(Bloomberg) -- Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria called on Moscow to come to its aid in a standoff with the central government, as pro-European President Maia Sandu’s administration attempts to reassert its control over the Russian-speaking enclave.

The plea for help from Russia was made at a congress convened Wednesday in Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, in response to what the self-proclaimed administration says is economic coercion by the Moldovan government.

While the development recalled events in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it fell short of widespread speculation that the pro-Kremlin region was about to call a referendum on joining the Russian Federation — a step that would echo sham votes staged in occupied territories of Ukraine.  

Moldova’s Ambassador to the US Viorel Ursu dismissed the Transnistrian move as “orchestrated by Russia to create a diversion.”

“They have been asking to reunite with Russia for decades and have held referenda before,” he said in an interview in Washington. 

The US has seen no credible evidence that Russia has plans to annex Transnistria, according to a US official, who said that Washington continues to monitor the situation given previous Russian interference.

Putin speech

Russian President Vladimir Putin may touch on the matter in his annual address to lawmakers and top officials due on Thursday, as he gears up for March 15-17 elections that are likely to extend his rule into the next decade.

Moldova, a landlocked nation of 2.6 million people wedged between Ukraine and Romania, has come under intense pressure since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine two years ago, with its traditional dependence on Russian gas triggering an energy crisis.

Those tensions have played out in Moldova’s relations with Transnistria, a narrow strip of land on the eastern frontier with Ukraine that is home to ethnically Russian separatists running a pro-Kremlin breakaway republic. As well as military units, it hosts Soviet-era ammunition depots and the main power plant supplying the country as a whole.

Yet Moldova has since managed to significantly reduce its reliance on that supply and turned instead to European Union and Romanian markets, where it can buy power albeit at a higher price. The upshot is that electricity provided by the Transnistrian plant is now seen by Chisinau as leverage, since it is the biggest source of income to the enclave’s budget, without which it would struggle to function. 

Wednesday saw Transnistria — recognized internationally as part of Moldova’s territory — call on Moscow to halt what it described as attempts by Chisinau to bring the enclave back into its fold using economic pressure. 

It adopted a declaration directed at Moscow, the United Nations and other international organizations denouncing recently introduced trade taxes by Moldova’s government. The measures could cost the region about 10% of its economic output, according to the enclave’s economy minister, Serghei Obolonik. 

Economic ‘reintegration’

One of Russia’s staunchest allies in Transnistria, Vitalii Ignatiev, the enclave’s self-styled foreign minister, told Rossia24 that the region hopes for “diplomatic support from Russia in resolving relations with Moldova.”

Sandu responded that the government was “taking small steps toward the economic reintegration of the country.” 

“Moldova is committed to a peaceful settlement of the Transnistrian conflict,” she said.

The standoff still risks an escalation of the previously frozen conflict between the region and Sandu’s pro-EU government in an election year, while giving Russia an opening to intensify its hybrid attacks against Chisinau. 

While the situation may be reminiscent of a playbook that the Kremlin adopted to justify its invasion of Ukraine, any such move is further complicated by the fact that Russia has no direct border with Moldova and its troops are already stretched.

Election interference

The military threat posed by troops in Transnistria is “limited,” according to Ambassador Ursu. “Many soldiers are actually local recruits with Russian passports,” he said. “It’s unlikely they’d be willing to die for Russia.”

Since the Kremlin’s invasion, worries have arisen that Moldova could be overrun if Russia sought to link Transnistria to Moscow-controlled territories.

Sandu, who has sought to shift Moldova’s outlook west, warned last year that Russia was trying to destabilize the nation and overthrow her government. Under her presidency, Moldova applied for EU membership and gained candidate status. 

The US expects an uptick in political interference from Russia in Moldova this year, especially ahead of the presidential elections, according to the official, who said that cyber activity was a particular focus. 

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, speaking at a news conference in Warsaw, described the situation in Moldova as serious. “We must be aware that it may fall victim to aggression as well as hybrid actions,” he said. “We have experience with Russia, we know that every scenario is possible.”

Moldova’s government has received hundreds of millions of euros in the past year from the EU and other international donors to help it stay afloat amid a rising energy bill and support for refugees fleeing neighboring Ukraine.

NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana said earlier this week that NATO would support Chisinau if the Kremlin decided to annex Transnistria. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday dismissed the remarks as speculation. 

“NATO is literally trying to mold the republic into a second Ukraine, contrary to the mood of the majority of the Moldovan population,” Zakharova was reported as saying by Interfax.

--With assistance from Peter Martin, Agnieszka Barteczko and Andra Timu.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.