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Military occupation of Moldova by Russia

Conflict type: Military occupation

Russia occupies part of Moldovan territory. The Russian occupation extends over a strip of land on the east bank of Moldova’s Dniester River, known as Transdniestria.

Russia is the occupying power in the Moldovan territory of Transdniestria. Transdniestria is also spelled Transnistria. Russia exercises its authority by its overall control over the de facto government of Transdniestria, i.e. the government of the self-proclaimed ‘Moldovan Republic of Transdniestria’. In other words, Russia is using proxy forces. For further information on the use of proxy forces, see 'contemporary challenges for classification – control over proxy forces’ in our classification section. Russia assumed overall authority in July 1992, when it provided troops to monitor the ceasefire between Moldova and Transdniestrian separatists.

Transdniestria broke away from Moldova in September 1990, as a result of fears that Moldova was preparing to reunite with Romania. M. Robinson and A. Tanans, ‘After Crimea, Moldova too Fears “Unwanted “ Events on Road to EU’, Reuters, 30 March 2014; E. Rumer, Moldova Between Russia and the West: A Delicate Balance, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 23 May 2017. The resultant civil war lasted from 1991 to July 1992 when a ceasefire was brokered. ‘Trans-Dniester Profile’, BBC, 13 December 2016. This ceasefire is today maintained by a joint peacekeeping force, comprising approximately 1,200 troops. Composed of 402 Russian, 492 Transdniestrian, and 355 Moldovan troops and 10 Ukrainian military observers, the peacekeeping forces are stationed at 15 checkpoints in key areas of the security zone, i.e. the borderland stretching along the Dniester River. K. Lungu, ‘Transnistria: From Entropy to Exodus’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 1September 2016. In a 2006 referendum, the majority of the Transdniestrian population voted not to integrate with Moldova and to retain their ‘independence.’ C.Vlas, ‘Transnistria Leader on Settlement Referendum: We Had a Referendum in 2006 on Independence and Joining Russia’, Moldova.org, 30 January 2017. However, Moldova is still recognised as sovereign. The European Court of Human Rights repeatedly confirmed that the territory under the effective control of the Transdniestrian separatist government remains that of Moldova. ECtHR, Catan and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App nos 43370/04, 8252/05 and 18454/06, 19 October 2012, §110; Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §330.General international law determines whether a secessionist entity possesses statehood. It remains debated whether recognition is a criterion. For further information and references on statehood, see 'international armed conflict - secessionist entities' in our classification section.

Elements of occupation

For a territory to be considered occupied, it must be 'under the authority of the hostile army.' Article 42, 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land. For an occupation to exist, hostile foreign forces must exercise effective control. Three cumulative elements must be fulfilled for effective control to exist.

  • First, the armed forces of a foreign state are physically present in the territory and the territorial state did not consent to their presence.
  • Second, the presence of the foreign forces prevents the effective local government in place at the time of invasion from exercising its powers.
  • Third, the foreign forces establish their own authority. For further information, see ‘military occupation – elements of occupation’ in our classification section.

States may use proxy forces to occupy a territory: if a state exercises overall control over de facto local authorities or other local groups that exert effective control over the territory, the state can be considered an occupying force. For further information on overall control, see ‘contemporary challenges for classification – control over proxy forces’ in our classification section. Two elements must therefore exist in such a situation.

According to the European Court of Human Rights, significant indicators of overall control are: the presence of large number of troops engaged in active duties in the occupied area, and the fact that the local authority is dependent for its survival on military and other support from the occupying state. See ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §§312-315.

Russia exercises overall control over the ‘Moldovan Republic of Transdniestria’ (MRT), which, in turn, exercises effective control over Transdniestria as the de facto government. Russia provided Transdniestria with military and political support to help them set up the separatist regime. Russian military personnel supported Transdniestria in the 1991-1992 civil war. ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §382. Significantly, the European Court of Human Rights held that Transdniestria only survives due to Russian support. ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §275. The Court confirmed that although Transdniestria is vested with organs of power and its own administration, it ‘remains under the effective authority, or at the very least under the decisive influence, of the Russian Federation and in any event that it survives by virtue of the military, economic, financial, and political support given to it by the Russian Federation.’ ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §390-392. Such support has enabled Transdniestria to acquire a certain amount of autonomy vis-à-vis Moldova. ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §382. In this regard, the European Court of Human Rights held that there was little Moldova could do to re-establish its authority over Transdniestrian territory. ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §341. Although the number of Russian troops stationed in Transdniestria has in fact fallen significantly since 1992, Russian weapons stocks are still present and in view of the size of this arsenal, the Russian military importance in the region and its influence persists. ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §387.

Views of the parties to the conflict and the international community

The subjective views of the parties may be an indicator, but are not determinative for the classification of a situation. For further information, see ‘overview- classification based on legal criteria and facts’ in our classification section.

Russia denies occupying Transdniestria or exercising overall control over the local authorities. ECtHR, Catan and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App nos 43370/04, 8252/05 and 18454/06, 19 October 2012, §§96-99; Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §354. The Moldovan government denounced the occupation by Russian forces during the 1991-1992 war. ECtHR, Catan and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App nos 43370/04, 8252/05 and 18454/06, 19 October 2012, §18; Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §53. In July 2017, the Moldovan Parliament adopted a declaration condemning the violation of the territorial integrity of Moldova and calling for the removal of Russian troops. ‘Moldova Political Split Deepens After Demand for Russia’s Transdniester Pullout’, Radio Free Europe, 21 July 2017. In May 2017, the Constitutional Court of Moldova concluded that Russia continued to occupy the Transdniestrian region in ‘violation of constitutional provisions regarding the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and permanent neutralist of the Republic of Moldova, as well as of international law.’ Constitutional Court of the Republic of Moldova, Judgment on the Interpretation of Article 11 of the Constitution, Complaint no 37b/2014, 2 May 2017.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe repeatedly called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Moldova and to implement the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. See for example Resolution 1955(2013), Parliamentary Assembly, 2 October 2013, §§27-29; Resolution 1896 (2012), Parliamentary Assembly, 2 October 2012. §25.2. In addition, NATO has declared its firm position on the matter in a recent joint press point with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Moldova, Pavel Filip. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO ‘strongly supports the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova’ and that the conflict in Transdnieistria, undermines Moldova’s territorial integrity. He stressed that ‘NATO allies do not, and will not, recognize Transnistria.’ See ‘Joint Press Point with NATO General Jens Stoltenberg and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Moldova, Pavel Filip (as delivered)', 30 November 2016. Finally, the European Court of Human Rights repeatedly concluded that ‘the Moldovan Government, the only legitimate government of the Republic of Moldova under international law, does not exercise authority over part of its territory, namely that part which is under the effective control of the “MRT”’ and that the local authorities are under the ‘effective authority’ or at least ‘decisive influence’ of Russia. ECtHR, Ilaşcu  and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §330 and §392; ECtHR, Catan and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App nos 43370/04, 8252/05 and 18454/06, 19 October 2012, §109 and §111.

The law of military occupation is set forth in the 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land, the 1949 Geneva Conventions (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilians Persons in Time of War and the 1977 Additional Protocol I applicable to International Armed Conflicts.

Both Moldova and Russia are a party to the 1949 Convention, and the 1977 Additional Protocol I.

Customary international humanitarian law is also applicable during occupation; it complements the protection granted by treaties and binds all parties to the conflict. Customary international law consist of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of occupation. Both Russia and Moldova are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia remains bound by its international human rights law obligations in the territory it occupies.

Last updated: Monday 23rd October 2017