Explosions and a reported attack near a large ammunition depot in the pro-Russia breakaway region have raised fears that war could spill over into Moldova.
Successive incidents in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria this week have raised fears that the Russia-Ukraine war could spill over into the small European country bordering Ukraine in a considerable escalation of the conflict.
On Tuesday, Moldova’s president Maia Sandu convened a meeting of the country’s Supreme Security Council after explosions on Monday and Tuesday hit a Russian-owned radio tower, a military unit and the security ministry. Sandu said “tensions between various forces” are interested in destabilising the breakaway enclave, but urged calm.
On Wednesday morning, the interior ministry of the so-called Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), Transnistria’s self-declared name, issued a statement claiming it had come under attack from Ukraine. According to the statement, “shots were fired from the Ukrainian side” towards the village of Kolbasna, located around two kilometres from the Ukrainian border. The town houses a stockpile of some 20,000 tonnes of munitions that date back to the Soviet era, guarded by Russian troops. According to the statement, it is the largest ammunition depot in Europe.
No army or armed group has claimed responsibility for the incidents. There were no reported injuries, but the blasts fuelled concerns that Moldova, a former Soviet republic, could be dragged into the ongoing conflict, further inflaming tensions on the doorsteps of NATO – of which Romania, its close neighbour, is a member state.
Transnistria is a small, Russian-backed breakaway region in Moldova along its eastern border with Ukraine. It hosts a population of about 350,000, with Russians, Moldavians and Ukrainians representing its largest ethnic groups and around 30 percent each of the total population of the small unrecognized country.
Moldova has officially designated it as territory under Russian military occupation. The Council of Europe recognised it as such in a March 2022 resolution.
Moldova lost control of the territory in a short armed conflict in 1992, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is one of the post-Soviet “frozen conflicts”, meaning they ended without a peace treaty. Transnistria has its own president, parliament, currency and military.
An estimated 1,500 Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria, where a majority of citizens are Russian speakers, and are referred to by Moscow as a “peacekeeping” force. Kiev has warned that Russia could try to use Transnistria to attack Ukraine from the West.
Moldova is not a member of NATO and has neutrality enshrined in its constitution. While the country has pivoted towards the West after independence from the Soviet Union, Transnistria is economically dependent on Russia.
Just last week, a senior Russian commander said Russian speakers in Moldova were being oppressed – the same argument that Russia used to justify its war in Ukraine. The general, Rustam Minnekayev, said Russia planned to “take full control of Donbass and southern Ukraine,” opening a land corridor to Moscow-annexed Crimea and giving the Russian army access to Transnistria.
US defense secretary Lloyd Austin also said last week that the goal of the US is now to "see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine."
“In this case, using Transnistria would be also consistent with US policy of doing this,” Ivan Katchanovski, a professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, told TRT World. The Ukrainians, he explained, would have a definite military advantage in Transnistria given the small number of Russian troops stationed there.
Moldova being dragged into the war would be a “dangerous development”, adds Katchanovski, because “in addition to this there is the possibility that Romania will also be compelled to do this” due to its close linguistic and historical ties with Moldova – where the majority of the population speaks Romanian.
“It would be dangerous to many other countries that are linked to Moldova and Transnistria and would have an impact on the people of this region,” Katchanovski said.