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How tiny Moldova is poised to become the latest flashpoint in Russia’s Ukraine war

April 29, 2022, 4:01 PM UTC

Early on Tuesday morning, two explosions hit a radio tower in a Russian-backed region east of the Ukraine border.

The tower, which was broadcasting Russian propaganda to Ukraine, was located in Transnistria, a state unrecognized by the UN, on Moldova’s southwest border. The attack on the radio station heightened tensions in the area, as it came only a day after Transnistria authorities said the offices of the state security ministry were hit with what appeared to be a grenade-launcher attack on Monday evening.

According to Transnistria’s interior ministry, the windows of the building were blown out and smoke was “billowing out of the buildings.”  

As news of the attacks spread, no country claimed responsibility. Western-aligning Moldova, which quickly held an emergency national security meeting, called the incidents a provocation aimed at destabilizing the region. Meanwhile, Leonid Kalashnikov, head of Russia’s Duma committee on the commonwealth of independent states said “the events in Transnistria are a provocation aimed at drawing Russia even deeper into the military operations in the region,” the Interfax news service reported. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti agency that the Russian Foreign Ministry wants to avoid a scenario in which it is forced to intervene in Transnistria.

But Ukraine has instead pointed fingers at Russia, calling the attack a planned provocation by Russian security services. The Ukrainian secret service recalled the words of Russian Major General Rustam Minnekayev, who said in a statement last Friday that Russia sought control of southern Ukraine and gain access to Transnistria, “where there have been cases of oppression of the Russian-speaking population.”

Ukrainians now fear Transnistria may be pulled into the war, joining Russia’s military operation to attack the country from the opposing front. 

The strategic importance of Transnistria

Transnistria sits on a long, thin sliver of the territory west of the Dniestr river. It was formed in 1990 after the Soviet Union broke up and Moldova took a pro-West stance. 

A civil war broke out in the region in 1992, in which separatist Transnistria forces fought alongside the Russian army to secede from Moldova. Although it is considered part of Moldova by the UN, the region has its own currency—the Transnistria ruble—security forces, and passports. 

Half a million people live in the region, and unlike Moldova, where 90% of the population speaks Romanian, Transnistria is multi-ethnic: Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans each make up around a third of the population. Many citizens of the region hold two or more passports to the surrounding countries.

International commentators, including former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, have characterized Transnistria as a mafia state, heavily reliant on the support of the Russian army.

“Compared to Moldova, [Transnistria] is clean, orderly, and developed, with much of the private sector owned by a single oligarchic company. It’s a mafia state and completely unviable without Russian money,” journalist Paul Mason said after he went undercover to the country after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

And Russia and Transnistria undoubtedly have a good relationship. Around 1,500 heavily-armed Russian troops are currently based in the region, which Russia refers to as “peacekeepers,” and Transnistria’s Russia-backed army is four times the size of Moldova’s.

But the geographical location of Transnistria explains why Russia may have a keen interest in keeping friendly with the region. Wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, the location of Transnistria could be especially useful to Putin’s invasion, and the city could be strategically important as an operational hub for invading important Ukrainian areas, like the port of Odessa.  

The recent attacks

Ukraine has previously warned of potential Russian false flag “provocations” in Transnistria. 

The country’s military intelligence said on Jan. 14, that they had evidence the Russian government was covertly planning attacks in the region, which would be used to justify a Russian invasion of Ukraine. While U.S. officials backed Ukraine’s statements and issued their own warnings, the Russian government adamantly denies such claims, with Kremlin spokesperson calling them “unfounded,” according to Russia’s TASS news agency. The Ukrainian government also made similar claims about the region of Donbas which was later invaded by Russian forces.

On Mar. 15 of this year, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Council of Europe, an international organization including 46 member states of Europe, designated Transnistria as an occupied territory of Moldova as opposed to territory “under the effective control of the Russian Federation.” 

“Through its attitude and actions, the leadership of the Russian Federation poses an open menace to security in Europe, following a path which also includes the act of military aggression against Moldova and, respectively, the occupation of its Transnistrian region,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said in a statement. 

On Apr. 14, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar warned again that Russia was massing troops along the borders with Transnistria, a claim that was denied by Transnistria authorities.

The region is undoubtedly useful for Russian forces. A report by the Jamestown Foundation, a conservative defense policy think tank, said Russia’s total control of Moldova has significant benefits for Russia due to its proximity and relationship with NATO. And as Moldova has underfunded its defense and security for the past three decades, despite Transnistria covering around 10% of land mass, Minzarai argues the country will not fare well if Russia invades.  

Minzarai warns that is Russia gains hold of Moldova it will be able to use the country as an operational hub to progress in the war. 

“Given its proximity to NATO borders, and shared language and culture with EU and NATO member Romania, Moldova would likely become a highly effective operational hub for Russia’s further strategic actions against the Euro-Atlantic alliance’s southeastern front” Dumitru Minzarari, said in the report. 

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