Fears are growing that a breakaway region on the edge of Moldova could be drawn into war in neighboring Ukraine.
The breakaway region of Transnistria – or Transdniestria, named after the Dniester River – broke away from Moldova after a brief war in 1992 and is ruled by pro-Russian separatists.
A series of mysterious explosions that took place over a 48-hour period caused tensions in the region to escalate.
Map shows where Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, is located – Photo: BBC
According to reports, the attacks were directed against the following targets:
- Headquarters of the state security agency in Tiraspol, the main city in the region
- Military unit in Parcani, a village on the outskirts of Tiraspol
- Old Soviet-era radio towers used to broadcast Russian news
The attacks left no casualties, but authorities in Moldova’s capital Chisinau described the blasts as a deliberate provocation to include the region in the conflict.
But who carried out the attacks and why?
The BBC has raised four possible scenarios for how tensions in Transnistria could escalate, depending on who is behind the explosions and what their motivations are.
Destroyed radio towers in Grigoriopol, Transnistria, in April 2022 — Photo: Reuters/Transnistria Interior Ministry
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has blamed Russian security services for the recent blasts, saying Moscow is trying to destabilize the region and drag other countries into war with Ukraine.
The alleged action in Transnistria coincided with a shift in Russia’s war strategy, which now appears to be focused on taking control of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Russian Major General Rustam Minnekaev, acting commander of the central military district, said on April 22 that taking full control of southern Ukraine would provide “another outlet for Transnistria”.
Russia’s intention to build a corridor to Transnistria through southern Ukraine has long been discussed in some circles.
He claimed, without referring to any evidence, that “there were cases of oppression of the Russian-speaking population” in the breakaway region.
This argument echoes one of Moscow’s original reasons for justifying the war in Ukraine, but it is unclear whether this comment was sanctioned by the Kremlin. Moldova is a former Soviet republic.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he could not comment on issues related to the military campaign. The Russian Defense Ministry did not refute General Minnekaev’s statements.
The United States has previously warned that Russian forces could launch “false flag” operations to create a pretext to invade other nations’ territory.
2. Moldova and attempt to contain Russian influence
Transnistria is ruled by a pro-Russian administration that declared itself independent after a referendum in September 2006.
The vote is not recognized by Moldova and much of the international community. The breakaway region is economically, politically and militarily supported by Russia.
Russian and Transnistrian flags side by side in Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria (Photo: AFP via BBC)
Many Russian speakers in Moldovan society believe that the government in Chisinau would be able to stage a fake attack to increase the terrorist threat level and ban celebrations on May 9.
It is on this date that Russia and some former Soviet states commemorate the anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.
Terrorist threat levels have already been raised to red in Transnistria and a victory parade scheduled for May 9 has been cancelled.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who is strongly pro-EU, has signed a law banning the use of the Saint George ribbon, a Russian military symbol, as well as the display of the letters “Z” and “V” symbols” in context. of Russian military aggression” against Ukraine.
President Maia Sandu, who is strongly pro-Western, is photographed after meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Chisinay, March 6, 2022.
Heavy fines are in place to punish people who break the law.
Moldova’s Russian-speaking population says the government’s real goals are to erase its history and cultural heritage.
3. Pro-Russian separatists and the war
Since the war in Ukraine began, many questions have been raised about the pro-Russian enclave in Moldova.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, many pro-Moscow Transnistrians began to expect Russia to make a similar move in their region.
About 1,500 Russian troops are stationed on the territory of the self-proclaimed republic and experts say they can give Russian tanks free passage into Moldova.
Ukrainian guards at a checkpoint on the border with the breakaway Transnistrian region of Moldova in 2014 (Photo: Yevgeny Volokin/Reuters)
Meanwhile, the Russian embassy in Chisinau insisted that cases of discrimination against Russian speakers had become more frequent in the country.
In response, the Moldovan government demanded an apology from Russia, saying the allegations were unfounded.
Under this scenario, pro-Russian separatists would be willing to join the war in Ukraine in favor of the Kremlin, although analysts in Moldova doubt that residents of the region are willing to risk their lives.
4. Ukraine and the Soviet Arms Depot
Transnistrian officials and Russian analysts blamed Ukraine for the attack.
The village of Kolbasna, near the Ukrainian border, is home to the largest ammunition depot in Eastern Europe. Some of the weapons are compatible with Soviet-era weaponry used by Ukrainian forces to fight Moscow.
One interpretation of events suggests that Ukraine, faced with a shortage of weapons, wants to take possession of this warehouse.
A Transnistrian government official said three unidentified infiltrators from Ukraine attacked the security headquarters with a grenade launcher.
This claim has not been verified and some military experts have criticized the allegation. They say Ukraine needs the latest anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems that only the West can provide and are not compatible with old Soviet weapons.
They also point out that any explosion in Transnistria, on Ukraine’s western border, would deter Ukrainian forces from fighting the Russians in the east.
Russian analysts, however, argue that another war front would further strain the capabilities of Russian forces. Alternatively, Russia could be forced to ignore the problem, thus showing weakness.
After the incidents, Moldovan President Maia Sandu held an emergency meeting and ordered increased patrols on the border between Moldova and Transnistria.
Security at the headquarters of state institutions and at key infrastructure points was also reinforced.
The European Union said it was extremely concerned about a possible spiral of tension between Chisinau and Tiraspol. The EU asked the parties to remain calm and not accept provocations.