Russia’s Illegal Manipulation of Intrastate Conflict Continues to Impede International Integration

Jamie Guanciale
Vol. 41 Associate Editor

It is widely known that the fall of the Soviet Union coincided with a wave of nationalist independence movements among former Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (“ASSRs”), creating the modern states of Armenia, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia.[1] The wave of independence movements not only resulted in movements away from Russia, but also in regional independence movements in many of these newly independent states which were supported, or at least endorsed by, Russia, who sought to place its military forces in these regions as arbiters.[2] These ethnic conflicts with roots in the Soviet treatment of nations within their spheres of influence are even called “Stalin’s time bombs.”[3] The Soviet Union’s, and later Russia’s, creation and inflammation of national conflicts serves Russia’s goal to keep former Soviet states from integrating more closely with the West and their institutions, and does so effectively to this day.

Moldova, in particular, has had its development since the fall of the USSR crippled by conflicts seeded by Stalin’s policies regarding the establishment of rigid national boundaries and desire to create loyalty to a unified Soviet Socialist system in Eurasia.[4] This is evidenced by Transnistria, Moldova’s breakaway region which has not been annexed by Russia despite many locals’ desire for annexation. Some have argued that this is not because of deniability concerns, but because Russia’s aim in perpetuating these intrastate conflicts is to ensure that the affected states are kept beyond the reach of Western institutions.[5]

The story of Transnistria started when a popular movement to revive a Moldovan national identity and create an independent state arose. The eastern fringe of Moldova, which would soon become Transnistria, did not support this movement. The Transnistrian countermovement arose in part due to language laws doing away with the use of Cyrillic[6] and establishing Romanian as the national language. These language laws were passed despite the fact that only sixty-four percent of the population identified as Moldovan according to the 1989 Soviet census.[7] Eventually, the division of opinion blossomed into a full separatist movement and the establishment of the new breakaway state of Transnistria, and both sides quickly recruited tens of thousands of volunteers to form new paramilitary organizations to fight alongside the fledgling armies of the new states.[8] In Transnistria, the armed forces found themselves equipped with tanks and heavy artillery formerly belonging to and operated by the Soviet Army. Tensions built up for a few years before war finally came in 1992. Months later the ceasefire was signed after direct Russian military involvement pressured Moldova to come to the table; Transnistrian representatives were not even present.[9]

Today, there are about 1,500 Russian troops stationed in Transnistria and Russia continues to actively support the Transnistrian government[10] despite not officially recognizing Transnistria as they do Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Anecdotally, while this author was living on the Transnistrian border from 2016-2018 a large Soviet APC was parked in front of a main bridge crossing the border of Moldova and Transnistria each and every day, its main gun pointed menacingly at the Moldovan village in the other side. Even the Transnistrian intelligence and security apparatus have been infiltrated by Russia.[11]

Such Russian meddling in Moldovan affairs is not only morally dubious, it is an act that is illegal under international law as per the 1999 Istanbul Summit and the Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts. According to Article 2(b) of the Articles, which lists the “[e]lements of an internationally wrongful act of a State, ‘There is an internationally wrongful act of a State when conduct constituting of an action or omission: . . . constitutes a breach of an international obligation of the State.’”[12] At the 1999 Istanbul Summit, Russia committed to withdraw its troops and arms from Transnistria by the end of 2002 and subsequently failed to do so.[13] Furthermore, Article 30 of the Articles states that Russia must “cease that act” and “offer appropriate assurances and guarantees of non-repetition, if circumstances so require.”[14] Russia also, as per Article 31, should “make full reparation for the injury caused,” including “moral” damage.[15] Additionally, Russia should “re-establish the situation which existed before the wrongful act was committed” as per Article 35[16] which would arguably require Russia to at least take steps to ensure that Transnistria is reintegrated into the Republic of Moldova. According to Article 34, they must perform such restitution if they do not pay compensation for their damages or otherwise provide satisfaction to Moldova.[17]

This ongoing wrongful act by Russia has serious implications for Moldovan progress in integrating into the European fold. Even if Moldova amended its Constitution to remove the provision enshrining neutrality, NATO membership is still unobtainable, and perpetually shall be so, because NATO will not admit new members with unresolved territorial issues out of concern for being dragged into a conflict.[18] The presence of Russian troops in the area similarly hampers the ambitions of politicians in the country to eventually join the EU.[19] In this way, Russia ensures that even a vast popular movement to change the very Constitution of Moldova to allow for a move away from neutrality would not allow Moldova to become enmeshed in the mutual security apparatus of Western Europe, despite any attempts from Moldova’s government to move toward integration with the EU in the future.[20]

While there is not the space here to discuss the similar frozen conflicts in Georgia and Azerbaijan, or the creation of new breakaway states in Ukraine, they similarly hamper the hopes of the international community that former Soviet states will be able to join the international community’s institutions and governance structures. All across the former Soviet sphere, frozen conflicts with roots in Soviet policies regarding nationalities still shackle Eastern European states to Russia, keeping them away from the EU, NATO, and other international organizations.


[1] Kiprop, Joseph, Former Soviet Union (USSR) Countries, WorldAtlas (Aug. 8, 2018), http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-countries-made-up-the-former-soviet-union-ussr.html.

[2] Marine Mulcey, A World Tour of the States not recognized by the UN, le Journal International (July 9, 2015), http://www.lejournalinternational.fr/A-World-Tour-of-the-States-not-recognized-by-the-UN_a2998.html.

[3] Robert Coalson, How Stalin Created Some of the Post-Soviet World’s Worst Ethnic Conflicts, The Atlantic (Mar. 1, 2013), http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/03/how-stalin-created-some-of-the-post-soviet-worlds-worst-ethnic-conflicts/273649/.

[4] Id. See also Coalson, supra note 3.

[5] Benn Steil, Russia’s Clash With the West Is About Geography, Not Ideology, Foreign Policy (Feb. 12, 2018), http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/02/12/russias-clash-with-the-west-is-about-geography-not-ideology/.

[6] The countermovement sought to remain in a post-communist USSR and would soon receive Russia’s support.

[7] Id. at 24, 44.

[8] Id. at 192.

[9] Id. at 280.

[10] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Whose Rules, Whose Sphere? Russian Governance and Influence in Post-Soviet States (June 30, 2017) http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/06/30/whose-rules-whose-sphere-russian-governance-and-influence-in-post-soviet-states-pub-71403.

[11] Id.

[12] Int’l Law Comm’n, ­Rep. on the Work of its Fifty-Third Session, U.N. Doc A/56/10, at 26 (2001).

[13] The Kennan Institute of The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Occasional Paper #284 (December, 2002) at 6, available at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiCucGT9a3lAhUlIjQIHWdKCK0QFjAAegQIBhAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.wilsoncenter.org%2Fsites%2Fdefault%2Ffiles%2Fop284_1999_osce_instanbul_summit_conference_2002.pdf&usg=AOvVaw0roeUxT0AKCKjGwLGgGl62.

[14] Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, supra note 15, at art. 30.

[15] Id. at art. 31.

[16] Id. at art. 35.

[17] Id. at art. 34.

[18] Diana Dascalu, Frozen Conflicts and Federalization: Russian Policy in Transnistria and Donbass, Columbia Journal of International Affairs (May 22, 2019) http://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/online-articles/frozen-conflicts-and-federalization-russian-policy-transnistria-and-donbass.

[19] Shawn Stefanick, The Frozen Conflict in Transnistria: Why the West Should Pay Attention to Moldova, Georgetown Security Studies Review (Mar. 5, 2018) http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2018/03/05/the-frozen-conflict-in-transnistria-why-the-west-should-pay-attention-to-moldova/.

[20] See Association Agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and their Member States, of the one part, and the Republic of Moldova, on the other part, E.U.-Moldova (Aug. 30, 2014) OJL 260, available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:02014A0830(01)-20180824.

The views expressed in this post represent the views of the post’s author only.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *