Frozen Conflicts and Federalization: Russian Policy in Transnistria and Donbass

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has employed different policies meant to retain influence in its near abroad, an important one being the instigation and sustainment of frozen conflicts. In Moldova and Ukraine, recent political developments increase the likelihood that Russia will soon push to implement the next stage in the frozen conflict cycle: resolution through federalization.

Diana Dascalu
May 22, 2019

Frozen Conflicts as a Foreign Policy Tool 

Frozen conflicts arise when armed hostilities end with ceasefire agreements, but without political settlements addressing the reasons for conflict. These can be labelled remnants of the Soviet Union’s version of federalism: the policy of allowing ethnic groups to control territories within the Union, while simultaneously concentrating minorities inside these territories, mainly to curb nationalism within them. As the Soviet Union dissolved and ethnic differences erupted into ethnic conflicts, the new Russian state seized the opportunity to continue exploiting these minorities – this time to maintain a foothold in the post-Soviet states.

Since the 1990s, Russia has aided the proliferation of frozen conflicts in many countries in its historical sphere of influence: Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia); Armenia and Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh); Moldova (Transnistria); and, more recently, Ukraine (Donbass). These resulting pro-Russian statelets allow Russia to continue exerting influence in these countries at a more reasonable price than full invasion, which would involve international costs of annexation and domestic costs of subsequent nation- and economy-building.

The Moldova and Ukraine cases, though unfolding at different times, are very similar. When Russia interfered, both countries were moving towards the West. Moldova was adopting pro-Romanian measures, which prompted fears of “de-russification” of state structures and a possible unification with Romania. In Ukraine, the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution pointed to the possible election of a pro-Western government. Furthermore, both countries form part of the same strategic context, constituting Russia’s Western buffer against NATO and the EU. Therefore, Moldova and Ukraine provide excellent insights into Russia’s interests and mechanisms for exploiting ethnic tensions.

Moldova and Transnistria

The overarching motivation for sustaining a frozen conflict is that, in representing a Russian stronghold, the separatist region serves to influence the internal and external policies of its host state, the most important of which is closeness to the West. This is achieved in three main ways.

First, by damaging its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Transnistria stunts Moldova’s political and economic development. Because the basic prerequisite for a state to develop representative institutions is controlling the entirety of its territory and population, Transnistria’s very existence prevents Moldova from rebuilding its political system on the Western, liberal-democratic model. Furthermore, with its survival in the current form threatened, Moldova’s attention and efforts are consumed by polarized debates over the separatist region, leaving it with little time and few resources to concentrate on eliminating corruption and improving the rule of law.

Russia thus obtains two important victories: its governance model is safeguarded, since the Moldovan people are unable to build a more successful alternative; and Moldova is kept at a low level of development, which indefinitely delays its European integration. Relatedly, Transnistria’s unresolved status also stunts Moldova’s economic development, since businesses are less willing to invest in uncertain political environments.

Second, Transnistria allows Russia to maintain a military presence in Moldova, and, thus, the Eastern European region. These Russian forces represent a considerable threat to a militarily underdeveloped Moldova, rendering it highly susceptible to Russian intimidation.

Not only does public opinion view Russian threats as more concrete than EU promises, which are notoriously abstract to the average citizen, but the political elites themselves are threatened. The latter, in particular, are acutely aware of all disruptions that Russia could cause – from initiating military action, to increasing support of separatist ambitions (as it did in Georgia in 2008), to encouraging uprisings in the pro-Russian city of Bălți and the autonomous region of Găgăuzia. Moldova would be unable to oppose any such actions, especially when backed by Russian military force, and would risk further territorial fragmentation.

Third, Transnistria is a haven of corruption and organized crime, easily exported to Moldova through connections with crime groups and corrupt bureaucrats. These networks undermine Moldova’s efforts to eliminate corruption and construct a legitimate economy. Furthermore, by posing a threat to the surrounding countries, Transnistria severely damages Moldova’s international standing.

Moldova is therefore unable to join the EU, despite being a partner and a major receiver of EU aid under the European Neighbourhood Policy. Furthermore, NATO will not admit members with unresolved territorial issues out of concern that they may drag the alliance into a military conflict. As such, frozen conflicts have the indirect effect of painting host countries as completely unattractive to both the EU and NATO, while barring them from reaching a level of development where they could successfully address their territorial issues and become legitimate international partners.

Meanwhile, frozen conflicts bring Russia domestic advantages. Firstly, intervening regionally with the narrative of defending a Russophile population increases the ruling elites’ domestic standing. Low-intensity conflicts, like the one in Moldova, will always translate into a Russian victory, which can then be (falsely) attributed to Russia’s military might. This bolsters the armed forces’ reputation and encourages the population to ‘rally around the flag’, increasing the regime’s cohesiveness.

Secondly, these ongoing conflicts require a permanent Russian presence and thus present opportunities to increase the wealth of Russia’s military, which historically has been the regime’s main base of power. Thirdly, the inherently corrupt political economy of frozen conflicts aid Russia’s own kleptocratic political establishment.

Finally, maintaining a military presence in Eastern Europe provides Russia with the ability to rapidly deploy forces against NATO and other hostile actors. This boosts Russia’s security, while also helping it reassure its allies.

Ukraine and Donbass

When it comes to Donbass, many voices have claimed that it is likely to follow the same path as Transnistria. Just as the 1992 Transnistrian ceasefire, in 2015, Minsk II ended the Ukrainian conflict’s active phase on conditions favourable to Russia. Not only did the ceasefire acknowledge the de-facto pro-Russian statelet's existence, enhancing its legitimacy, but it mandated a Russian-participating monitoring mission, which, in promoting neutrality, will ensure the conflict’s origins will remain unaddressed.

As a result, Russia produced a Ukraine that is weakened and internally divided; hampered in its efforts to reform its political and economic system; and intimidated by Russia, whose military is present in the country, and who has proven not only that it is strong and assertive, but that the West cannot be counted on to interfere on Ukraine’s behalf. Most importantly, this Ukraine, in dealing with an unresolved conflict, will be unable to join the EU or NATO. Ukraine’s drift towards the West, therefore, has been indefinitely put on hold.

Federalization as a Foreign Policy Tool

While frozen conflicts have been used to prevent countries from moving to the West, federalization can achieve the same objective, and Russia’s inclination towards this policy is apparent in both Moldova and Ukraine. Federalization would imply new constitutional frameworks, within which Transnistria and Donbass would have reasonable levels of autonomy. Ultimately, this would mean reintegrating pro-Russian territories in a way that gives them a disproportionate amount of influence. This is the main way Russia benefits from Moldova and Ukraine’s federalization, and it is an important reason why Russia has always publicly insisted that Transnistria and Donbass are parts of their respective countries.

In Moldova, federalization proposals were advanced through the 2003 Kozak Memorandum and the 2004 joint mediator proposal. Neither initiative was implemented, but Russia supported both. The pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), whose member, Igor Dodon, is Moldova’s current president, has also outlined a plan for Moldova’s federalization. Under this proposal, Moldova is to become a federation, with Transnistria and Găgăuzia as federal subjects with special autonomous status.

The agreement stipulates that Transnistria would be represented by ten, and Găgăuzia by four, Senate members (out of 27 total). This would lead to about 19% of Moldova’s population being represented by more than half of the Senate. Pro-Russian regions could therefore easily veto or override any decisions, ranging from EU or NATO membership, to democratic or economic reforms. Furthermore, the document does not mention the continued use of the Latin alphabet, and nothing is stipulated about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria; Transnistria’s own armed forces are to be maintained.

In the February 2019 parliamentary elections, PSRM failed to win a majority. However, there are indications that PSRM could form an alliance with the pro-Western bloc “NOW”, edging out the Democratic Party of Moldova and its likely coalition ally, the Shor Party. Although less certain than it would have been had the PSRM managed to score a majority percentage, it is likely that PSRM, as part of a ruling coalition, will at least attempt to push through its federalization plan.

In Ukraine, Russia has long endorsed federalism, with the Minsk I and the Minsk II agreements prioritizing this objective. Both agreements stipulate that Ukraine’s territorial integrity will be restored once the country undergoes constitutional reform. This would transform Ukraine into a federation, giving Donbass special status. Although the document itself is rather vague, not only would Donetsk and Luhansk be armed with the same veto powers as Transnistria and Găgăuzia, but they would promote Russian language and culture, be placed in charge of running the Donbass economy, and be allowed to maintain local militias. Donbass would thus maintain a high degree of autonomy, and also acquire a high level of influence over the central government.

The April 2019 Ukrainian presidential election brought comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to power. Although not a pro-Russian candidate, Zelensky’s inexperience, combined with a lack of clarity in his political program, make him more susceptible to Russian influence. Russia has already adopted a series of measures that can be interpreted as power posturing towards the new administration, such as restricting oil exports to Ukraine and simplifying the Russian citizenship application and vetting process for residents in the Donbass region. Russia thus seems prepared to pressure Zelensky into implementing the Minsk II agreement. The October 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary elections will likely be decisive regarding this issue.

In both Moldova and Ukraine, federalization would come at a high price. This includes inheriting economic debt, corruption, democratic backwardness, Russian military presence and armament, and, most importantly, high numbers of pro-Russian voters. All of these factors would consolidate Russian influence within their borders. While federalization would reinstate these countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, the barriers to development would not be lifted, and the possibility of joining Euro-Atlantic structures would still remain unreachable. Russia would benefit even more from such an arrangement, gaining channels to directly influence Moldova and Ukraine at a fraction of the price of frozen conflicts.


Russia’s interference in its neighbouring countries places them in a dilemma. Having agreed to ceasefires and peace monitoring missions, these countries cannot re-escalate the conflicts and forcefully seize separatist territories, as they would be considered aggressors and alienate the West. Even if Moldova and Ukraine decided that territorial integrity was worth this consequence, the fact remains that they are not strong enough to stand up to the Russian army, whose defensive response would be legitimized by the narrative of protecting the Russophile population in the separatist regions.

The second option is no action. This perpetuates the simmering tensions without resolving the underlying causes, effectively freezing the conflicts. Interestingly, this is the approach that both governments have chosen. Chișinău and Kiev have much more to lose in reaching a deal with Transnistria and Donbass, even if they were to regain territorial integrity.

Russia, by contrast, has much more to gain, which is why its position has always been one of federalization or no deal at all. Thus, while frozen conflicts are a valuable foreign policy tool when it comes to controlling neighbours, federalization is even more valuable; as such, when there is a favourable strategic context in the host country, Russia will push to implement it.

Regardless of their level of integration, Transnistria and Donbass’ very existence achieves Russia’s most important goals within Moldova and Ukraine: heightened political tension and East-West polarization; political and economic weakness, with low prospects for development; and, overall, two countries that are undesirable international partners. It is true that Russia’s control will not be absolute, and that its interests may not always be wholly advanced. It is also true that both Moldova and Ukraine could continue to benefit from limited cooperation with the West. However, Russia will remain in the national conversation of both countries as a great power whose wishes must be considered.

With its timely intervention, Russia successfully defended its perspective of a multipolar world order based on spheres of influence – ensuring that neither Moldova nor Ukraine will be able to completely turn to the West, leaving Russia isolated from Europe and with NATO potentially at its borders.

Diana Dascalu is a graduate of International Security with research and analytical experience from NATO’s Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence (CCOE) and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).