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Moldovan separatists to ask Putin to annex their region

The flags of Russia and Transnistria fly in Tiraspol
The flags of Russia and Transnistria fly in Tiraspol - Sergei Gapon/AFP

Pro-Russia rebels in a separatist part of Moldova are preparing to ask Vladimir Putin to annex their region amid warnings that an emboldened Kremlin is trying to destabilise Europe.

Gennady Chorba, a politician in Transnistria, which borders Ukraine, has said the rebel government will submit its request to the Kremlin on Wednesday during a special congress that last met in 2006.

“This will be voiced to Russia on behalf of citizens living on the left bank of the Dniester River,” Mr Chorba was quoted as saying last week.

His statement came a few days after Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said the rights of pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria must be respected.

Western analysts believe the development is part of Moscow’s “hybrid warfare” campaign to destabilise Europe.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War said Putin was trying to ramp up tension in Transnistria to create an “imminent political crisis” in Moldova, a former Soviet state that wants to join the EU.

Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic military march in Tiraspol last year
Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic military march in Tiraspol last year - Peter Dench/Getty Images

Russia keeps roughly 2,000 soldiers in Transnistria, and in 2022 there were concerns that the Kremlin could use it to open a second front after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Concrete machine gun posts facing Transnistria dot Ukraine’s western border.

However, Ukrainian officials are sceptical that Putin wants to formally annex Transnistria, a sentiment backed by analysts in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital.

One source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the Kremlin viewed the region and two other pro-Russia rebel states in Georgia as useful tools in its “hybrid warfare” against Europe, which has included funnelling migrants into the EU and spreading misinformation.

“Somebody may have ordered this to provoke tensions, to provoke reactions, and it’s worked,” he said.

Alexandru Flenchea, a former Moldovan deputy prime minister and an ex-chief negotiator on Transnistria, said the statement may have been ordered by local businessmen who effectively run Transnistria as their fiefdom because they want to derail EU customs integration with Moldova.

“This is a provocation to test reactions in Chisinau, test reactions in Kyiv and also in Moscow,” he said. “The Moldovan government said that there was no indication that this was going to happen, but the public reaction... there was a lot of panic.”

Alexandru Flenchea, a former Moldovan deputy prime minister, said the statement may have been ordered by powerful businessmen in Transnistria
Alexandru Flenchea, a former Moldovan deputy prime minister, said the statement may have been ordered by powerful businessmen in Transnistria

Western capitals said they were monitoring the situation around Transnistria, which has a population of roughly 400,000, especially as leaked plans have shown that the Kremlin views Moldova as a European weak point.

Transnistria runs its own affairs after breaking away from Moldova following a war in the 1990s, but it remains economically connected to Moldova.

Russia sponsors Transnistria by supplying free gas and paying pensions, and controls its security services. Russian is spoken in Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, where the wide streets, war memorials and statues are reminiscent of a Russian regional city.

The Chisinau-based analyst described Transnistria as “a useful finger in the pie” for Russia, saying: “It enables the Kremlin to undermine authority, spread misinformation and disinformation in Europe.”