Over the weekend, pro-Russian separatists claimed Ukrainian drones dropped explosives on an airfield in Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova bordering Ukraine. Western analysts have cast much doubt on these drone claims, but they came two weeks after a series of explosions were reported in the region. No one was injured in either event, but they reminded of the risks if the war in Ukraine spilled over its borders.
The explosions also shook the status quo of a “frozen” conflict that had been going on for decades. Amid the fall of the Soviet Union, Transnistria, backed by Moscow, fought to break away from Moldova. A 1992 ceasefire ended the fighting, but Transnistria still maintains its de facto independence, although its status is not officially recognized by the international community – not even by Russia.
No one has claimed responsibility for recent explosions in Transnistria, which targeted an empty state security ministry in Tiraspol, its capital, as well as a radio tower broadcasting a Russian-language station and a local military unit.
Lack of attribution meant a lot of accusations. Transnistrian officials have accused Ukrainian “nationalists” of carrying out a terrorist attack. Ukrainian officials have accused Russian security forces of a “false flag” operation to create a pretext for intervention. The Moldovan foreign minister said the attacks were “pretexts to strain the security situation in the Transnistria region”. Maia Sandu, president of pro-European Union Moldova, said rival factions within Transnistria were responsible.
Experts said whoever staged the attack likely did it more for messaging than intentional harm. But it has succeeded in raising fears that the rekindled tensions could drag Transnistria, or Moldova, into a wider conflict. There were also other clues. On April 22, the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekayev, indicated that Russian efforts to control southern Ukraine could create a bridge to Transnistria, where, according to Minnekayev, there is a “oppression of the Russian-speaking population”.
Ukraine is also concerned that Russia is using Transnistria as a possible staging ground for attacks in southern Ukraine, including near the port city of Odessa, or using it as another front for expand the war.
Moldova, a small, poor country with a small army, is in a precarious situation: seeking more support from the EU and the West, while maintaining its neutrality and trying to avoid provoking Russia. And Transnistria itself may have a rather complicated calculation: although it is largely dependent on Russia, it has developed its trade with the European Union, to its own economic advantage, and all of this would disappear if it were subsumed by the Russia.
For Russia, despite its claims to a land bridge, the goal has always been to use Transnistria as a leverage point to destabilize Moldova and the region. The territory itself is not the Kremlin’s objective. At present, it is still Ukraine. And the Kremlin is still fighting to control territory to the east and south of Ukraine, which means the realities on the ground mitigate some of those escalation risks. “The only thing that saves [Transnistria] to be supported is geography – the fact that Ukraine stands between them and the Russians,” said Stuart Kaufman, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.
What is Transnistria?
Transnistria has always had closer linguistic and cultural ties with Moscow than the rest of Moldova, whose western part tends to share closer ties with Romania. The Soviet Union also heavily industrialized Transnistria, making it economically important during Soviet times and leaving Moldova as a whole more dependent on the region.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, said Michael Eric Lambert, an analyst and expert on the region, this identity also meant that Transnistria did not want to go with the rest of Moldova and wanted to be either independent or part of Russia.
Transnistrian separatists, with Russian support, waged a civil war that killed around 1,000 people, until a 1992 ceasefire that essentially gave Transnistria de facto independence. Russian armed forces have been permanently stationed in the area, including a few hundred peacekeepers as part of the ceasefire and the so-called Russian Armed Forces Operational Group, about 1,500 troops who guard a huge ammunition cache. Transnistria also has about 10,000 of its own soldiers, according to the Los Angeles Time.
If you are Moldova, this situation has always been a bit troubling, and that was exactly Transnistria’s interest for Russia. “Russia is creating political pressure on Moldova to keep it in its sphere of influence and prevent it from participating in Western European structures such as the European Union,” said Agnieszka Miarka, professor of political science at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. Moldova is officially neutral and has declared that it will remain so, but if Moldova ever decides to change its mind, the presence of pro-Russian troops on its soil would also make NATO membership impossible.
Transnistria’s de facto government is pro-Russian and, as experts have said, the region shares a history, language and culture with Russia. (At the same time, the territory of around 400,000 people has significant Ukrainian, Moldovan or Romanian minorities.) The territory has traditionally depended on the Kremlin for things like energy and pensions – although Moscow has no been as generous lately as ever. been.
But Transnistria’s economic ties have started to change in recent years as a result of Moldova’s trade deal with the EU. Today, about 70% of Transnistria’s exports are destined for the European Union. This has created a dichotomy, where the region’s political sympathies still align with Russia, but its economic interests are more firmly tied to Moldova and the European Union. And this may be one of the reasons against the possibility of an overflow conflict.
How likely is the Ukrainian conflict to spill over into Moldova?
The de facto government of Transnistria did not condemn the Russian invasion, but neither did it support it.
As the pundits have said, while Transnistria won’t abandon its ties with Russia, it doesn’t want to go out of its way to invite Moscow through its doorstep. There is the economic factor; Transnistria would be cut off from the Western economy on which it is increasingly dependent, relying instead on a sanctions-ridden Russia. There are also common sense reasons. “Would you like the war to come to you? I don’t think so,” said Tatsiana Kulakevich, professor of global studies at the University of South Florida.
Thus, Transnistria is somewhat in the background. “’We support Russia. Russia is our ally. Russia, Russia,” Kulakevich said of the region’s likely thinking. “But Russia has to get to us first.”
That is, Moscow should actually creating the land bridge that at least one Russian general claimed the Kremlin wanted to make. And pundits really doubt that Russia can do that right now, given that the Russian military is bogged down in eastern Ukraine, and although it has made progress in the east and south, those battles also exhaust the Russian troops.
Since Russia has no border with Moldova, it could not easily supply or bring troops into Transnistria, making it an unlikely front from which to attack Ukraine. “I don’t think the Russians have the ability to do anything militarily with the troops they have in Transnistria because they can’t supply them,” Kaufman said.
Still, some analysts said simply threatening Transnistria could serve a purpose — specifically, forcing Ukraine to move troops into the region to defend places like Odessa, and away from other active fronts. It also allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to “pretend that he wins more than he loses,” as Lambert put it.
And as the experts have pointed out, the threat keeps Ukraine and Moldova in suspense. Moldova applied for EU membership in March, although the country has a long way to go before it does. The EU also said it would step up military assistance – in addition to the financial support the West is providing to the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have entered Moldova. But Moldova has also been careful to reiterate its neutrality, and remains dependent on Russia for its energy. And officials have minimized the risk of overflow.
As the experts have said, it makes little sense for Russia to expand the Ukrainian conflict, given that it has already had to revise its war aims. At present, the possibility of a real spillover still seems remote. But Putin has taken inexplicable military actions throughout the Ukraine conflict, and wars, once started, are inherently unpredictable. “There is a risk of escalation,” Lambert said. “It’s a reality.”