TIRASPOL, TRANSNISTRIA — At the Back in the USSR café, it’s as if the Soviet Union never collapsed.
Busts of Lenin welcome visitors at the door. The red hammer and sickle flags hanging on the wall. Huge plastic Soviet-era telephones sit on the tables, alongside bowls of traditional borscht and chunks of Stolichnaya potato salad.
This cafe and the entire region of Transnistria, a Russian-backed breakaway republic wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, looks like a Soviet-themed vintage shop. The cafe may be intentionally cheesy, but still, it speaks to a real nostalgia for a distant era and a deep appreciation for Russia.
“Russia has been like a big brother to us,” said restaurant owner Igor Martiniuc.
Until a few weeks ago, he said, “life was good.”
For three decades, this intriguing and rarely-visited breakaway region has quietly survived as Russia’s little friend, a self-declared republic in the far southwest of Moscow’s sphere of influence. Russia helped Transnistria fight a separatist war and seceded from Moldova, creating a pro-Moscow island of Russian speakers, essentially a mini-Russia, hundreds of kilometers from Russia itself.
But now, despite years of benefiting enormously from Russian patronage and protection, the Transnistrians do not want to participate in Russia’s war with Ukraine.
“Most people here want to protect themselves and their business,” Martiniuc said. “They don’t want to get involved.”
In the past month, there have been signs that Russia is indeed trying to engulf Transnistria in war and sow fear and uncertainty in the West. A Russian general suggested that Moscow troops could attack the Black Sea coast to rescue what he called oppressed Transnistrians. Although Western officials said Russia lacked the military capability to do so anytime soon, it immediately raised the specter of war looming over the European Union.
Ukrainian forces sent reinforcements to the border. Then, a few days later, a series of mysterious bombings shook Transnistria, putting the snake-shaped sliver of territory on red alert.
But if Russia really hopes to leverage its close relationship with Transnistria to its advantage, it may have miscalculated — just as it wrongly assumed its soldiers would be welcome in Ukraine. Transnistrian officials are now furiously trying to signal that their long-standing friendship with Russia has its limits.
“We have no plans to enter the war,” said Paul Galtsev, a spokesman for the Transnistrian Foreign Ministry, housed in a picturesque three-story stone house. “We made no aggressive plans, no tactical attack preparations, no requests to Moscow for more troops.”
“We are small and peaceful,” he said. “We don’t want to go to war with anyone, especially Ukraine.”
Transnistria has managed to avoid taking sides while following its own system. It is still technically part of Moldova, but it is outside the control of the Moldovan government. It prints its own money (the Transnistrian ruble), flies its own flag, sings its own anthem, and runs an industrial economy that supports some 300,000 people.
It does all this thanks to billions of dollars in subsidies from its benefactors in Moscow, which in return receives a strategic enclave on the European Union’s border, where it maintains at least 1,500 troops.
Until Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the world practically forgot about these troops. Now, his presence takes on a new dimension.
During a reporting visit this month, following the first wave of mysterious explosions, New York Times journalists saw new sandbag positions in Tiraspol, the capital. Childish Russian soldiers paraded down the city’s grand boulevards in squads of two and three, Kalashnikovs gleaming.
The Russian media bubble, which dominates Transnistria, blamed the blasts on Ukrainian saboteurs. But outside analysts believe they are the work of Russian saboteurs trying to shore up local loyalties — the same tactic Russia used in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The explosions were small and did not hurt anyone. But there may be a greater good. On the edge of Transnistria, right on the border with Ukraine, is the Cobasna ammunition depot, one of the largest weapons stockpiles in Europe.
A Soviet-era relic guarded by hundreds of Russian troops, Cobasna holds a staggering 44 million pounds of bullets, grenades, rockets and artillery shells. Some of the inventory is over 60 years old and no one knows what kind of shape it is in. Some weapons experts have warned that if Cobasna is hit and the entire stockpile explodes, the explosion could rival the size of the Hiroshima bomb. .
Transnistria’s elites were deftly playing on this territory’s unusual status, getting cheap gas from Russia to supply their factories, smuggling goods from Ukraine with the help of Ukrainian criminal networks, and using Moldovan customs channels to legally export goods to the European Union.
But with Ukrainian ports now closed, the flow of goods and visitors has dropped. The other day, the Back in the USSR cafe was almost empty. Many Transnistrians said they did not want to choose between Russia and Ukraine. Both are part of your story.
In the 1920s, Soviet authorities created an autonomous zone of Ukrainian territory along the eastern banks of the Dniester River, a major waterway that traditionally separated Russia’s sphere of influence to the east and the Romanian-speaking areas to the west.
During World War II, the Nazis and their Romanian allies invaded, massacring hundreds of thousands, especially Jews. Soviet forces eventually drove them out and built the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. But they did not develop the republic uniformly; they built giant factories and power plants in the Russian-speaking areas, the region that would become Transnistria.
It was part of a larger strategy to create Russian-dominated enclaves in the Soviet republics; the Russians also did this in South Ossetia, Georgia, and the Donbas, Ukraine. Both areas eventually erupted in bloodshed.
In 1990, Transnistrians felt that Moldova was getting too close to Romania, which many still associated with Nazism. Thus, they declared independence, and two years later, with the help of Russian troops, they won their separatist battle against Moldova.
No member state of the United Nations recognized Transnistria’s independence, not even Russia, but Russian troops never left.
Military analysts said there were at least 1,500 soldiers in Transnistria, whom the Kremlin calls “peacekeepers,” along with 3,000 to 12,000 Transnistrian soldiers, including reservists. Their weapons are light – a few armored trucks, no working helicopters, some old artillery – hardly an invasion force.
“It would be stupid for Russia to try to use this against Ukraine, and Ukrainians know that,” said Anatoly Dirun, a Transnistrian political scientist and opposition politician.
He said that Ukraine and Russia were increasing the threat to Transnistria for different reasons of their own.
Russia-Ukraine War: Major Developments
Two countries approach NATO. The Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers are ready to meet with their NATO counterparts to discuss the prospect of joining the alliance. In apparent retaliation, Russia has suspended electricity exports to Finland after saying a NATO expansion would pose a threat to its own national security.
Russia is trying to pull Ukrainian troops away from the battle in the east. And Ukraine is trying to paint a picture of an expanding war to get the West to send more weapons.
“This is all noise,” said Dirun.
He and others said Russia could not easily send reinforcements to Transnistria even if it wanted to, because the planes would have to cross Ukrainian or European airspace, putting them at risk of being shot down.
But the flow of cheap Russian gas has not stopped, allowing Transnistrian factories to produce shoes, fabrics and steel bars at competitive prices. Russia subsidizes this because Transnistria serves as a powerful geopolitical lever, especially in Moldova, which wants to join the European Union but is far less attractive with Russian troops on its soil, among other issues.
“Transnistria’s economic model is based on two things: free Russian gas and smuggling,” said Alexandru Flenchea, a former Moldovan government official.
The results are on display. Tiraspol looks good. The parks are combed, the avenues are almost too wide and there’s even a hockey rink. Russian toys are sold in toy stores, Russian flags fly on the hoods of cars and Russian is spoken everywhere.
But behind all this, say some Transnistrians, is a devious Russian hand. The economy is tightly controlled by pro-Kremlin elites and is not working for many people. Many young people left to work in Europe. With war raging nearby, more are fleeing.
Transnistria is also becoming more repressive, rights groups say, and authorities have harassed and arrested critics.
“There is no freedom of speech or freedom of thought,” said one young woman, Rina, who declined to reveal her full name for fear of reprisals. “It makes you feel like you’re living in a prison. Or in a tower, with a dragon outside.”
Still, most of the Transnistrians recently interviewed seemed proud of their Transnistrian and pro-Russian identity, but not blindly.
“I think the outside world has the wrong impression of us,” said Edward Volsky, a user experience designer who was on his way to a recent night to see “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” at a cinema in Tiraspol. “We have the same clothes as you and we have the same gadgets. We are modern. Just look around.”
In front of him, a young couple sat at a sidewalk cafe in the waning sun eating hamburgers and drinking beer. Nearby, children were rollerblading.
Maybe it was the spotty cell service. Maybe it had something to do with life in a Soviet enclave. But many people in Tiraspol that day seemed less glued to their phones and, despite the sandbags and checkpoints, extraordinarily friendly to outsiders.
When asked who he blamed for starting the war, Volsky, who spoke perfect English, said: “War is not the way to solve problems these days. I was not there. I cannot judge them.”
But, he was quick to add, “Russia has done a lot for us.”