PARIS – The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has accused the Russian special services of orchestrating a series of mysterious explosions in neighbouring Transnistria, a Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova. “The goal is obvious – to destabilise the situation in the region, to threaten Moldova,” Zelensky said, adding that his country’s forces are ready to respond to an escalation by Russian troops stationed in the territory.
Transnistrian separatist authorities said two masts broadcasting radio from Russia had been blown up on 25 April and that the ministry of state security in the capital, Tiraspol, had been shelled by attackers wielding grenade launchers the following day. No casualties have been reported.
Authorities in Moldova, which unlike neighbouring Romania is not an EU or Nato member state, have said that the incidents are intended to increase tensions in the region. Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, has called for calm. “We denounce any provocations or efforts to draw the Republic of Moldova into acts that can endanger peace in the country,” Sandu said. For their part, Transnistrian officials have blamed Ukraine for the attacks, which they claimed risked “provoking a spreading of the conflict to Transnistria’s territory”.
Transnistria, with a population of around 500,000 people, about a third of which are ethnic Russians, is a strip of land straddling the border between Moldova and western Ukraine. Around 1,500 Russian troops are stationed in the unrecognised republic, which has been under the control of separatists since a 1992 civil war.
A key bridge over Ukraine’s Dniester estuary was hit by a Russian missile attack on 26 April, according to Sergey Bratchuk, the spokesperson of the Odessa regional military administration. The bridge is a key link between Ukraine’s south-western corner and the rest of the country. The southern half of the Odessa Oblast is sandwiched between Romania, Moldova and the Black Sea, and geographically separated from the rest of Ukraine by the Dniester estuary.
Some in Ukraine believe that Russia may use Transnistria as a staging post for a new front as the Kremlin’s war enters its third month. After failing to overthrow the government in Kyiv, Russia has pivoted its war aims to conquering more land in the east and south of the country.
The rising tensions come days after a Russian general, Rustam Minnekayev, said that Russia was seeking to gain control of the entire south of Ukraine to create a link to Transnistria, “where there is also evidence of oppression of the Russian-speaking population”. Some analysts caution, however, that Minnekayev does not lead operations in southern Ukraine and may not be setting out Russia’s military goals.
It remains unclear how effectively Russia could fight if a new front was to open up around Transnistria. The statelet, though host to Russian troops and other military equipment, has no direct land link to Russian-held territory. “These are badly trained troops with malfunctioning, old equipment. The Russian forces in Transnistria are not a modern, well-armed, well-trained army,” said Ellie Knott, a political scientist at the LSE.
Reinforcements and supplies for a new front would need to travel either through Ukrainian-controlled land or the Black Sea. Both routes carry heavy risks to Russian forces. Odessa, close to Transnistria, is heavily defended, making the overland route from Russia-controlled Kherson risky. Ukraine’s sinking of the Moskva cruiser this month, meanwhile, illustrates the dangers to Russian ships of the sea route.
Russia opened its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February on three main fronts: pushing north from Crimea, west from Donbas and south from Belarus towards Kyiv. Yet Moscow withdrew its troops from the Kyiv front in early April after its forces became bogged down by fierce Ukrainian resistance and failed to make progress in taking the capital. Moscow has since concentrated on the eastern and southern fronts.
It is unclear whether Russia’s military, which has suffered staggering losses of personnel and equipment over two months of war, is capable of fighting effectively on yet another front.
“We don’t currently see the same kinds of troop movements in Transnistria we were seeing around Ukraine before the invasion. But we don’t know what direction this could go in. The potential risk that this might pose should not be underestimated,” Knott said.