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A mini-Russia gets squeezed by war

Sri Lanka's Frontline Socialist Party members carry a portrait of Russian revolutionary politician Vladimir Lenin.Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

TIRASPOL, TRANSNISTRIA — At the Back in the USSR cafe, it is like the Soviet Union never collapsed.

Busts of Vladimir Lenin greet visitors at the door. Red hammer-and-sickle flags hang on the wall. Huge plastic Soviet-era telephones sit on the tables, next to bowls of traditional borscht and lumps of Stolichnaya potato salad.

This cafe and the whole Transnistria region, a Russia-supported breakaway republic wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, feels like a Soviet-themed vintage shop. The cafe may be intentionally kitschy, but still, it speaks to a real nostalgia for a long-gone era and a deep appreciation for Russia.

“Russia has been like a big brother to us,” said the restaurant’s owner, Igor Martiniuc.

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Until a few weeks ago, he said, “life was good.”

For three decades, this intriguing, rarely visited breakaway region has quietly survived as Russia’s little buddy, a self-declared republic at the southwestern edge of Moscow’s sphere of influence. Russia helped Transnistria fight a separatist war and split off from Moldova, creating a pro-Moscow island of Russian speakers, essentially a mini-Russia, hundreds of miles from Russia itself.

But now, despite years of benefiting enormously from Russian patronage and protection, Transnistrians want no part of Russia’s war with Ukraine.

“Most people here want to protect themselves and their businesses,” Martiniuc said. “They don’t want to get involved.”

Over the past month, there have been signs that Russia is in fact trying to engulf Transnistria in the war and sow fear and uncertainty in the West. A Russian general suggested that Moscow’s troops might charge up the Black Sea coast to rescue what he called oppressed Transnistrians. Although Western officials have said Russia lacks the military ability to do that anytime soon, it immediately raised the specter of the war spilling closer to the European Union.

Ukrainian forces rushed reinforcements to the border. Then, a few days later, a string of mysterious bombings rattled Transnistria, throwing the snake-shaped sliver of territory into red alert.

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But if Russia really hopes to leverage its close relationship with Transnistria to its advantage, it might have miscalculated, in the same way it wrongly assumed its soldiers would be welcomed in Ukraine. Transnistrian authorities are now trying to furiously signal that their long-standing friendship with Russia has its limits.

“We have no plans to enter the war,” said Paul Galtsev, a spokesman at Transnistria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, housed in a quaint, three-story stone house. “We’ve made no aggressive plan, no tactical attack preparations, no request to Moscow for more troops.

“We are small and peaceful,” he said. “We don’t want to go to war with anyone, especially with Ukraine.”

Transnistria has managed to avoid choosing sides while following its own system. It is still technically part of Moldova, but it lies outside Moldovan government control. It prints its own money (the Transnistrian ruble), flies its own flag, sings its own anthem, and runs an industrial economy supporting around 300,000 people.

It does all of this thanks to billions of dollars in subsidies from its benefactors in Moscow, which in return gets a strategic enclave at the edge of the European Union, where it bases at least 1,500 troops.

Until Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the world had mostly forgotten about those troops. Now their presence takes on a new dimension.

During a reporting visit this month, after the first wave of mysterious explosions, New York Times journalists saw new sandbag positions across Tiraspol, the capital. Boyish Russian soldiers strutted down the city’s grand boulevards in squads of twos and threes, Kalashnikovs gleaming.

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The Russian media bubble, which dominates in Transnistria, blamed the explosions on Ukrainian saboteurs. But outside analysts believe they are the handiwork of Russian saboteurs trying to firm up local loyalties, much the same tactic Russia used in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Transnistria’s elites had been deftly playing this territory’s unusual status, getting cheap gas from Russia to power their factories, smuggling goods out of Ukraine with the help of Ukrainian criminal networks, and using Moldovan customs channels to export goods legally 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 mostly empty. Many Transnistrians said they did not want to choose between Russia and Ukraine. Both are part of their history.

Military analysts said there were at least 1,500 troops 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 the Ukrainians know it,” said Anatoly Dirun, a Transnistrian political scientist and opposition politician.

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He said Ukraine and Russia were pumping up the threat to Transnistria for their own, different reasons.

Russia is trying to draw Ukrainian troops away from the battle in the east. And Ukraine is trying to paint a picture of a spreading war so the West sends more weapons.

“This is all noise,” Dirun said.

He and others said Russia could not easily fly reinforcements into Transnistria 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 Transnistria’s factories to make shoes, textiles, and steel bars at competitive prices. Russia subsidizes this because Transnistria serves as a powerful geopolitical lever, especially on Moldova, which wants to join the European Union but is much less attractive with Russian troops on its soil, among other issues.

“The Transnistrian economic model is based on two things: free Russian gas and smuggling,” said Alexandru Flenchea, a former Moldovan government official.