The Kremlin has a detachment of 1,500 troops in the Russian-speaking separatist region, which declared its independence from Moldova in 1990
Among the “frozen conflicts” of the former Soviet Union, a long, narrow strip of land in Moldova has been the most stable for three decades. The Transnistria region has not seen fighting since the end of the separatist war in 1992 but explosions in the past two days have raised concerns that Russia’s war in Ukraine could spread there.
What is Transnistria?
The Transnistria region stretches some 400 kilometers between the eastern bank of the Dniester River in Moldova and the country’s border with Ukraine. Most of the breakaway region’s population of 470,000 speaks Russian, although residents identify themselves as ethnically Moldovan, Ukrainian or Russian.
Moves to make Moldovan the official language of Moldova in 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, alarmed the population of Transnistria. The region declared independence in 1990 and fighting broke out. Fighting intensified in March 1992 and lasted until a ceasefire in July. It is estimated that more than 700 people died in the conflict.
As part of the cease-fire agreement, a contingent of 1,500 Russian troops remains in Transnistria as peacekeepers. Since July 1992, the region has insisted that it is not part of Moldova, which itself had declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The breakaway region has retained many Soviet forms and iconography, including the use of the hammer and sickle image on its flag and many statues of former communist leaders. But by and large it has remained peaceful, and some tourists come to enjoy the anachronisms.
What has changed with the war in Ukraine?
Explosions rocked the headquarters of the region’s Ministry of State Security on Monday. According to reports, the building was empty due to the Orthodox Easter vacation and no casualties were reported. Authorities said the attack was committed with rocket-propelled grenades.
On Tuesday morning, a pair of explosions at a broadcasting facility knocked out two powerful antennas. No claim of responsibility for the attacks has been made.
The U.S. has already warned in the midst of the war in Ukraine that Russia could launch false flag attacks in nearby nations as a pretext for sending in troops.
What are Russia’s interests?
Russia does not recognize Transnistria as an independent state for now, as it does other separatist territories, such as South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Recognition of those areas came after Russia and Georgia fought a war in 2008 or as justification for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February. An outbreak of fighting in Transnistria could change the Kremlin’s political psoition as Russia’s security policy states that it has the right to protect ethnic Russian populations around the world.
Within the unfolding invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces may now aim to take full control of southern Ukraine in order to open a land corridor between Russia and Transnistria that would run through the Crimean peninsula.
Achieving that military objective would require significant battles to capture Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, including the important port city of Odessa. Russian soldiers would surely encounter enormous resistance and it is not clear that they would be in a position to achieve it.
Moldova’s strategic position
Moldova is constitutionally neutral, so Russia could not accuse the country of trying to join NATO to justify an invasion, as Russian President Vladimir Putin did with Ukraine. But expanding into Moldova would give Russia a direct border with another NATO partner, Romania.
Considering Russia’s failure to take control of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and the intense resistance being put up by Ukrainian forces, this plan could interest the Kremlin. Putin needs to tell his public some success story so that it does not appear that all the suffering caused by his invasion of Ukraine has been in vain.