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Geopolitics

'Z' Marks Moldova, Inside Putin's Potential Next Target

An exclusive visit inside Moldova's breakaway pro-Russian republic of Transnistria, which many fear may be the gateway to the next war after Ukraine in the strategically important target.

'Z' Marks Moldova, Inside Putin's Potential Next Target

In Tiraspol, the de facto capital of the pro-Russian separatist republic of Transnistria

Carolina Drüten

TIRASPOL — With adhesive tape, one of the demonstrators has pasted a Z on his jacket. “Russia, Russia,” the men and women shout, waving blue-and-white flags. Cars are parked at the side of the road, with the Z emblazoned on their windows – a sign that adorns Russian military vehicles in Ukraine these days.

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Wearing a Z is a blatant way to show that your are on the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his war of aggression against Ukraine.


The people gathered here on this Sunday afternoon have no doubt about that. Tiraspol is the de facto capital of the pro-Russian separatist republic of *Transnistria, on the edge of the tiny state of Moldova. It is one of Europe’s Achilles’ heels that is painfully becoming exposed these days. Perhaps it’s the most exposed of all.

Transnistria secession

Transnistria had seceded from the republic in a civil war in the early 1990s, when Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Russian soldiers have been stationed there ever since. For a long time, it was a frozen conflict in which both sides had resigned themselves to the status quo in the absence of a solution. But the war in Ukraine changes everything.

It is only 60 kilometers to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa.

In Moldova, fears are growing that Putin’s men will not stop at their border. The Ukrainian army warns that Moscow wants to create an overland corridor from Crimea to both the separatist areas in eastern Ukraine and Transnistria in the west. From the southeastern point of Moldova, it is only 60 kilometers to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa.

With a stern gaze, the statue of Russian Commander-in-Chief Alexander Suvorov on a warhorse, watches over the demonstrators in Tiraspol. It was he who founded the city in 1792. To this day, he is considered one of Russia’s greatest generals. Less militant, but equally vigilant, police and army officers oversee the gathering.

Russian speakers and rubles

After a good hour, the hundred or so Putinists roll up their Russian flags, as if on cue, and leave the square in groups. Two men head for a nearby café and leave with steaming paper cups.

Inside, the barista is preparing a latte. She is afraid, she says, because she has heard that Russia will send troops here. Finally, she types into a translation app and puts her phone on the counter. “I am for Ukraine,” she has written.

Transnistria is part of Moldova under international law, but it feels like a foreign country. The people speak Russian, pay with rubles instead of Moldovan leu, have their own passports and their own president. In Tiraspol, there is a statue of Lenin on every corner, and the Transnistria flag is emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. A living remnant of the Soviet Union in the middle of Europe.

Those who want to visit Transnistria have to plan for time and patience. From the Moldovan capital Chișinău, a country road covered with potholes leads to Varnița. Cars are checked at two checkpoints, one with police officers and one with soldiers.

The village borders directly on the buffer zone between Moldova and Transnistria. Another checkpoint. Passport control. Then a trolley bus takes passengers across a bridge over the Dniester. The area across the river is outside the control of Moldovan authorities. Here, the separatists call the shots.

Ukrainian refugees crossing the southern border of Palanca in Moldova

ANSA/ZUMA

Paramilitary loyal to Moscow

A blonde woman in her mid-60s stands at the bus stop, a shopping bag in her hand. She thinks it’s good that the demonstrators have made their support for Putin known. “From all sides, they sanction Russia,” she says. “But we, the Transnistrian people, we support Russia.” All the people? She laughs. “It’s not like all the people in Tiraspol can take to the streets at the same time.” Then the bus arrives.

At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Russian army conducted military maneuvers in Transnistria. A good 1,500 Russian soldiers are on the ground, plus between 10,000 and 15,000 paramilitaries loyal to Moscow.

Moldova, on the other hand, is Western-oriented; on Thursday, the government submitted a hasty application for EU membership. A day later, Tiraspol demanded recognition of Transnistria’s independence.

Fearing an attack on Transnistrian soil, Ukrainians have closed their border with the separatist region. A few days ago, they also blew up a bridge connecting their country to Transnistria.

What am I doing here?

At the Zeleny market in Tiraspol, traders sell their wares: Murături – vegetables pickled in brine, typical of the region –, plums stuffed with walnuts, and Zacuscă, a vegetable spread made from eggplant and peppers. At his stall on the edge of the market, a vendor, 65, brown beret on graying hair, sorts through his display.

Unfortunately, there are some who listen only to what Ukraine says.

The economic situation is difficult, he says, and the region’s unresolved problems make the situation even more difficult. “Let’s pick up shovels and create something new instead of tearing everything down,” he says. Both the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia are affecting Transnistria, which is economically dependent on both countries.

“There are good and bad Ukrainians,” the market trader believes. “I hear what Poland says. I hear what France and Germany say. And I hear what Russia says. Unfortunately, there are some who listen only to what Ukraine says. I don’t like that,” he says.

According to him, relations between Transnistria and Moldova are only broken on the political level. “We ordinary people have no problems with each other,” he says. “We were brothers once. Some here have relatives on the other side. And sometimes they meet.”

On the sidewalk on October 25 Street in Tiraspol, a musician has set up a microphone. He plucks at his guitar. The first chords of Creep by Radiohead sound. Then he begins to sing.

“But I’m a creep

I’m a weirdo

What the hell am I doing here?

I don’t belong here.”

*Transparency Note: Transnistrian authorities are currently not allowing journalists into their separatist republic due to the tense security situation. A team consisting of a Die Welt reporter, and two reports from the Romanian online publication PressOne, therefore travelled undercover. The names of all interlocutors in Transnistria are not mentioned for their safety.

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