentioned the formation of a multi-national military force. The Christian Science Monitor of 11 February wrote that the plan provides for “1,000 troops each in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, backed up by a rapid reaction force of up to 40,000 air, naval, and special operations personnel.”  Some of the military and the heavy equipment will be placed in Romania. But Russia is not standing idly by.

According to confidential sources leaked to the media, Russia is currently consolidating its military forces in Transdniestria. The Bucharest TV station Realitatea announced that Russia modernized, militarized, and expanded the Tiraspol Airport. Tiraspol is the capital of this republic. The landing strip of the airport was lengthened to 2,500 meters to accommodate big military planes while many new military barracks were built in the area.

Allegedly, at a special session of the Russian Supreme Security Council held on January 22, President Putin was informed about that buildup and was told that everything was ready for the ‘Tuman’ operation. No one knows what this operation means. At the same time, Tiraspol’s Ministry of Defense announced in February that its own military forces organized important maneuvers involving tanks and other heavy equipment. Concomitantly, the leader of the Moldovan Russians, Alexandr Kalinin, appealed to President Putin to save the Russians living in Moldova. Mass media noticed that a similar appeal was addressed to Putin before the annexation of Crimea, raising the question of whether the Obama administration will react with the same lack of determination as it did with Crimea?


Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.