In Transnistria, controlled by pro-Russia separatists, a fear of war and a toast: 'To the death of Putin'

  • Insider traveled to the breakaway "republic" of Transnistria on the border of Ukraine.

  • The territory is occupied by Russian troops and controlled by pro-Russia separatists.

  • A local woman told Insider her neighbors are afraid to talk about the war in Ukraine.

TIRASPOL, Transnistria — This might be the only city in Europe where there is no indication that a war is being waged in Ukraine, despite that country only being a 20-minute drive away.

Along the main drag in Tiraspol, the capital of what billboards proclaim to be the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, also known as Transnistria, there are smart cafes with modern, all-glass exteriors that look like they would be more at home in Manhattan than a breakaway, unrecognized state currently occupied by 1,500 Russian soldiers.

There is an Italian restaurant, an India-themed casino, consulates for Abkhazia and South Ossetia (other separatist enclaves recognized by Moscow but not the international community) and a decommissioned tank commemorating the 1992 war that led this heavily industrialized region along the Dniester river, controlled by oligarchs and subsidized by free Russian gas, to break away from Moldova.

On a pleasant Saturday afternoon, there were cyclists and children rollerblading on clean, paved streets crowded with trolleys and late-model cars — including a convoy of BMW enthusiasts. A movie theater was lined with posters for "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" and the latest superhero film from Marvel.

What there was not was any sign of was the conflict next door. Ukrainians live here, as do Russians, but there is no propaganda either for or against the Feb. 24 invasion, an odd and conspicuous silence given that this pseudo-state's leaders have for decades proclaimed their desire to be annexed by Moscow. The flag of the Russian Federation hangs on all local government buildings, there is a special housing complex built for Russian military officers, and soldiers in Russia's military are manning checkpoints across the territory.

military base
Russian soldiers and local volunteers collaborate at military bases in Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

A day before Insider visited, a Russian general, Rustam Minnekaev, insisted that his country's goal was to conquer southern Ukraine and liberate this separatist region of some 300,000 people, claiming there was "oppression of the Russian-speaking population." Russian leaders weighed similar accusations in launching the Ukraine war, but fierce resistance in Mykolaiv has stopped their troops from surging west to besiege Odesa, the country's third-largest city, just an hour from Moldova's border.

But there was no indication of a pending military operation here, although days later there were a series of explosions at a building used by the local services — "pretexts," Moldovan authorities said, for inflaming tensions. That was followed by reported attacks Tuesday on radio transmission towers that bore the "signature" of Russian intelligence operatives, a former Moldovan defense minister said.

Forty-eight hours earlier, at the de facto border checkpoint between Moldova and Transnistria, yards away from a contingent of Russian troops, a guard in military fatigues did not even ask why someone with a US passport would be visiting, simply handing this reporter a slip of paper granting admission.

But the war, while absent in Transnistria's public spaces — if not its television, which is flooded with propaganda directly from Moscow — is just behind the facade. There are refugees here, including cars with Ukrainian plates, as well as inflation and a shortage of goods that used to be imported through an eastern border that is now sealed.

At a train station in the city of Bender, a sign in English informed visitors that there are no more departures. You can enter the station, it stated, "but there is no way you go on rail tracks. We repeat: No way!!!" At the start of the war, Ukrainian soldiers blew up the rails that connected the region to Odesa.

On an elevated walkway that allows residents to cross the 14 tracks outside the station, a little girl could be heard complaining to a little boy: she can no longer find her favorite Ukrainian brand of chocolate.

tank monument
A tank monument in Tiraspol celebrates Russia's "Great Patriotic War" and the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.Charles Davis/Insider

Outside the cities, in a village where people can speak with less fear of being overheard by the security services, an old woman, Amina — not her real name — said she opposed the war in Ukraine. But, she added, the conflict was not something she would feel comfortable even discussing with neighbors who had lived alongside her for decades. A code of silence prevails.

"It's a taboo — nobody talks about this in public, so nobody knows who supports the war," she said. It's the kind of thing one only discusses in the kitchen with the radio on.

In the first days after the war, she walked around the village with an ornament, called a martisor, that is usually made of red and white string and worn on one's chest to celebrate the beginning of spring. Hers was done in the blue-and-yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Neighbors warned her to take it off, she said, not necessarily because they believe what's on their televisions from pro-Russian channels but because they were concerned for her safety.

She herself came to oppose the war because the historical analogies were too striking.

At a museum inside an Ottoman-era fortress in Bender — located above a military base with Russian soldiers, and currently undergoing renovations funded by the European Union — a sign celebrating the foreign military presence justified it in terms identical to those used by Russian President Vladimir Putin today. Russian soldiers, it said, had ended a "bloody genocide" perpetrated by "radical nationalists" in Moldova, whose reactionary preference for the Romanian language, previously suppressed by the Soviet Union, had led them to impose "a number of discriminatory language laws."

"I was here in 1992," Amina said. "And now I have the same feeling as 30 years ago. It's the same thing happening."

If war does come here again, locals think it won't stop with Ukraine and Transnistria.

museum statue of Russian soldier
A museum at the Ottoman-era Bendery Fortress in Transnistria celebrates Russian intervention.Charles Davis/Insider

Since the beginning, before Putin even came to power, Russia has been using Transnistria as a "kind of blackmail," Igor Munteanu, Moldova's ambassador to the United States from 2010 to 2015, said in an interview at his office in Chisinau. The vast majority of Moldova's electricity is generated in Transnistria, the power plants there running on Russian gas and coal. In part, that protects Moldova — Russia is seen as unlikely to cut off the supply to a loyal proxy state — but it also ensures dependence.

"Anytime that Moldova says that 'we would like to join the European Union,'" he said, Russia responds, 'Well, keep in mind, we are against that.'"

But the most important political leverage, Munteanu said, is Russia's intelligence and military presence in Transnistria.

In addition to its own military presence, "they have trained and recruited local inhabitants." The self-declared republic has a military force of its own that is at least as large as the Republic of Moldova's, with better arms and a number of tanks. "And they can enlarge the military contingent, which is following the orders of the Russian Federation, by 10 times — they can easily recruit and mobilize 50,000 soldiers from Transnistria."

sign for coins
Because it is not an internally recognized state, Transnistria cannot have its currency produced by reputable printers, forcing it to turn to plastic tokens like those used casinos.Charles Davis/Insider

Transnistria is the site of a former USSR ammunition depot that is believed to be one of the largest in eastern Europe. The statelet's railroads, which use the same broad-gauge track as Ukraine and Russia, are seen by analysts as a potential resupply route for the railway-dependent Russian military if the war eventually comes to Odesa.

In the immediate wake of Russia's invasion, Munteanu thought it reasonable to conclude that Ukraine was not the only objective. Putin has repeatedly expressed his anger not just at Kyiv, but at the rest of Moscow's former satellites in Eastern Europe who have chosen closer relations with the West — he views them as client states of Washington, akin to what he's sought over Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia — and at the Soviet leaders who allowed them to regain their independence.

"I think when he speaks about recovering what belongs to Russia, he means also Moldova," Munteanu said. "And from day zero, he meant an invasion."

railroad cars on tracks
No cargo trains are currently leaving the station in Bender, Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

In Chisinau, life goes on, families packing churches over the weekend for Easter celebrations and taking home with them a candle lit by the Holy Fire — a flame that is delivered by plane from Jerusalem to Orthodox churches across Eastern Europe.

People are nervous, but Moldovans who fled the country after the Feb. 24 invasion have trickled back, officials say, encouraged by Russian setbacks, particularly the failure to capture Odesa; the Ukrainian port city, a short drive from the border, is a commonly accepted bellwether — if it falls, Moldova will be next. Eyes are also on America: if US diplomats start leaving, thousands of Moldovans will follow.

No one, certainly, believes Moldova could resist an invasion, should it ever come to that. Locals joke that the country's armed forces would be able to hold the capital for about two hours — the time it would take Russia to drive an armored vehicle from the border. Not even the country's elected officials pretend its armed forces would be any match.

In his office on the sixth floor of the Soviet-era parliament building in Chisinau, lawmaker Radu Marian, vice president of the governing Party of Action and Solidarity, rubbed his face and sighed when asked if his country would be able to put up a fight.

"With Russia?" he said. "I don't know how."

Flags of Transnistria and Russia
Russian and Transnistrian flags wave in Suvorov Square in Tiraspol, the self-proclaimed capital of Transnistria, on Saturday, April 23, 2022.Charles Davis/Insider

At 32, Marian is one of a slew of young people with no prior experience in politics who have come to power in Moldova. PAS, the pro-Western party of President Maia Sandu, was founded in 2016 and won a parliamentary majority with 60% of the vote in 2021, campaigning on an anti-corruption platform and defeating a Socialist party widely seen as a proxy for the Kremlin.

Since then, the party's anti-corruption message has been overshadowed by consecutive crises: two deadly waves of COVID-19 followed by a war that has changed the tiny country's demographics, with nearly 100,000 of its 3 million inhabitants now refugees from Ukraine.

The war has not, however, changed Moldova's security policy. The country is not in the EU and, so long as part of its territory is controlled by Russian-backed separatists, it can never join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In order to avoid a confrontation, Moldova, its constitution committing it to military neutrality, has condemned the war in Ukraine and accepted more refugees per capita than any other nation. But it has refused to allow its territory to be used for the transfer of weapons. It has also declined to sanction Moscow — and it's not requesting any new weapon from its allies in Washington and Brussels, fearing that would put a target on its back.

There is no Plan B.

"We are not Ukraine," Marian said. "We don't have Stingers, we don't have tanks, we don't have planes, and we have no combat experience whatsoever. It's just the reality."

It's a reality that raises an uncomfortable question.

"Do you put up a fight and trigger massive killings?" Marian asked. "Or, you know, just do what the Netherlands did in the Second World War when the Nazis came in — and just hope that the regime will be overthrown at one point."

"It's a bit crazy to talk about these things," he added, "but we need to talk."

man walking in front of supermarket
Nearly all business in Transnistria is controlled by oligarchs, with the "Sheriff" brand on supermarkets and football stadiums.Charles Davis/Insider

Back in Transnistria, the normalcy is artificial. People are scared to act any other way.

According to Moldovan authorities, Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted a large uptick in residents there applying for passports issued by their ostensible "radical nationalist" enemy in Chisinau, needing documents from an internationally recognized country if they wish to escape their self-proclaimed state ahead of an invasion.

Andrei Crigan of the business consulting group Gateway & Partners in Moldova, who was born in Transnistria, said the lack of real opportunity is another driving factor. "There's a group that holds a monopoly on the economy, called Sheriff," Crigan noted, founded by Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, both of whom enjoy Russian citizenship. "They're controlling everything. If you want to open a business and you want to grow it, you cannot do that. You will be slapped on your head at some point and they will take this business from you."

Many people in Transnistria "kind of feel like Russians," Crigan said, "but they see the reality and they say, 'What kind of Russia is that? Or what is Russia doing for us?'"

Lenin statute
A statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin at a park in Bender, Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

But people stay in undesirable situations for the same reasons people do anywhere else.

Amina, for example, has seen both her children move away. And now she lives with the fear of a coming war.

Why stay, then, in a breakaway state? "This is home," she said. Generations of her family lived here, Amina said, and it's like a magnet: if she tries to leave it pulls her back.

Many of her neighbors may well identify with Russia, but merely residing in the territory should not be read as support for any purported liberation by Moscow.

As Amina spoke, news was breaking that Russian missiles had struck residential buildings in Odesa, killing eight people, including a mother and her newborn child.

Pouring some wine in her garden, she proposed a toast: "To the death of Putin."

Have a news tip? Email this reporter:

Read the original article on Business Insider