Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (Transnistria) (1991-present)
Unrecognized state – 18 tanks, 100+ armored personnel carriers, & support vehicles
Europe is home to a large quantity of nations which, to different extents, have manufactured, modified, or operated armored vehicles. It is within the continent that the first tanks were created, and still, to this day, Europe contains a number of nations which export modern armored fighting vehicles. Russia, Germany, and France are prime examples, and several others nations either produce their own armored fighting vehicles or modifications and modernizations for older types.
Within the former USSR, the most active and state-of-the-art armored fighting vehicles manufacturer is without a doubt Russia, distantly followed by Ukraine. However, these are not the only ex-Soviet Republics to have their own local industries manufacturing armored fighting vehicles or at least refits and upgrades. Several ex-Soviet states, such as Georgia, Armenia, and Belarus, among others, have also undertaken their own local projects. Receiving even less recognition though are the unrecognized states stuck in ‘frozen conflicts’ within the internationally-recognized borders of Georgia and Moldova.
Within internationally-recognized Georgian territories are the unrecognized states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both are recognized by Russia, which keeps a strong military presence in their borders and has even gone to war against Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008. Further west, within the internationally-recognized borders of Moldova, lies the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, usually known as simply ‘Transnistria’.
Unlike the Georgian breakaway states, it is not even officially recognized by Russia. Nonetheless, it is heavily influenced by Moscow and remains one of the most peculiar entities to have emerged from the final collapse of the Soviet Union. The same can be said of the small but unusual fleet of armored fighting vehicles present in the small sliver of land that is Transnistria.
The Geographic Area of Transnistria
The geographic area known as Transnistria is located in Eastern Europe, at the edge of the traditionally Romanian/Moldovan and Ukrainian parts of Europe.
The etymology of Transnistria translates to ‘over the Dniester’, from a Moldovan/Romanian point of view. This, in practice, means that the term Transnistria has, historically, sometimes been used to designate the entire area between the Dniester and the next large river, the Southern Bug, the second largest river in Ukraine. During the Second World War, for example, Romania established the Transnistria Governorate following its participation in the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. This occupied territory extended from the Dniester to the Southern Bug.
In the last few decades, though, the name Transnistria has become associated with the breakaway state known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, officially abridged as PMR. This consists in the few areas of the former Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic which were east of the Dniester, as well as a few localities west of the Dniester which, during the conflict that marked the area during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, were secured by the PMR, the largest and most important being Bender.
Transnistria and the Soviet Union
The historic region of Transnistria and neighboring Bessarabia (roughly corresponding with present-day Moldova. Historic Moldova rather makes reference to the Romanian region west of Bessarabia) were taken over by the Russian Empire, from previous authorities such as the Crimean Khanate and Ottoman Empire, in the 18th and early 19th century, gaining full control in 1812. This marked the beginning of Russian rule over the area, which would have a significant impact on the population. The area nowadays known as the PMR was on the edge of the spheres of Romanian and Ukrainian settlement, but Russian overlordship would add another language and start of the presence of a Russian minority in the region.
Following the conclusion of the First World War, the Kingdom of Romania, while battered, stood among the victors, while Russia was torn apart in a civil war between the Bolsheviks, pro-Imperial or military Whites, and various local factions. Romania would take this opportunity and seize Bessarabia, pushing the border between Romania and the Russian world to the Dniester. In the following years, with the civil war in Russia ending in a Bolshevik victory, the newly established Soviet Union, which had both expansionist policies relating to the territories it had lost following the First World War and the Russian Civil War, and because of the internationalist nature of communism, was not satisfied with the previous Romanian move.
In 1924, the Soviet Union, still an international pariah state, had the desire to take this Romanian-held territory, but with the country still recovering from the Civil War and Romania’s military alliance with France, doing so was not feasible. Within the southwestern part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a further subdivision was created as the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR). This incorporated much of the territories of the current-day PMR as well as some territories further east, nowadays part of Ukraine. In 1926, it comprised about 570,000 inhabitants, of which around 45% were Ukrainians and 31% were Moldovans, though the latter were the majority in a number of towns and cities, notably along the Dniester. At this point, the Russian population in this MASSR was 9.7%. Soviet authorities strongly promoted the Moldovan identity, particularly as one truly distinct from the Romanian one, with which it was traditionally tied. The distinctions between the in-practice-very-similar languages was underlined as much as possible, and the narrative that the Kingdom of Romania oppressed the Moldovan people in Bessarabia was spread by the Soviet authorities.
The situation would change two decades later. After an ultimatum presented two days prior, on June 28, 1940, the Soviet Red Army moved to occupy Bessarabia as well as the neighboring region of Northern Bucovina, which were taken from the Kingdom of Romania. In August, the USSR formally created the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. It comprised most of Bessarabia, as well as the western part of the MASSR, along the Dniester, while the eastern part, much more Ukrainian than Moldovan, was fully re-integrated within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This administrative configuration would remain throughout the Soviet era.
This initial Soviet organization was brutally removed by Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the USSR, commencing on June 22, 1941, which saw Bessarabia re-integrated within Romania while the current territories of the PMR would be incorporated into the Governorate of Transnistria. This area would be used by the Romanian authorities to deport many Jews and Gypsies, leading to an estimated (and disputed) hundred thousand deaths by starvation, mistreatment and execution. The area was recovered by the USSR in 1944, and from this point onward would remain in Soviet hands until the final crisis of the Soviet block’s collapse.
Transnistria saw some considerable developments during the Soviet era. The region’s location along the Dniester was found highly favorable for the installation of heavy industry and electric facilities. Moldova was mostly known as one of the most agricultural Republics of the Union, exporting far higher quantities of wine, fruits, vegetables, and canned goods than its meager size, 0.2% of the overall landmass of the USSR, would suggest. Transnistria, however, was the industrial region within Moldova, where the majority of the Republic’s industry was located. The Transnistrian town of Rîbnița notably hosted a very large steel mill as well as a sugar factory. The largest Transnistrian city, Tiraspol, hosted factories manufacturing appliances and clothes. The region also comprised the vast majority of the energetic facilities within Moldova, the largest being the Kuchurgan natural gas, fuel oil, and coal power station, opened in 1964. Towards the end of the Soviet era, Transnistria, with only around 15% of the Moldovan population, produced around 40% of the GDP of the Soviet Republic, and 90% of its electricity.
These large industrial efforts in Transnistria also saw a considerable influx of Russian and Ukrainian workers into the territories located east of the Dniester. In the earliest phases of Russian control of the area post-war, there were also some significant deportations of Moldovan families accused of having been collaborators to the Axis occupation authorities. This also led to a considerable Russian influence rising in the region. Alongside Moldovan, Russian was also declared one of the two official languages of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. For Moldovan, Cyrillic script was adopted in lieu of Latin characters, another sign of considerable Russian influence and distinction that the Soviet authorities wanted to create from the Romanian language.
Transnistria and the Soviet Decline
Following the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR in 1985, the hardline policies, particularly when it came to cohesion and internal unity, were vastly lightened as a sign of appeasement and reform of the government. This had a very considerable impact on Moldova. Most of the Moldovan population was unsatisfied with the official policies which would be viewed as Russification, or at least promoting the influence of Russian culture and language over Moldova. The idea of Moldova being a distinct nation with a distinct language in comparison to Romania had failed to seduce many within the Moldovan population, which, with the Soviet grip seemingly being lighter and lighter, suddenly saw the prospect of getting closer or perhaps uniting with Romania as more and more likely. Movements supporting Moldovan identity in opposition to Russia, first the Democratic Movement of Moldova, which later evolved into the Popular Front of Moldova, began to appear and gain a considerable following in Moldova. These advocated for Moldovan to be made the only official language of the Republic, and be returned to the Latin script instead of Cyrillic.
Many of the changes desired by this movement were adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Moldovan Republic in August 1989. Moldovan was declared as the only official language and returned to the Latin script, with Russian, Ukrainian, and Gaguz kept as a minority language and for secondary purposes only.
These developments over the whole of Moldova were viewed very differently in Transnistria. Locally, Moldovans were not an absolute majority and had to contend with very large Russian and Ukrainian minorities, which were highly displeased by the evolution of Moldova towards an independent, Moldovan, pro-Romanian state. The Russian language was not just the language of the Russian minority but also viewed as the common language which all the population of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic would commonly use. As such Moldovan being declared the only official language was not only viewed negatively by the Russians, but also the Ukrainians. Not only that, but the Moldovan population in Transnistria lived in a part of Moldova which could be considered much more deeply integrated into the Soviet system, and as such, was typically less attracted to the ideas of Moldovan nationalism that were more prevalent in the rest of the Republic. While in Bessarabia groups of Moldovan intellectuals began to manifest their views with a resurgence of a Moldovan identity, unrest in Transnistria would take a different form. Groups of workers organized in factories, typically in opposition to the nationalist movements and supporting Moldova, remaining within the Soviet Union.
In August 1989, the same month as the language law was passed, the OTSK (Объединенный Совет трудовых коллективов/United Work Collective Council) was created to unite the various organizations and groups that had been created in Transnistria. It immediately called for large strikes which struck large parts of Transnistria throughout August 1989. At the highest point of the strikes, in early September 1989, about 100,000 workers were on strike (the population of Transnistria by this point was about 680,000) and 200 factories and establishments were closed. Though the strikes were called off by September 15, 1989, by this point, the pro-Soviet (but at the same time, distinctly separate from the Communist Party, which at some points collaborated with the OTSK to limit the application of the language law in Transnistria but would later try and reassert its authority during the winter of 1989-1990) OTSK had asserted a very significant influence on factory workers and even many local institutions in Transnistria and its cities. As early as this moment, the authority of a central Moldovan government that wanted to aim for Moldovan separation from the Soviet Union and highly promoted Moldovan identity over Transnistria appeared compromised.
In the same year, the evolution of the situation in the Eastern Bloc, with the fall of the Berlin War, but perhaps even more significantly for Moldova, the Romanian revolution of December 1989, seemed to indicate Soviet order was rapidly collapsing. With the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu deposed and executed, Romania was now on its way to becoming a democratic state and the prospect of reunification between Moldova and Romania now seemed increasingly attractive for many in the Moldovan population. In February-March 1990, during the first free parliamentary elections in Moldova, a large Popular Front majority was elected in the Supreme Soviet, with the Communist Party of Moldova now being in minority. In Transnistria, the OTSK and candidates it supported won major victories, but this was not sufficient to prevent a large pro-Moldovan nationalism majority in the Supreme Soviet.
From this point onward, the central Moldovan authorities, now clearly on a course to independence with the Supreme Soviet elections, would increasingly clash with the OTSK which exerted significant control over Transnistria. The most evident sign of this opposition was the highly symbolic adoption of a new flag, which used the yellow, blue and red associated with Romanian nationalism, by the central government on April 27, 1990. Localities in Transnistria massively rejected it, opting to continue using the former flag of the Soviet Republic. The central government escalated the situation by pushing to make the adoption of the flag legally binding in May, which pushed ideas of Transnistrian independence from Moldova forward, as it was a clear sign of the central Moldovan government being ready to escalate and exert authority over the region.
The First Transnistrian ‘State’
On June 23, 1990, the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic formally declared sovereignty from the Soviet Union. This caused considerable unrest in Transnistria. Around the same time, in the summer, localities all over Transnistria engaged in a large referendum campaign unapproved by the central government, asking questions such as whether a Transnistrian state should be created and if Moldovan should be the only official language. This was obviously an attempt to legitimize what was to come. The referendum largely came out with results in favor of Transnistrian independence and against Moldovan being the sole official language. Considering the ethnic and political situation of Transnistria, such results are not particularly surprising, but without any form of external and independent election observers, the validity of these referendums cannot be ascertained.
On September 2, 1990, confident in the local opposition to the central Moldovan government, delegates to a Transnistrian congress of deputies to the Moldovan Supreme Soviet declared the independence of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic or PMSSR from the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. This was a government largely made up of figures of the OTSK, with Igor Smirnov, Chairman of the Tiraspol committee, as the acting President, and the city of Tiraspol as the new state’s capital. The open and clear goals of the PMSSR were retaining Transnistria within the Soviet Union and refusing Moldovan nationalism and language prevalence over Russian.
The following months were marked by significant disorganization as Transnistria and remaining Moldovan authorities struggled for control over Transnistria. Transnistria had clear dominance over most large towns and cities, which was a considerable advantage as Transnistria was highly urbanized. Crucially, it was easily able to garner sympathy, though by no means direct loyalty, from the 14th Guards Army of the Red Army. This army had its headquarters in Tiraspol and employed a majority of Transnistrian soldiers, with over half the officer corps and three-quarters of the soldiers being from the territories Transnistria was establishing itself in. However, Moldova still had the loyalty of most of the police and justice systems, and a number of rural communities where Russian immigration had been less prevalent were opposed to the creation of Transnistria and voted to remain within Moldova. To exert authority over its claimed territories, with the 14th Army unable to directly intervene due to its allegiance to the Soviet state, which stayed neutral in the conflict, Transnistria had to increasingly rely on Transnistrian paramilitary formations. The first minor clashes of the conflict happened in November 1990, when Moldovan policemen attempted to re-take control of the city after barricades and roadblocks had been erected by separatists and residents, resulting in three fatalities and thirteen wounded within the local population. From this point onward, there would be a number of small-intensity clashes over Transnistria.
In August 1991, Transnistria supported the coup attempt by party hardliners attempting to overthrow Gorbachev and restore Soviet authority using force and repression. This attempt failed, and from this point onward, the remaining Soviet authority very quickly decayed in favor of the local governments, which pushed Transnistria to increasingly arm its paramilitary formations. On September 6, 1991, Transnistria formally created an army to assert control over Transnistria and prepare for a potential larger-scale conflict.
Transnistrian Independence and Clashes with Moldova
On November 5, 1991, following the failure of the August coup, Transnistria formally declared its independence from the Soviet Union, changing its name to merely the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), removing references to the Soviet and Socialist nature of the Republic. Confusingly, at the same time, Transnistria would still widely make use of Soviet symbolism, something that remains to this day.
Following this declaration of independence, the conflict with Moldovan authorities started to heat up considerably, seeing as the protective structure of the Soviet Union was now gone. Moldova had until this point only been able to rely on local police forces but was, by all means, an independent state. It established a Ministry of Defence which started to recruit troops in March 1992, while at the same time, paramilitary formations within Transnistria grew in strength.
The Role of the 14th Guard Army and Russia
The PMR’s Army and paramilitary formations relied massively on the 14th Guard Army to turn them into an effective fighting force. The formation was loyal to the USSR, and later Russia, and more direct forms of support to Transnistrian forces by local officers were cracked down upon by central authorities. Lieutenant-General Gennady Yakovlev, the commander of the army at the start of the conflict, was very pro-Transnistrian, to the point where he formally became the Chairman of the PMR’s Department of Defence on December 3, 1991, being immediately relieved of his functions within the Soviet Army. His replacement, Major General Yuri Netkachev, was a much more neutral figure, but did not take significant measures to prevent equipment and troops of the 14th Guard Army from falling to or joining the Transnistrian forces.
The Guards Army had considerable military depots, many of which would be very open for Transnistrian forces to take the equipment they needed. The 14th Guard Army was based near the Dniester. Generally, the Southern-Central European theater featured many prominent rivers. As such, it had a significant quantity of engineering and logistic amphibious crossing equipment, but also large fighting forces. The 14th Guards Army operated more than 200 tanks, the vast majority T-64s, more than 300 other armored fighting vehicles (the most common being MT-LBs and BTR-60s), a similar number of artillery pieces, and tens of thousands of small arms. Many of these would fall into the hands of Transnistrian militiamen, which would also benefit from training from 14th Guard Army members, or sometimes even straight-up defections by soldiers who would rather serve under Transnistria than Russia. Although officially not involved in the conflict, Russia was in practice very pro-Transnistrian, with the Russian Vice President, Alexander Rutskoy, visiting Tiraspol and encouraging Transnistrians to fight for their independence in a speech in April 1992. A number of Russians, including Cossacks, volunteered to join PMR forces in the conflict. Ukrainian volunteers also took part in the conflict on the Transnistrian side, while there are reports of Romanian volunteers and advisors on the Moldovan side.
The Transnistrian War
The last months of 1991 and the first months of 1992 were by far the most active of the conflict between Transnistria and Moldova.
The two largest sites of clashes were Dubăsari and Bender. Dubăsari, located around the center of Transnistria, saw clashes between local PMR militias and the Moldovan police which remained organized and loyal to the Moldovan government. The local Transnistrian militia leader was even killed by a teenager on March 1, 1992, with the police being accused of the killing by many locals and Transnistrian officials and militiamen. The following nights, Transnistrian militiamen and Cossack volunteers stormed the police headquarters, with local police forces surrendering by orders of the central Moldovan government to avoid an escalation of the conflict into clear, open warfare. In the following days, local forces as well as reinforcements from the Moldovan police were able to seize three villages very close to Dubăsari, though not the city itself, and formed a Moldovan defensive perimeter on the Eastern side of the Dniester, with both Moldovan and Transnistrian forces entrenching themselves around the Moldovan enclave.
In Dubăsari, Transnistria carried out some makeshift conversions to create improvised fighting vehicles. A truck was hastily given armored plates and an open weapons compartment to take part in the fighting in the Dubăsari sector.
Other conversions were carried out by Transnistria, though it is unknown where these took place. These include an MT-LB which was fitted with a ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun, and a GMZ-3 armored minelayer used as an armored personnel carrier.
The heaviest site of clashes was the city of Bender, also known as Tighina in Romanian. With a population of around 100,000 people, this city was notable, as it was located on the Western bank of the Dniester, which Moldovan forces usually held onto, but, as of the 1989 census, had a Russian majority, with around 43% of the population being Russian and a further 18% Ukrainian, compared to 25% Moldovans. As such, local sympathies were much closer to Transnistria, which was able to exert authority onto the city shortly after its independence. This was viewed as unacceptable by Moldova. As such, heavy clashes happened around the city in late 1991 and early 1992, as the Moldovan police attempted to re-exert Moldovan authority over the city, without success
June 1992: Open Warfare in Bender
The very tense situation in Bender would reach a climax in June 1992. The city’s police were still by this point loyal to the central government of Moldovan, keeping a presence in the city. On June 19, 1992, the Moldovan police arrested a 14th Guards Army Major, which was followed by a stand-off, and shots were fired at the police station. The next day, Moldovan forces entered the city in large numbers to try and assert full Moldovan control. The Moldovan authorities had, during most of the conflict, relied on the police as well as local volunteers and militias, but for this occasion, the newly-created Moldovan Army intervened. This was a force equipped with artillery and composed primarily of professional if newly-recruited soldiers.
Intense clashes happened in the city, especially as the PMR would make use of T-64 tanks. Whether these had been seized by members of Transnistria’s armed forces or were a direct intervention from the 14th Guards Army into the conflict as a result of the arrest of a Major is unknown. It was claimed that some bore Russian flags, but this could be a sign of ethnic identity and not clear loyalty to the newly created Russian Federation.
Three T-64BVs first attacked on June 20. The tanks had to pass through a bridge while observed and fired at by Moldovan forces, and would then be led to a road towards the police station. A battery of two MT-12 100 mm anti-tank guns had been prepared to potentially fight against enemy armor. One of the battery’s observers was killed, but the guns managed to knock out one of the T-64BVs. The two other tanks proceeded to attempt a retreat, during which another T-64BV was knocked out by a 100 mm shot to the engine block, with only one of the three managing to exit Bender. However, the vehicle had been heavily damaged during the engagement and caught fire a few kilometers on the other side of the bridge leading to a total loss of the vehicle. The crew had been able to get out safely and obtained a new vehicle to continue operations in the coming days.
More T-64s would come back the following day, but this time better prepared and with actual infantry and armored personnel carrier support. In this following attack, a crewman was killed by a shot from an MT-12 that managed to penetrate the turret of his T-64. Another tank was damaged by an RPG-7 near the location where the first T-64 had been knocked out the previous day. However, the attack, once again comprised of three tanks, succeeded. During the last weeks of the war, Transnistrian T-64s would also be seen with added Kontakt-1 ERA plating on the turret’s rear in addition to the standard frontal arc and on the turret sides, likely due to the lessons from the bridge engagement. Moldovan forces claimed to have destroyed two tanks using MT-12 100 mm anti-tank guns, a third by an RPG that hit the engine, and to have disabled a fourth vehicle by knocking out its track with an RPG. Footage of T-64s in combat in Bender, including one with Russian markings, have survived.
T-64BV in combat in Bender, June 20, 1992. Source: youtube
The Moldovan attempt to reassert control over Bender proved the decisive point of the conflict, but not in the way the Moldovans had hoped. The Russian Vice President at this point allowed the 14th Guard Army to commit itself fully to the retaking of the city, and the 14th Guards Army also made preparations to cross the Dniester as a clear show of force against Moldova. The second half of June and the first half of July would see the only phase of the conflict that could truly be described as open warfare, at least around Bender, which Transnistrian and Russian forces managed to take over fully. On July 21, 1992, unable to counter such excessive force, Moldova signed a ceasefire with Transnistria and Russia. The Transnistrian conflict has remained frozen on the ceasefire line ever since, with Transnistria holding on to Bender and several neighboring villages west of the Dniester, while Moldova still controls three small villages east of the Dniester around Dubăsari.
Though the exact context and location in which these were used is unknown, the Transnistrian war also saw Transnistria and affiliated forces make use of several vehicles fitted with makeshift conversions. One example is an armored truck
Overall, the conflict is thought to have caused around 1,000 fatalities and a further 3,000 wounded. There were no significant displacements of the population during the conflict. The commander of the 14th Guards Army towards its end, Alexander Lebed, is said to have stated about the conflict: “I told the hooligans in Tiraspol and the fascists in Chișinău – either you stop killing each other, or else I’ll shoot the whole lot of you with my tanks”
In the years following the conclusion of the conflict, Igor Smirnov remained in power in Transnistria. During the 1990s, he generally attempted to follow Soviet planned economy doctrine and ensure close relations between Transnistria and Russia.
Smirnov was elected to continue his term as President of Transnistria during the first presidential elections in 1996, which he won with over 80% of the vote, the second candidate, from the Transnistrian Communist Party was unable to obtain more than 10%. In the following year, Transnistria went on to negotiate a memorandum between Transnistria and Moldova which has led to the creation of legal relations between the two administrations, and easy movement across the border, something which many would typically find unusual from a breakaway state.
The following years were marked by the continuing rule of Smirnov, generally surrounded by former members of the OTSK. In 2006, a referendum was held regarding whether Transnistria should rejoin Moldova, or rather seek annexation by Russia. Over 98% rejected the first proposal and 96% approved the second. Considering the harsh economic and social conditions Transnistria was and still is, seeking re-attachment to another country is not surprising. But taking into account the diverse ethnic composition of the Republic, the vote being so incredibly swayed towards Russia is shocking. With no form of international observers whatsoever, the referendum was largely seen as rigged, which, considering such one-sided results, it most likely was. In the 2000s, Smirnov tended to abandon the policies of planned economy, in favor of a more market system in which Transnistria integrated itself more in international trade, with Russia as, unsurprisingly, its largest trade partner.
Smirnov’s fourth re-election campaign went badly, as figures of the Russian leading party, United Russia, voiced a lack of confidence in him. Instead, they voiced their support for the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Transnistria, the effective parliament of Transnistria, Anatolii Kaminskii. In the election, Smirnov came third and Kaminskii only second, which instead saw Yevgeny Shevchuk, an ethnic Ukrainian PMR-Russian citizen, elected. Unlike Smirnov, Shevchuk was affiliated with a political party – Obnovlenie, or ‘Renewal’, a liberal, nationalist, and obviously pro-Russian party which first took part in elections in 2000 and had already gained 23 of the 43 seats of the Transnistrian Soviet in 2005, and a further two, reaching 25, in 2010.
Despite not being the Russian-supported candidate, Shevchuk would continue the pro-Russian policies of Smirnov. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to increased talks of the annexation of Transnistria to Russia. In 2016, ten years after the contested referendum in which the vast majority of Transnistrians reportedly voted to join Russia, Shevchuk issued a decree to make Transnistrian law closer to Russian law in order to facilitate a future annexation.
Shevchuk was defeated in the latest Transnistrian presidential elections in 2016. A new President, Vadim Krasnoselsky, who is not affiliated to Obnovlenie despite the party retaining a majority of the Soviet to this day, was elected. In the following years, Shevcuck would be accused of five criminal charges including smuggling, corruption, and abuse of power, and flee to Moldova and reportedly later Russia. He was tried and convicted in absentia by a Transnistrian court in 2018 sentencing him to 18 years in prison.
Krasnoselsky’s victory in the elections was in significant part due to the Sheriff conglomerate, which plays a massive role in Transnistrian economics and culture. Though he would welcome an official visit of the Moldovan President to Transnistria in early 2017, later in his mandate, in May 2019, Krasnoselsky declared that Transnistria would attempt to file an international lawsuit against Moldova for its aggression against the people of Transnistria. This has not met any success as of yet. He has, as all previous Transnistrian Presidents, expressed support for a Transnistrian annexation to Russia, but has also officially stated he held monarchist views, which, while in line with the re-evaluation of Russian historical mythos to favor the Imperial era more than the Soviet one, is still unusual for the president of a state that still bears the hammer and sickle on its flag.
Demographics and Ethnic Groups
The ethnic composition of Transnistria is centered around three populations that form the vast majority of the state’s population: Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians.
The last Soviet census, carried out in 1989, indicated a Moldovan majority of 39.9%, with the second-largest ethnic population being Ukrainians at 28.3% and Russians at 25.5% as the third largest, with a remaining 6.4% formed by various other minorities. The next census, held in 2004, saw a considerable shift in ethnic composition, with Moldovans still being by a small margin the largest group, but diminishing to 31.9% of Transnistria’s population, while the Russian population rivaled them in size at 30.3% and the proportion of Ukrainians remaining very stable at 28.8%. This census also included a more detailed view of the minorities present in PMR territory, with the largest minority being Bulgarians at 2.5%, largely concentrated in the town of Parcani, a historically Bulgarian place of settlement populated by 10,000 individuals of which an absolute majority are Bulgarians. They were trailed by a 2% Polish minority found in the north of the country. The 2015 census saw Russians become the largest group in Transnistrian, with 33.8% of expressed ethnic background, while Moldovans, now second, paradoxically took up a larger portion of the population in comparison to the last census, at 33.2%. The Ukrainian population now diminished to 26.7%, and significantly enough, the Polish minority plummeted to a mere 0.2%. A Transnistrian ethnic option was for the first time added to this census, but only 0.2% of respondents picked it, showing the general very low identification of the population to the Transnistrian state.
Historically, the urban areas of Transnistria, particularly Tiraspol, and Bender, have been areas of large Russian and Ukrainian populations, while the rural areas have higher Moldovan populations. Transnistria is heavily urbanized at around 70% of the total population.
One may look at the changing ethnic makeup of Transnistria and assume some considerable repopulation may be going on. In practice, the reverse is true. Transnistria is a victim of an exceptionally quick depopulation process ever since its independence. Population stagnation or even slight decline is not uncommon in Eastern Europeans and particularly post-Soviet states. But in Transnistria, it has taken a massive scale in comparison to the small size and population of the country. This is linked to the general ease to travel from Transnistria to Moldova. Most Transnistrians have a double nationality with Moldova and are even able to then immigrate into the European Union due to Moldova-Romania and Moldova-EU integration programs. Travel to Ukraine and Russia is also fairly easy. Transnistria, in comparison to these countries, offers a general lack of education opportunities, economic downturn, and censored press and media, which makes it a particularly unattractive place for the youth. Around 200,000 Transnistrians also have Russian nationality, which makes travel and moving to Russia a much easier path to opportunities.
From around 680,000 in 1989, the Transnistrian population had already lost more than 20,000 and stood at about 657,000 by 1997. By the 2004 census, more than 100,000 had already left, with the population being recorded as 554,000. In the following 10 years to 2014, the population further decreased to 500,700, experiencing a 14.5% decrease in a mere decade. As of the 2020 estimates, Transnistria now stood at a population of around 465,000; a decrease of more than 200,000, or almost a third, in comparison to the last years of the Soviet era, with no sign of the decline truly stopping. Indeed, rather than an augmentation of the Russian population in comparison to the Moldovans or Ukrainians, the variations in Transnistria’s ethnic composition can be described in a short and depressing way as the fact the Russians are simply leaving less quickly than the others.
Despite its small size, Transnistria maintains its own central bank and produces its own currency, the ‘Transnistrian ruble’. Transnistria has often been thought of as a major place of contraband and traffic within Europe. There are certainly indications that many illegal activities took place throughout the country, particularly in the 1990s, to the point that European critics have labeled Transnistria as a mafia state. There are reports that Transnistria has engaged in worldwide arms trafficking with the former equipment of the 14th Guards Army. While it is very likely large contraband activities have taken place and continue within Transnistria, the government has firmly denied these accusations. Various sources from Russia and Ukraine tend to align with these claims from the PMR’s government, and while the word of the Transnistrian apparatus of state is perhaps unreliable, it is likely that the accusations have been at least exaggerated to a point. However, the accusations and condemnation laid on former President Shevchuk demonstrate illegal activities are still commonplace as of the 2010s.
The economy of Transnistria mainly relies on the export of resources and cheap goods to Russia and other former Soviet Republics of Eastern Europe, or Moldova and the European Union. The large Rîbnița steel mill, already a center of economic activity during the Soviet era, has been thought to generate almost half of Transnistria’s GDP. Other significant Transnistrian exports include cheap clothes, manufactured by Tirotex, which claims to be the second-largest textile company in Europe and exports large quantities of cheap clothes to stores in Eastern but also Central and Western Europe. Most energy-producing facilities from the Soviet era are also still in operation and make Transnistria an exporter of electricity, though this sector is under heavy Russian influence, with the Russian conglomerate of Gazprom being suspected of having significant control over Transnistrian facilities. Transnistria has a significant lack of higher education and, generally, new employment opportunities outside of industry or retail, which is a significant factor in the massive emigration away from the PMR.
However, the largest employer within Transnistria is neither a steel mill nor Tirotex, but the large and varied conglomerate known as Sheriff. Founded in 1993, it quickly grew exponentially to become a multi-purpose company that fulfills many functions in Transnistria. Sheriff holds the identically named largest chain of supermarkets within Transnistria, with more than 20 shops over the small country. A similar number of Sheriff petrol stations also form the most common infrastructure of the type in the PMR. Sheriff activities extend a lot further though, to include several factories producing bread or spirits, two car dealerships, including a Mercedes-Benz one, and perhaps more worryingly for the state of Transnistrian freedom of information, a considerable hold on the media in the PMR. Sheriff controls one of the two national Transnistrian television networks. It also has its own publishing house, an advertising agency, and a mobile phone network. Finally, the conglomerate has also significantly invested into sports, with the largest Transnistrian football team, FC Sheriff Tiraspol, being property of the company. The club garnered considerable international attention by beating the world-famous Real Madrid 2-1 in Madrid on September 28, 2021, during a 2021-2022 UEFA Champion League Group Stage match. The team’s home stadium was constructed by Sheriff and is named Sheriff Stadium.
Corporate entities, particularly Sheriff, but also Tirotex, have had considerable influence over Transnistrian politics over the years. Sheriff has been a major supporter of the party Obnovlenie since its inception in 2000 and has been known to use its deep control over Transnistrian media to sway elections in favor of the party. When Obnovlenie gained an absolute majority in the Transnistrian Soviet in 2005, the new chairman of the Soviet that was appointed had strong ties with Sheriff. Two of the Obnovlenie deputies were also Sheriff’s senior officers. Sheriff’s influence was so deep that at some points, despite having previously granted privileges to Sheriff, then-President Smirnov publicly denounced them as wanting to orchestrate a coup and re-attach Transnistria to Moldova. However, as the years have passed, and while Smirnov has gone, Sheriff remains. As recently as 2021, Sheriff has been accused of pushing Transnistrian voters to take part in the Moldovan parliamentary elections, for which Moldovan authorities set up voting booths next to the border for Transnistrian voters to take part in the elections.
The Russian Foothold in Central Southern Europe
Ever since the conclusion of the Transnistrian War, there has been a continuing Russian military presence in Transnistria. It was formally established in 1995 as the Operational Group of Russian Forces (Оперативная группа российских войск в Приднестровье) abbreviated to OGRF (ОГРВ). The OGRF’s main base is located at Cobasna, a large ammunition depot of the former 14th Guards Army, where thousands of tonnes of military equipment remain stored. Early during its service, tasks undertaken by the OGRF included the destruction of massive quantities of former Soviet military equipment which would not handily be shipped back to Russia, including more than 100 T-64 tanks.
The OGRF’s core strength is constituted by two motorized rifle battalions, with about 1,500 men in total. Though they are officially present to guard ammunition depots, there are clear ties between the OGRF and the government of Transnistria, with the Russian force even taking part in parades alongside Transnistria’s army in Tiraspol in recent years. The Transnistrian government has even passed a law in June 2016, making public criticism of the OGRF a crime that could land someone up to seven years in jail. Despite repeated complaints from Moldova and the UN, the OGRF remains a key element of Russia’s influence further west in Europe. Transnistria allows Russia to maintain a presence even further west of Ukraine, directly on the border, or arguably even inside the territory of a Moldovan state, which, while not yet a member, pursues significant integration policies with the European Union and particularly Romania.
The Disparate Military of the PMR
The military of the PMR was formally created in September 1991, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Its overall structure has remained very similar since the conclusion of the Transnistria War.
The Army is formed of four motorized infantry brigades, one of which, considered a guards unit, is located in Tiraspol. The three others are located in Bender, Rîbnița, and Dubăsari. Supporting this base infantry force are a tank battalion, an artillery regiment, an aviation detachment, a special force and a security battalion, and an intelligence company. The force is thought to have stayed between 4,500 and 7,500 active military personnel during its history, with the ability to call 20,000 reservists to arms in case of crisis.
The PMR also maintains a small air force, though it is only equipped with very light aircraft, such as the An-2, and a very small quantity of Mi-8 or Mi-17 helicopters.
The equipment that the PMR’s Army inherited from the 14th Guards Army is quite varied. The crown jewels of the PMR’s arsenal are a fleet of 18 T-64BV that constitute the tank battalion of the PMR Army. This type was the most commonly found in the 14th Guards Army, and despite being generally obsolete in comparison to more modern Russian or Western European tanks, it is actually very capable when compared to Transnistria’s most likely theoretical opponent, Moldova, which does not maintain a tank unit. The most common Moldovan armored vehicles are the BTR-60PB, BMD-1, MT-LB, and in smaller quantities, BMP-2s, which would all be fairly easy targets for a T-64, though if equipped with Konkurs missile, the BMP-2 may provide a significant threat.
In addition to the T-64s, the Transnistrian Army has also inherited a fleet of about 10 BMP-1s and 5 BMP-2s, which form the infantry fighting vehicle component of the Transnistrian Army. Larger numbers of simpler infantry personnel carriers are fielded. Transnistria is thought to have more than 20 MT-LBs and 50 BTR-60 to BTR-80 in service of its ground forces.
Perhaps the most uncommon aspect of the Transnistrian Army, however, is the significant quantity of specialist vehicles it inherited, linked to the 14th Guard Army’s position on the Dniester and considerable engineering duties. This has resulted in Transnistria inheriting a large quantity of GT-MU & IRM ‘Zhuk’ engineers vehicles, UR-77 demining vehicles, and GMZ-3 tracked minelayers, which Transnistria has had to put in service in its military due to the need to field equipment against a more numerous Moldova, despite the apparent lack of combat capacities of this type of vehicles.
The Transnistrian Army also maintains an artillery arsenal, but appears to only have moderate quantities of tube artillery at its disposal. Instead, the main means of suppression and fire support appear to be rocket artillery, with up to around 20 BM-21 Grad artillery systems thought to be in service, increasingly supplemented by locally-manufactured rocket launchers of local production.
Transnistria also maintains a small fleet of immediate post-war trucks made to resemble WW2 Soviet trucks, as well as at least one functional T-34-85, which are used for commemorations. Another T-34-85 features as a monument in Tiraspol.
Recent Upgrades and Refits
The last decade has seen the curious but significant growth of an indigenous Transnistrian arms industry, or rather refit industry in large part. Likely created using former 14th Guards Army facilities and equipment, this industry has focused on converting parts of the GT-MU and GMZ-3 fleets of the Transnistrian army into combat vehicles which Transnistria may field to bolster its ranks.
For the GT-MU, this has translated into the mounting of a 73mm SPG-9 recoilless rifle on top of the vehicle. This converts it into a fire-support vehicle able to provide anti-armor capacities against Moldovan armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles. It brings additional mobile firepower to a Transnistrian Army that generally lacked it outside of the few T-64 and BMPs in service. A small number of GMZ-3 have been subjected to the ‘BTRG-127’ conversion, which has seen their hull be repurposed with an infantry compartment and a rear door to serve as a primitive but functional armored personnel carrier.
Transnistria has also manufactured its own multiple rocket launcher systems in the form of the Pribor-1 and Pribor-2, the first a 20-tube system based on the same Zil-131 chassis as the Grad, and the second a much larger 48-tube system mounted on larger Kamaz trucks. Taking into account both types, at least around fifteen are thought to be in service, which provides a non-negligible increase in the available firepower of the PMR. Lastly, locally manufactured small airborne drones also seem to have made an appearance within the ranks of the PMR.
Any Chance of Future Developments ?
Local development of vehicles within the PMR appears to have somewhat boomed during the 2010s, with all known vehicles outside of the Transnistria War makeshift vehicles dating from this era. As such, one may imagine this build-up of Transnistrian locally-converted vehicles may continue.
However, that remains questionable. Transnistria only has the limited fleet of 14th Guards Army vehicles it has inherited to experiment with and modify, as there is no evidence to show Transnistria has acquired any other military vehicles from anyone. Even Russia, while close to the PMR, has not recognized it and does not appear to supply it with armored vehicles. As such, while some other limited conversions are possible, the scale and future potential of this type of vehicles remains small.
Conversions more similar to the Pribor-2, using a civilian truck chassis, are a somewhat more likely middle-term probability, but even if Transnistria is able to get enough chassis, the mere general conditions of the Republic may be the greatest long-term threats to the creation of Transnistrian vehicles. With a rapidly dwindling population and struggling economy, Transnistria may simply be unable to extend its military or fleet of vehicles. The PMR itself is adamant in the fact that it desires to be integrated within Russia. International diplomacy and the will from Russia to avoid such a considerable provocation to Moldova and the EU has prevented such a development. However, the fact remains that Transnistria is not even a state that desires to remain independent – and if the situation ever arises where such a possibility of annexation to Russia could be realized, the PMR and its armed forces could very well disappear.