Over the weekend, pro-Russian separatists claimed that Ukrainian drones dropped explosives on an airfield in Transnistria, a pro-Russia breakaway region of Moldova bordering Ukraine. Western analysts have cast a lot of doubt on those drone claims, but they came two weeks after a series of explosions were reported in the region. No one was injured in either event, but they were a reminder of the risks if the Ukraine war spills beyond its borders.
The explosions also rattled the status quo of a decades-long “frozen” conflict. Amid the fall of the Soviet Union, Transnistria, backed by Moscow, fought to break away from Moldova. A 1992 ceasefire stopped the fighting, but Transnistria still maintains its de facto independence, though its status is not formally recognized by the international community — not even by Russia.
No one claimed responsibility for the recent blasts in Transnistria, which targeted an empty state security ministry in Tiraspol, its capital, along with a radio tower that broadcast a Russian-language station, and a local military unit.
The lack of attribution meant a lot of accusations. Transnistria officials blamed Ukrainian “nationalists” for committing a terrorist attack. Ukrainian officials accused Russian security forces of a “false flag” operation to create a pretext for intervention. Moldova’s foreign minister said that the attacks were “pretexts for straining the security situation in the Transnistrian region.” Maia Sandu, Moldova’s pro-European Union president, said rival factions within Transnistria were responsible.
Experts said whoever staged the attack likely did it more for messaging than intentional harm. But it did succeed raising fears that reignited tensions might draw Transnistria, or Moldova, into a wider conflict. There were other hints, too. On April 22, the acting commander of Russia’s central military district, Rustam Minnekayev, indicated that Russia’s efforts to control southern Ukraine could create a bridge to Transnistria, where, Minnekayev claimed, there is “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.”
US intelligence apparently made a similar assessment of Russia’s ultimate goal. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a Senate committee Tuesday that there are “indications” Russia wants to create this land bridge, connecting southern Ukraine — including the key Ukrainian port city of Odesa — to Transnistria, which would cut Ukraine entirely off from sea access. But, Haines added, the US assesses Russia won’t be able to do that “without launching some form of mobilization.”
Ukraine has also worried that Russia would use Transnistria as a possible staging ground to carry out attacks in southern Ukraine, including near Odesa, or use it as another front to expand the war.
Moldova, a small, poor country with a tiny military, is in a precarious moment: seeking more support from the EU and the West, while maintaining its neutrality and trying to avoid provoking Russia. And Transnistria itself may have a pretty complicated calculus: though it was largely dependent on Russia, it has expanded trade with the European Union, to its own economic benefit, and that would all go away if it is subsumed by Russia.
For Russia the goal has always been to use Transnistria as a leverage point to destabilize Moldova and the region. Even if it desires some sort of land bridge, the Transnistria itself is not the Kremlin’s aim. Right now, that is still Ukraine. And the Kremlin is still fighting to control territory in Ukraine’s east and south — which means the realities on the ground temper Russia’s maximalist aims. “The only thing that’s saving [Transnistria] from being taken over is geography — the fact that Ukraine is in between them and the Russians,” said Stuart Kaufman, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.
What is Transnistria?
Transnistria has always had closer linguistic and cultural ties to Moscow than the rest of Moldova, the western part of which tends to share closer ties to Romania. The Soviet Union also heavily industrialized Transnistria, making it economically important during the Soviet era, and leaving Moldova as a whole more dependent on the region.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, said Michael Eric Lambert, an analyst and expert on the region, that identity also meant Transnistria didn’t want to go with the rest of Moldova, and wanted to be either independent, or part of Russia.
Transnistrian separatists, with Russian backing, fought a civil war that killed about 1,000 people, until a 1992 ceasefire that basically gave Transnistria de facto independence. Russian armed forces became permanently stationed in the region, including a few hundred peacekeepers as part of the ceasefire and the so-called Operational Group of Russian Armed Forces, about 1,500 troops that guard a massive munitions cache. Transnistria also has about 10,000 of its own soldiers, according to the Los Angeles Times.
If you’re Moldova, this situation was always a little unsettling, and that was exactly the point of Transnistria for Russia. “Russia creates political pressure on Moldova to keep it in its sphere of influence and keep it from participating in Western European structures such as the European Union,” said Agnieszka Miarka, a professor of political science at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. Moldova is officially neutral and has said it will remain so, but if Moldova ever decided to change its mind, having pro-Russia troops on its soil would also make NATO membership impossible.
Transnistria’s de facto government is pro-Russia, and as experts said, the region does have a shared history, language, and culture with Russia. (At the same time, the territory of about 400,000 has sizable Ukrainian and Moldovan or Romanian-speaking minorities.) The territory was traditionally dependent on the Kremlin for things like energy and pensions — though Moscow hasn’t been as generous lately as it once was.
But Transnistria’s economic ties started to shift in recent years, a consequence of Moldova’s trade agreement with the EU. Now, about 70 percent of Transnistria’s exports go to the European Union. That has created a dichotomy, where the region’s political sympathies still align with Russia, but its economic interests are more firmly tied to Moldova, and the European Union. And that may be one reason working against the possibility of a spillover conflict.
How likely is it that the Ukraine conflict spills over into Moldova?
Transnistria’s de facto government has not condemned Russia’s invasion — but it hasn’t supported it, either.
As experts said, even though Transnistria won’t abandon its Russian ties, it doesn’t want to go out of the way to invite Moscow to march across its doorstep. There’s the economic factor; Transnistria would be cut off from the Western economy that it’s increasingly dependent on, and instead rely on a sanctions-crunched Russia. There are also more common-sense reasons. “Would you like the war to come to your home? I don’t think so,” said Tatsiana Kulakevich, a global studies professor at the University of South Florida.
So, Transnistria is kind of laying low. “‘We support Russia. Russia is our ally. Russia, Russia,’” Kulakevich said of the region’s likely thinking. “But Russia needs to reach us first.”
That is, Moscow would need to actually create the land bridge that at least one Russian general claimed the Kremlin wanted to make. And experts really doubt that Russia can do that right now, given that the Russian military is bogged down in eastern Ukraine, and while it has made advances in the east and the south, these battles are depleting Russian troops, too.
Since Russia doesn’t border Moldova, it couldn’t easily supply or bring troops to Transnistria, making it an unlikely front from which to wage an attack on Ukraine. “I don’t think the Russians have any ability to do anything militarily with the troops they have in Transnistria because they can’t supply them,” Kaufman said.
Still, some analysts said just threatening Transnistria may serve a purpose — specifically, by forcing Ukraine to move troops to the area to defend places like Odesa, and away from other active fronts. It also lets Russian President Vladimir Putin “pretend that he’s winning more than losing,” as Lambert put it.
And as experts pointed out, the threat keeps Ukraine and Moldova on edge. Moldova applied for EU membership in March, though the country has a long pathway to go before reaching it. The EU has also said it will step up military assistance — in addition to financial support the West is providing for the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who’ve crossed into Moldova. But Moldova has also been careful to reiterate its neutrality, and remains dependent on Russia for its energy. And officials have downplayed the risks of a spillover.
As experts said, it makes little sense for Russia to expand the Ukraine conflict, given how it already had to revise its war aims. Right now, the possibility of a real spillover still seems low. But Putin has made inexplicable military moves throughout the Ukraine conflict, and wars, once started, are inherently unpredictable. “There’s a risk of escalation,” Lambert said. “It’s a reality.”
Update, May 10, 12:10 pm ET: This story has been updated to include the US intelligence assessment of Russia’s intentions.