Why Moldova's Transnistria Region Could Be Drawn Into Putin's War

Explosions in Moldova's separatist region of Transnistria have raised concerns that the country might soon be drawn into Putin's war in Ukraine.

The first blasts were reported on Monday when several explosions hit the Ministry of State Security in Tiraspol, the largest city and the capital of the breakaway region. According to local officials, the attack was committed using rocket-propelled grenades. Authorities did not name the source of the attack.

Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities have warned that the explosions are part of Russia's alleged plan to destabilize Moldova's pro-EU, pro-Western government led by President Maia Sandu through a series of hybrid attacks in the breakaway region of Transnistria.

More explosions followed the day after the Tiraspol incident. According to local police quoted by the Associated Press, a radio facility in the town of Maiac in Transnistria, seven miles west of the Ukrainian border, was hit by two blasts on Tuesday, which destroyed two broadcasting antennas. Again, nobody claimed responsibility for the attack and its source wasn't identified.

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Police in the Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria say several explosions believed to be caused by rocket-propelled grenades hit the Ministry of State Security on Monday. Shown above is a view of the damaged Ministry of State Security, in Tiraspol on April 25, 2022. Ministry of Internal Affairs of Transnistria via AP

Another explosion hit a military unit in the village of Parcani on the same day, according to the Security Council of Transnistria. No more details on the incidents were provided by the local authorities.

On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry of Transnistria said that shots were fired overnight towards an ammunition depot in Cobasna with drones which the ministry claims were launched from Ukraine. The claim has not been independently verified and Ukrainian officials have not yet commented on the incident.

What Is Transnistria?

Transnistria, a 249-mile long strip of land at the border with Ukraine inhabited by some 470,000 people, is internationally recognized as part of Moldova but has been under the control of separatists since 1992.

The region declared independence from Chișinău in 1990, which led to a war with Moldova in March 1992. Fighting only halted in July of that same year, when a cease-fire was agreed between the two parties.

As part of the cease-fire agreement, Russian troops were stationed in the breakaway region for "peacekeeping." Some 1,500 Russian troops are currently in the territory of Transnistria, according to the AP.

Transnistria hasn't seen fighting since 1992, and it is considered one of the post-Soviet "frozen conflicts" zones—areas where an active conflict has died down and morphed into a long period of stability, but where no official peace treaty or political framework has resolved the issues between the two parties previously at war.

Most of the people living in the breakaway region speak Russian, but they identify as Moldovan, Russian and Ukrainian.

How Could Moldova Be Drawn Into Putin's War?

The explosions in Transnistria have raised concerns over Moldova being drawn into the war in Ukraine, with intelligence officials now claiming the incidents might be an attempt from Moscow to destabilize Moldova.

Moldova's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that they were "concerned" about the incident reported on Monday in Tiraspol, citing their worries that the attack could be used "to create pretexts for straining the security situation in the Transnistrian region, which is not controlled by constitutional authorities."

After a meeting of Moldova's Security Council was called on Tuesday following reports of the explosions, President Sandu said the attacks were the action of "factions" within the Transnistrian region that are "pro-war forces" interested in destabilizing the region.

"This makes the Transnistrian region vulnerable and poses risks to the Republic of Moldova," she told reporters after the meeting.

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Moldovan President Maia Sandu said the recent attacks in Transnistria are an attempt to destabilize the region. Above, Sandu speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 6, 2022. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The fears that Russia might be after Transnistria are not completely unfounded but were fueled by a statement made by the acting commander of Russia's Central Military District Rustam Minnekayev last week.

Minnekayev reportedly said that Russia was looking to create a passage through Crimea towards Transnistria, "where there are also facts pointing to the oppression of the Russian-speaking population."

His claims were not confirmed by the Kremlin.

Russia has, in fact, officially denied that Moscow has any intention of bringing the war into either Transnistria or Moldova, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying that the accusation "looks like yet another fake."

Peskov had previously said that Moscow is observing the situation in Transnistria "very closely" and that it is concerned about what is happening in the region, as reported by RIA Novosti.

Russia's deputy foreign minister Andrei Rudenko said the attacks were "a provocation or terrorism," as reported by state media quoted by the Financial Times. He said he hoped the situation didn't escalate to a point where Russian troops would be forced to intervene.

But sources outside of Russia contradict the Kremlin's attempts at reassuring Moldova and the Western world. A Ukrainian intelligence official cited by the Financial Times said that surveillance on agents of Russia's spy agency FSB operating in the country shows that "they have a plan to destabilize Moldova." According to the same source, the destabilization operation could peak on May 9.

Why Would Russia Want To Involve Moldova?

Expanding the war in Ukraine to the breakaway region of Transnistria would potentially suit the same ideology that led Putin to order its troops into Ukraine, visiting professor of government at Hamilton College, Clinton (NY) David Rivera told Newsweek last week.

"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," he said.

A possible invasion of Moldova would also "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," international security professor at Birmingham University Stefan Wolff told Newsweek.

"For that to work in Moldova, Putin needs a land connection which he might now seek to establish."

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Moldovan authorities have raised concerns that the country might be drawn into Putin's war. Above, a composite image of Moldova's President Maia Sandu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alexey DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP;Sean Gallup via Getty Images and Canva

But besides ideology, expanding the war into Transnistria would potentially be a strategic move that could bring Moscow closer to the victory in Ukraine it has been seeking for weeks.

The Ukrainian intelligence official cited by the Financial Times said that capturing Moldova would give Russian troops the chance to "immediately invade [Ukraine] in the south and create territory from which they could organize an offensive to Odesa."

A conflict in Moldova would also prevent the country—which is currently neutral—from getting closer to NATO in the future, on top of bringing the war to the door of NATO and the European Union.

Moldova is not officially a member of the Transatlantic alliance—its potential candidacy likely to be refused to avoid conflict with Russia exactly because of the presence of the "frozen conflict" zone of Transnistria—but dragging the country into the war would bring the conflict right at the border with Romania, a NATO and EU member.

A conflict would also likely destabilize the pro-Western, pro-EU and pro-NATO government of President Sandu, who is well aware of the risk this would entail for the entire country, which is already one of Europe's poorest.

"We condemn any challenges and attempts to lure the Republic of Moldova into actions that could jeopardize peace in the country," Sandu said on Tuesday after discussing the incidents in Transnistria. "Chisinau continues to insist on a peaceful settlement of the Transnistrian conflict."

Sandu said her government is taking "all necessary measures to prevent escalation, to strengthen the security of the state and to protect our citizens," and remain "open to continue the dialogue" in the region in a peaceful manner.

Newsweek contacted Russia's Ministry of Defense, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense and Moldova's Ministry of Defense for comment.

Update, 9:20 a.m. ET. This article was updated to reflect that Newsweek reached out to the ministries of defense of the countries involved in the story for comment.