What in the world is going on in Transnistria? That's a question most of us never thought would cross our minds, and hopefully one we'll again be able to forget when we return to the happy neglect with which we previously treated the obscure breakaway state/Soviet theme park. But a strange outburst of violence there, along with ominous comments by a Russian general about gaining military access to the region, have observers worried that the already bloody war in Ukraine may expand.
"Three days of alleged attacks in a contested area of Moldova are raising fears the conflict in Ukraine may be spreading over the border," Britain's Sky News reported last week. "No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks."
Testimony and images from the scene show Transnistria's security headquarters damaged by rocket fire. Separate attacks targeted a military unit and radio broadcasting towers. Transnistria's foreign minister immediately blamed the incidents on Ukraine, which borders the region to the east. But why would Ukraine, which has its hands full fighting Russian invaders, stage attacks on an obscure internationally unrecognized postage stamp of a not-quite country? Well, it probably wouldn't, especially since such a move would potentially benefit Russia.
Transnistria, also known as Transdniestria or, if you absolutely insist, as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, was a part of Moldova which seceded from that Romanian-speaking country even as Moldova seceded from the old Soviet Union. It occupies a strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine along the Dniester River. It's best known for, well, nothing really. But it's full of Soviet-style imagery, and also plays host to 1,500 Russian troops and a huge ammunition depot belonging to Moscow, making the region essentially a glorified military base. Importantly, about a third of Transnistria's population is Russian-speaking, which might ring a bell, since protecting Russian speakers was one of Vladimir Putin's excuses for invading Ukraine. And now the issue arises again.
"Control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transdniestria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed," Gen. Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia's central military district, commented on April 22. He spoke to justify Russia's plans to seize Ukraine's entire Black Sea coastline, including Odesa. Ukraine was already upset by the scheme, a reaction in which it is now joined by Moldova.
"These statements are unfounded and contradict the position of the Russian Federation supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova, within its internationally recognized borders," Moldova's Foreign Ministry responded.
Moldova has multiple reasons to be upset by the comment since it still claims Transnistria, possesses unhappy memories of Moscow's intentions from its history as a component of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire before that, and has a Russian-speaking minority population of its own. Worse, if Russia did take southern Ukraine and build a land bridge to Transnistria, there's little officials in the capital of Chisinau could do about it.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Moldova's armed forces have "approximately 6,000 active troops" as of 2021, and their equipment is "almost entirely comprised of older Russian and Soviet-era equipment." The country is also formally not aligned with anybody else. Unlike other states, like Latvia, that have voiced concern about where Russia might turn next, Moldova is a non-member of the European Union, having just applied for membership, and of NATO, though it cooperates with the military alliance on some matters. "Moldova is constitutionally neutral but seeks to draw closer to Euro-Atlantic standards and institutions. NATO fully respects Moldova's constitutional neutrality," NATO noted in 2020 about the relationship.
So, if Russian forces were to consolidate their land bridge across southeastern Ukraine to Crimea, and if that bridge was then successfully extended through Odesa to Transnistria, Moldova has no allies on the hook to help defend the country from attack. It's entirely on its own and could constitute a relatively painless place for Russia to further reestablish old borders.
But that's a lot of "ifs" that would have to come to pass for the war to expand to Moldova.
"Russian tanks are unlikely to roll into Transnistria soon," The Economist noted last week. "They are mostly tied up in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. A path through Odessa, Ukraine's main port, would be difficult: the city is heavily fortified. Russia might hope to attack Transnistria first, making a land corridor that would cut Odessa off from the rest of Ukraine. But in practice, this would leave its flanks dangerously exposed to Ukrainian forces."
It's also not obvious what benefit Moscow would gain from extending the fighting.
"For all its pro-Russia orientation, 54% of exports from Transnistria went to the European Union in 2021, compared with 14% to Russia and 9% to Ukraine," according to Bloomberg's Marc Champion. "That trade would be jeopardized should Russia take control of the territory, a move that would subject it to U.S. and EU sanctions."
So, what is Russia up to in Transnistria?
It should be noted that a couple of explosions and some shit-talking to the press are a cheap way of keeping western officials worried about the future and perhaps focused on protecting NATO members like Romania and the Baltic states at the expense of arms shipments to Ukraine. Concerns about a new western front might also cause Ukraine to divert forces from combat in Donbas to a phantom incursion via Belarus or the Black Sea, reducing the troops and materiel available to battle invaders.
The saber-rattling over Transnistria also almost certainly guarantees further additions to NATO. But Putin and company may already have resigned themselves to the addition of Finland, Sweden, and other nations to the alliance's ranks. If they take that as a given, there's little for them to lose by keeping the West fretting over a potential expansion of the war.
Or maybe this is a legitimate threat. It could be that Russia really does have its eyes on expanding its territory through a breakaway state into Moldova, which has no allies and is ill-equipped for self-defense. The uncertainty over how seriously to take Russia's designs on Transnistria illustrate the dangers posed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine for the world beyond those countries' borders.