It was more than 30 years ago when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. The west was overjoyed that it had vanquished the Communist menace it had fought for more than 70 years.
Sure, uncertainty and insecurity persisted here and there. Several wars broke out on the peripheries of the former Soviet Union—in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans. Moscow also did not take too kindly to precious pieces of its historic empire marching away, especially Georgia, the Baltic States, Ukraine and Moldova.
Still, shaky peace deals were imposed, separatist enclaves carved out and treaties reluctantly signed. Political scientists and policymakers even came up with a term – “frozen conflicts” – to describe these arrangements.
But while the west simply shelved frozen conflicts in hopes that tempers cooled and trade ties would overtake hatreds, other dynamics were at play.
Those on the ground continued to manoeuvre and scheme, build up weapons and industrial capacity, as Azerbaijan did to overwhelm Armenia and seize control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020.
Meanwhile, Russia never considered these conflicts “frozen”. For Moscow, they were opportunities to exploit.
“Don’t call them frozen conflicts. It’s misleading and outright dangerous,” says Nikolaus Von Twickel, a former Moscow Times correspondent and co-author of “Beyond Frozen Conflict,” a book about post-Soviet trouble zones.
Those seemingly-intractable squabbles have come back to haunt the world over the last two months. Russia invaded Ukraine, eight years after it invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and took control of the eastern Donbas region. And this week, yet another of the post-Soviet “frozen conflicts” began to come undone after several explosions struck Moldova’s separatist enclave of Transnistria, a pro-Russian region that broke away from Moldova in a 1992 war that left 1,000 people dead.
Transnistria is a sleepy, narrow 400-km strip of land along the Ukrainian border. I last visited in March. On Tuesday, explosions brought down two communications towers broadcasting pro-Kremlin propaganda. A day earlier several rockets hit the state security headquarters in the de facto capital of Tiraspol. On Wednesday, Kremlin-backed Transnistria officials accused Ukrainians of flying drones over their territory and opening fire. No one was hurt in any of the attacks.
Russia blames Ukrainian saboteurs, though Vladmir Putin’s mouthpieces have also declared an intention to fight for a land bridge connecting southern Ukraine territories they control to Transnistria. Ukrainians call it a false flag operation by Russia meant to draw Moldova, a small eastern European country struggling to get into the European Union, into the Ukraine war.
Maia Sandu, Moldova’s pro-EU president, convened an emergency meeting of her Cabinet. The danger is high. Hundreds of thousands of Moldovans hold Romanian passports, making them citizens of the EU as well as a Nato country. Many of Romania’s 19 million people see Moldavia as part of their historic homeland.
“We urge citizens to keep calm and feel safe,” Sandu said after her meeting. She attributed the explosions to “internal differences between various groups in Transnistria that have an interest in destabilising the situation”.
For Von Twickel, the unfolding events underscore the danger of allowing unresolved geopolitical tensions—whether in Ukraine, Bosnia, the Caucasus or elsewhere—to fester.
“Even though a conflict may be not hot and sleeping, in the background, on the ground and behind the scenes things are going on,” he says. “Even if little happens, there are new generations growing up, there are different political battles being fought.”
If for the west, frozen conflicts refer to places where time will heal, for Russia, such nether zones are less problems to be solved than tools to be deployed in pursuit of foreign policy goals. We may think of South Ossetia, Transnistria and even Bosnia-Herzegovina as frozen conflicts. But Putin has shown repeatedly that to him they are knives that can be twisted or piles of tinder that can be lit.
Even northwest Syria, a frozen conflict in which Russia is deeply involved, is a pressure point for Moscow it can use to menace Turkey and the west with floods of new refugees.
“For Russia, it’s pleasing to say ‘frozen conflict’, because behind closed doors or windows, Russia can do whatever it likes,” says Von Twickel, who has spent time reporting and writing analyses in Ukraine’s eastern region. “Russia has never had any serious interest in solving these conflicts.”
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Whether in Transnistria, South Ossetia, eastern Ukraine or Damascus, Russia profits from dependencies it builds up with local leaders who come to the Kremlin for cash and diplomatic support. In Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, local leaders even depend on Russian political advisers who tell them what to do.
Transnistria is also filled with Kremlin assets, including perhaps 1,500 troops loyal to Russia, Many Transnistrians hold Russian passports. But over the last 30 years, Transnistria has also evolved. Many citizens are Moldovan passport holders, and the young aspire to life abroad. Despite the prevalence of Soviet-era statues and symbols, a new generation does not even remember the Soviet Union.
The region’s rulers and oligarchs—including the Sheriff company run by two former Soviet security officials and in control of much of the region’s commerce—profit off business with Ukraine, Moldova and the EU as well as handouts from Moscow.
“There’s a segment of hardline pro-Russian people. There are people who will do anything they are told to do,” says Von Twickel, “But Transnistria has always been extremely pragmatic. And the rulers of Transnistria have been prone to make deals.”
Far from being “frozen”, Transnistria has also changed over the decades. That fluidity may contribute to keeping Tiraspol neutral and Moldova out of the Ukraine war.