Will Russia Invade Moldova Next? Experts Weigh In

A Russian commander's suggestion that Moscow wants to establish a corridor through southern Ukraine to Transnistria has added to speculation that Vladimir Putin will push his invasion into other countries in Europe.

Friday's statement by acting commander of Russia's Central Military District, Rustam Minnekaev, was a possible indication of Moscow's military's goals, and has thrust the separatist enclave into a conversation about what Putin might do next.

Although Transnistria lies within Moldova's borders, Chisinau (the capital city) has no control over the breakaway Russian-speaking republic that lies between the Dniester river and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Transnistria asserted its independence from Moldova, sparking violence and a Russian intervention.

Around 1,500 Russian troops remain there as "peacekeepers" and while even Moscow does not recognize its independence, the frozen conflict is a useful tool for the Kremlin to use to stop Moldova from seeking greater ties with NATO and the E.U.

Transnistria
A soldier and a woman walk past the headquarters of the Operative Group of the Russian Troops in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria in September 2021. Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region was mentioned by a Russian commander as a strategic goal for Moscow's forces. SERGEI GAPON/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said Minnekaev's comment was a signal that Russia's invasion was only a "beginning" and that "then, they want to capture other countries."

However, there is doubt over whether control of Transnistria would be achievable, given Russia has failed to successfully advance on southwestern Ukraine, which it would need to do to reach the border with the breakaway republic.

While it is not known whether Minnekaev's view reflected that of the Kremlin, some analysts have expressed doubt that Russia has the capacity for this kind of offensive.

Newsweek asked five experts whether they believed Putin had his eye on an eventual move on Moldova.

Stefan Wolff, international security professor, Birmingham University, U.K.

"This is a distinct possibility, in the sense that it would fit with Putin's strategy to reconstitute as much as possible of the former Soviet Union as a Russian sphere of influence as the basis for Russia's great power status."

"What has been happening in Ukraine since 2014 and what has happened in the past in Georgia fits with an approach that ultimately grabs territory once other forms of influence on neighboring countries have been exhausted.

"For that to work in Moldova, Putin needs a land connection which he might now seek to establish. The other issue of course is that the Russians need the military capabilities to achieve this. For now, it does not seem they are making much progress, even in Donbas.

"Still, the prospect of realizing these so-called stage-two goals is deeply worrying—it would bring the conflict much closer to NATO's borders and might convince Putin that he should try to achieve by force what he could not get NATO to agree to in his December 2021 proposals."

David Rivera, visiting assistant professor of government, Hamilton College, Clinton (NY)

"Some of the Kremlin's stated concerns and justifications for its invasion of Ukraine—namely, to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers from cultural and linguistic oppression, as well as physical repression—could easily be applied to the Transnistria region of Moldova as well.

"We will know if Moldova is in danger of being invaded if the Kremlin reaches into its playbook and begins to accuse the Moldovan government of 'genocide' against Transnistria's population.

"While those accusations are not convincing to anyone outside of Russia's tightly-controlled information space, they do provide extensive cover and generate support among the citizens of the Russian Federation."

William Muck, political science professor, North Central College, Naperville (IL)

"If Russia can establish a land corridor through Ukraine, Putin will most certainly set his sights on Transnistria.

"Having suffered a humiliating defeat in Kyiv, Putin is now forced to recalculate and find a new justification for the invasion. A land bridge that unites Russians across Ukraine and Moldova would provide Putin with the domestic cover he needs.

"In a way, Putin has become trapped by his own media messaging. His near total control of the media has effectively radicalized large segments of the Russian population. Anything short of glorious victory in Ukraine could prove dangerous for his political future.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Putin's propaganda machine is soon integrating Transnistria into its Ukraine messaging."

Alexander Montgomery, political science professor, Reed College, Portland, (OR)

"It has been clear since the dissolution of the USSR that Russia has sought influence [...] over a number of regions outside of Russia. Thus, a medium-term goal would be to connect Transnistria to Crimea to re-form 'Novorossiya,' which hasn't existed as an administrative unit in at least a century.

"Given Russia's military performance so far and current state of its depleted army, it may not even be able to achieve its short-term goals, [creating a land corridor to Crimea and controlling Donbas], much less its medium-term ones.

"Russia has demonstrated an inability to take and hold territory more than a couple hundred kilometers from its territory; it would have to take cities that the Ukrainian military forces have already at least partially recaptured, including Mykolaiv and Kherson, against fierce Ukrainian resistance.

"Given that Russia has given up assaulting the final positions occupied by surrounded defenders in Mariupol, it will not be able to extend its reach to Transnistria, but can still cause trouble through economic and military support of the breakaway territory."

Chris J. Dolan, politics professor, Lebanon Valley College, Annville, (PA)

"Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it was unlikely that NATO in particular would admit Moldova, since the frozen conflict could make it likely to be drawn into an open military conflict with Russia.

"But that could change, much in the same way the geopolitical calculus has changed for Finland and Sweden.

"The problem for NATO is that the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria allows Russia to rapidly use its military forces to defend its interests in Eastern Europe, and maintain its presence on behalf of Russian speakers and minorities."