My Country Knows What Happens When You Do a Deal With Russia

More and more people, including Pope Francis, are asking Ukraine to drop its defense and sit at the negotiation table with Russia. Citing the stalemate on the battlefield and Russia’s superior resources, they urge Ukraine’s leadership to consider a deal. What exactly that would involve is largely left unsaid. But it would clearly involve freezing the conflict, resigning Ukraine’s occupied territory to Russia in exchange for an end to the fighting.

My country, Moldova, knows all about that kind of bargain. A small western neighbor of Ukraine, Moldova experienced Russia’s first post-Soviet war of aggression, which ended with a cease-fire agreement in 1992. Thirty-two years later, 1,500 Russian troops are still stationed on internationally recognized Moldovan territory, despite the Kremlin’s formal agreement to withdraw them in 1994 and then once again in 1999. The case shows that Russia simply cannot be trusted.

But there’s a bigger problem for Ukraine than Russian untrustworthiness. It’s that freezing a conflict, without a full peace deal, simply does not work. For three decades, it has fractured Moldova, hindered national development and given Russia continued opportunities to meddle with Moldovan life. A frozen conflict, we should remember, is still a conflict. Anyone calling for Ukraine to settle for one should heed Moldova’s cautionary tale.

The ground for the Russian-Moldovan war was Transnistria, a strip of land in eastern Moldova with about 370,000 people. With support from Moscow — but no formal recognition — the territory declared independence from Moldova in 1990, setting off violence that escalated into conflict. Russian-backed separatists clashed with government security forces, and troops from both sides fought each other. Hundreds of people died. Russia stopped providing Moldova with gas, leaving people in cities to freeze in their apartments and cook their food outside on bonfires.

After four intense months of fighting, a cease-fire deal was signed in the summer of 1992 by President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and his Moldovan counterpart, Mircea Snegur. It established a security zone to be patrolled by so-called peacekeeping forces, effectively locking Moldova out of Transnistria. For 30 years, Transnistria has maintained a separate government, set of laws, flag and currency — all under Russian protection. Moldova has never recognized Transnistria’s independence, nor has any other member of the United Nations.

The self-proclaimed republic hasn’t fared well. It has become known for its arms and drug smuggling and a poor human rights record. Dissenters are persecuted and independent journalists are detained; last summer an opposition leader was found shot dead at home. Most of the region’s economy is dominated by a single company, Sheriff, founded by a former K.G.B. agent.

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