Here’s a paradox: Russia could serve its own interests by encouraging some of the territories that it has helped break away from neighboring countries to reintegrate with them.

This has become increasingly clear to me after visiting Moldova, which will hold parliamentary elections on Sunday. The question of Transnistria — the pro-Soviet territory that split away in 1992, and which you would expect to be a nationalist obsession — hardly gets a mention on the campaign trail.

One reason (beyond the passage of more than 20 years) is that the country’s pro-European politicians have little interest in seeing Transnistria return to Moldova, because it would kill their chances of returning to power. The territory of about half a million people would add a solidly pro-Russia 15 percent to the electorate. (The region even runs its clocks on Moscow time.) Communists and Socialists would rule.

The same calculation applies in Ukraine, though in reverse. By annexing Crimea (population 2.4 million) and carving away much of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions (several millions more) from Ukraine’s electorate, Russia has changed the political balance. Previously, the eastern and western parts of the Ukrainian electorate were roughly evenly matched, with power swinging from one camp to the other. Former President Viktor Yanukovych, for example, was from Donetsk.

Now, even after anger over Russia’s actions has faded, the less pro-European voters of eastern Ukraine will find it harder to prevail. Crimea is gone for good, while Donetsk and Lugansk are well on the way to becoming frozen conflict zones, similar to Transnistria. They may even get absorbed into Russia; it’s hard to know what President Vladimir Putin’s plans are.

In Ukraine, unfortunately, this change of electoral arithmetic argues for Putin to carry on with his military campaign to unite what he calls the “Russian World,” because only coercion is now likely to secure obedience from any government in Kiev. In Moldova, though, Transnistria has ceased to serve a purpose in terms of influencing the central government.

If Russia wants to use the breakaway tool again, it will have to create a new problem in another part of Moldova. A ready candidate exists in the Gaguaz minority, about 160,000 Turkic- (and Russian-) speaking Christians who fled the Ottomans in Bulgaria at the start of the 19th century. Last month, Russia opened a consulate in the Gagauz region. With up to 2,000 troops stationed close by in Transnistria, and landing craft in the Black Sea Fleet, Putin could ensure any outcome by force.

Yet there are at least two more peaceful alternatives. One is for whatever Moldovan government emerges from Sunday’s vote to work with the EU and Russia to reintegrate Transnistria. A ready-made framework is in place, led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The territory should to return to Moldova in a loose federal system, though without the veto on foreign policy that Russia has demanded for Eastern Ukraine, and with United Nations peacekeepers replacing the Russian troops. With Transnistrians eligible to vote, future elections in Moldova would be likely to go Russia’s way for years to come.

The EU would need to do more to persuade Moldova to reach out to its ethnic and linguistic minorities to make them feel like citizens — as the country should have done many years ago. Before 1991, after all, Moldova was never an independent nation. It’s multi-ethnic nationhood still needs to be constructed, and that cannot be an ethnic Romanian project.

Unfortunately, Putin seems now to demand too high a level of control over his neighbors to bet on changeable voter sentiment. And Moldova is responding in kind. It has begun describing the people of Gagauz as separatists, since they held an unauthorized referendum in February expressing their desire to join Putin’s Eurasian Union. The courts also recently redefined the country’s official language as Romanian (rather than the artificial, but symbolically more inclusive, Moldovan).

So the second alternative is for Moldova to recognize Transnistria’s independence, as part of a wider deal with Russia. The sliver of territory on the east bank of the river Dniester was historically unrelated to Moldova; it was tacked on by Stalin in 1940, specifically to make it hard for any Moldovan reunion with Romania. Moldovans, about 75 percent of whom speak Romanian, don’t care greatly about the mainly Russian-speaking Transnistria. They would be happy to lose responsibility for the territory’s roughly $4 billion debt to Gazprom. And Putin must know that, in the longer term, Moldova will integrate with the EU. As it is, the country does just a quarter ofits trade with Russia and 45 percent with the EU.

Vlad Filat, a former prime minister and head of the main pro-European political party in Moldova, is pessimistic. He told me he has become convinced that Russian forces will drive a corridor across southern Ukraine, linking Donetsk to Crimea, Odessa and Transnistria. “When people started telling me about this kind of plan a couple of years ago, I thought it was fantasy,” he said. “Now it’s becoming real.”

If he’s right, Moldova’s future looks grim. But why not be optimistic and start laying the groundwork for a better outcome? A deal would create a way for Russia and Europe to start talking to each other again about how to handle the unhappy territories that lie between them.

Marc Champion, a former Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, writes editorials on international affairs.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.