Moldova, Rival Transnistria Warn Security Risk Intensifies Over Ukraine War

Amid growing concerns over the security situation in Moldova, both the pro-Western nation's ambassador to the United States and representatives of the Russia-aligned separatist government in Transnistria have told Newsweek that threats have intensified since the outbreak of war just across the border in Ukraine.

Fears of unrest have mounted in recent weeks as Moldova faced a series of overlapping issues, including soaring energy costs brought on by Western sanctions against Russia, whispers of an alleged Kremlin plot to destabilize the government of President Maia Sandu, and ongoing street protests against Sandu's administration.

On Tuesday, Hungarian carrier Wizz Air announced it was suspending flights to Moldova over airspace risks less than a month after a Russian missile was said to have flown over the country. Now, one of Europe's poorest countries, landlocked between NATO member Romania and war-torn Ukraine, is on the defensive.

Speaking to Newsweek, Moldovan Ambassador to the U.S. Viorel Ursu said that "the Moldovan government, like any other responsible government, has been constantly assessing and addressing the full spectrum of threats to its population's security."

"The spectrum of threats has indeed widened and intensified since the Russian aggression against Ukraine," Ursu said. "As a result, the government has been taking steps to mitigate the risks to its population, including by diversifying sources of energy supplies, limiting the harm of disinformation, and reinforcing cyber security."

He emphasized, however, that "we don't see a heightened risk of military actions in the immediate proximity to our borders at the moment."

But security concerns were also voiced in Transnistria, known in Russian as Pridnestrovie, which is led by an internationally unrecognized breakaway state formally called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. The separatist region still flying the Soviet-era hammer and sickle on its official flag is home to up to 1,500 Russian troops and lies directly along Moldova's border with Ukraine.

The Pridnestrovian Foreign Ministry's Press Service told Newsweek that "the situation around the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic indeed remains difficult."

"We observe an intensification of hybrid warfare methods against Pridnestrovie," the ministry said, "including through information and psychological operations aimed at the purposeful fueling of tension."

So far, the ministry said, this "spike in tensions" remains "within the framework of political and information-psychological pressure," though "speculations about Russian stockpiles of weapons in the village of Kolbasna and the Russian military contingent in Pridnestrovie are also part of this pressure."

Moldova, and, Transnistria, forces, march, combination, photo
In this combination picture, Moldovan forces march on February 15, 2023 in commemoration of those who died in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and Transnistrian troops march in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the creation of Pridnestrovian Honor Guard on November 4, 2022. Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Moldova/Ministry of Defense of the PRIDNESTROVIAN MOLDAVIAN REPUBLIC

This village, also called Cobasna, houses what's long been referred to as to the largest ammunition depot in all of Eastern Europe. It's one of many areas in the region where the restive fallout of the Soviet Union's collapse more than three decades ago lives on.

While Moldova distanced itself from Russia in the final years of the USSR and grew closer to neighboring Romania, Transnistria sought to hold on to its Soviet ties and declared its independence in 1990. As tensions with ethnic, ideological and nationalist roots simmered, a conflict broke out that ultimately killed hundreds on both sides over the course of nearly two years.

The war, which saw some Russians and Ukrainians fight alongside Transnistrian forces and Romania back the Moldovan military, resulted in an open-ended peace process without any lasting political solution. Moldova gained its internationally recognized independence in 1992, and Transnistria remained its own de facto state in spite of a lack of international endorsement.

Meanwhile, up to 1,500 Russian peacekeeping troops remain in Transnistria under the trilateral Joint Control Commission and the Operational Group of Russian Forces. Though Moldova has so far avoided seeking membership to NATO, as have Georgia and Ukraine, also home to Russia-aligned separatist states, President Sandu has eyed further Western alignment in a bid to join the European Union and has called for the withdrawal of the Russian contingent in Transnistria.

These Russian forces have played no overt role in the conflict in Ukraine, but concerns have emerged that this could change, as the Russian Defense Ministry alleged last week that Ukraine was planning an "armed false-flag operation" in Transnistria. The ministry asserted it "is ready to respond to any changes" in the situation on the ground.

Moldova, however, has rejected the allegation of any Ukrainian plot underway.

"Russian authorities' claims of Ukrainian provocations in the Transnistrian region are false," Ursu told Newsweek. "The situation in the eastern region of Moldova remains stable."

The Moldovan envoy also asserted that his government "remains fully committed to the peaceful settlement of the Transnistrian conflict and it has demanded complete withdrawal of Russian troops and munitions for many years," including through the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The Pridnestrovian Foreign Ministry, for its part, defended the role of the Russian troops present in Transnistria-controlled territory.

"We stress that the Russian military personnel in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic pose no danger to Ukraine, and are staying here solely as part of the peacekeeping mission on the Dniester," the ministry told Newsweek. "Furthermore, authorized representatives of Ukraine also participate on a regular basis in the weekly meetings of the Joint Control Commission, a decision-making body of the peacekeeping operation."

"They do understand the stabilizing role of this mechanism which ensures peace on the Dniester," the ministry added.

The Pridnestrovian Foreign Ministry stated that "the unique effectiveness of the current peacekeeping mechanism, whose history of more than thirty years has not recorded a single armed confrontation between the parties or any loss of life, gives us every reason to view it as a reliable guarantee of peace and security."

The ministry argued that "this position is shared not only by the Pridnestrovian population, but also by the people of Moldova."

Yet the ministry took note of the criticisms put forth by both Moldovan and Ukrainian officials regarding the possible threat posed by Transnistria. Such statements, the ministry said, "are obviously manipulative in nature and aimed at provoking instability and anxiety in our society."

But the Pridnestrovian Foreign Ministry also alleged real-life developments that could serve to ramp up tensions in what has long been considered a frozen Cold War conflict.

"At the same time, there has been a build-up of Ukrainian military presence as well as engineering and fortification works on the border between Pridnestrovie and Ukraine," the ministry said, "which cannot but disturb the peace-loving Pridnestrovian people."

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to directly address questions regarding reports of a Ukrainian military buildup near Transnistria, but told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that Washington officials "support the critical role of the OSCE mission to Moldova in advancing the Transnistria settlement process, and it's ultimately up to Chisinau and Tiraspol to identify a suitable political solution that respects Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity with a special status for Transnistria."

Map, of, Moldova, and, Transnistria, Eastern, Europe
A map published by the CIA map in 2006 shows the location of Moldova and the separatist-held Transnistria region in relation to Ukraine and regional neighbors. Central Intelligence Agency/Library of Congress

Like their Moldovan counterparts, Ukrainian officials have denied any plan in Kyiv to attack Transnistria, where Ukrainian has been established as one of three official languages alongside Russian and Moldovan, which shares close ties to Romanian.

Newsweek has reached out to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry for comment.

Owing to both geography and cultural history, Moldova and the Transnistria region have been affected by the conflict in Ukraine in other ways as well.

With nearly a third of the region's half-million population being ethnic Ukrainians, Transnistria has received up to 68,000 Ukrainian citizens throughout the neighboring conflict, 20,000 of whom have remained, according to official figures. The U.N. also counts more than 750,000 refugees from Ukraine fleeing to Moldova, and around 100,000 staying in the country of roughly 2.6 million people.

Both Chisanau and Tiraspol have offered services to refugee populations, including education.

"Since the first day of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Pridnestrovie has taken a consistent peace-loving stance," the ministry said, "making every effort to maintain peace and stability."

As such, it added, "there is no reason to consider Pridnestrovie a threat to anyone or to use forceful rhetoric."

"We stand for the resolution of any disputes and contradictions at the negotiating table and are committed to a peaceful dialogue with both Moldova and Ukraine, as well as with other international partners," the ministry stated. "We are confident that all the states in the region and the world community as a whole will only benefit from peace and tranquility preserved in Pridnestrovie."

Still, violent acts have already emerged in the otherwise quiet breakaway state in the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine, including near the arms depot in Cobasna, which experts have long warned could result in a devastating blast if detonated.

In late April of last year, just two months into the conflict, explosions rocked the Ministry of State Security building in Tiraspol, followed by an alleged drone strike against the Tiraspol Airport, additional explosions in the Grigoriopol transmitter in Maiac and another alleged drone attack against the village of Cobasna. In early May, more explosions, also potentially drone attacks, were reported at a former airport in Varancau.

These attacks, which remain unclaimed, have sparked speculation as to whether either of the belligerents of the Russia-Ukraine conflict had sought to bring Transnistria into the war.

"Pridnestrovie has been facing increased security risks since last year, when in April-May a series of terrorist attacks were organized on the territory of the republic," the Pridnestrovian Foreign Ministry said. "Back then, the Pridnestrovian authorities took a number of measures to protect the population, first by introducing a red and then a yellow code of terrorist threat, which is still in effect today."

Amid this threat and other recent events surrounding the small separatist region on the border of Europe's largest war in decades, the Pridnestrovian Defense Ministry has launched a three-month series of exercises beginning Wednesday.

"As for possible provocations and other aggressive actions against peaceful Pridnestrovie," the Pridnestrovian Foreign Ministry told Newsweek, "we do not wish any negative scenario of the situation—but, certainly, our state, together with the armed forces, will do everything needed to protect the citizens."