The proposal came from Chisinau during a recent meeting between President Maia Sandu and the deputy head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, Dmitri Kozak. It is estimated that about 20,000 tons of ammunition are stored in Cobasna, in the north of the Transnistrian secessionist region, but the exact amount is unknown because representatives of Chisinau and international missions have not had access to the region for about two decades. What is certain is that Moscow is now willing to discuss this “time bomb” represented by the contents of this depot that covers about 100 hectares.
“We are also interested in eliminating these ammunitions, whose expiration date has passed and which can no longer be transported”, Dmitry Kozak said after a recent visit to Chisinau.
Kozak is perhaps the best connoisseur of the Transnistrian issue among Russian officials, being the artisan of the famous plan to federalize the Republic of Moldova, generically called the “Kozak memorandum” drawn up in 2003 and rejected at the last minute by the former president of the Republic of Moldova, Vladimir Voronin.
Beyond the state of the ammunition, another factor that now prevents transportation to Russia is related to Ukraine, which should be transited in this case, and which is unlikely given the major tensions between Kiev and Moscow.
Brief foray into the history of negotiations
The idea of destroying the ammunition is not new. The issue has been on the table of the Chisinau-Moscow negotiations since the 1990s and 2000s. One of Chisinau’s negotiators in this matter used to be Viorel Ciobotaru, who would later become Moldova’s Defense Ministry, for a very brief term in 2015. He negotiated with the Russian side five protocols for the withdrawal of ammunition from Cobasna.
“Just a few of us have visited this depot. I was there in 1997 and I saw what was stored there and how it was stored. The ammunition problem there is a real one, but another is how to solve it. In the late 1990s, the depot used to store a much larger load - over 30,000 tons. [As for the current quantity] the only reference source is the Russian side which says that today the ammunition there amounts to around 20,000 tons.
[...] At the end of the 1990s and 2000s, there were several Russian delegations that conducted audits inside and outside the Ministry of Defense, either as part of investigations into criminal cases for theft of weapons or in relation to other cases of law violation” Viorel Cibotaru told us.
The 1990s and 2000s saw arms trafficking from Transnistria to African countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, masterminded by the Russian trafficker Viktor Bout, also known as the “seller of death”, the subject of a Hollywood film, and Alexander Zhukov, a Russian tycoon in the Kremlin’s power circles. This could not have been done without the consent of Moscow and of the separatist regime in Tiraspol.
“The technical problem is that there are certain types of weapons, for example Kalashnikov. In the late 1990s, we knew of 50,000 units kept in crates by Soviet standards. That was good ammunition to use, expensive and highly sought after, including on the black market, such as air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and shells for certain types of artillery equipment, mine launchers, etc. The Russian Federation wanted to take them away from Cobasna and evacuate them”, the former Moldovan Minister of Defense told us.
There is also a significant amount of old ammunition, some even from the Second World War, consisting of anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines.
In the early 2000s, advanced discussions took place about the destruction of this old ammunition, and the US and the OSCE offered to provide the necessary equipment at their own expense.
“Negotiations were held with the OSCE, the USA. A detonation chamber was set up, all at the expense of the OSCE. It was brought and stayed in Tighina for about two years without being used or reaching Cobasna. Then the Americans took it.
[The Russians] continued to transfer ammunition to the Transnistrian armed forces and they would also scrap part of the old stuff. Part of the ammunition was evacuated with the intention of selling it. In the 1990s, there were trading relations with [Muammar] Gaddafi, with or without Moscow's permission. Similarly, some Kalashnikov submachine guns from Transnistria appeared in several conflicts in Africa and Chechnya.
Several other investigations were conducted in the early 2000s. The British were very concerned about this. Viktor Bout was also involved, and he was later arrested in Thailand and sent to the United States”, Viorel Cibotaru said.
The former Chisinau official says that the ammunition in Cobasna could be removed relatively quickly, if there is political will from Moscow.
“Now, according to all estimates, we have about 20,000 tons that can be optimally discharged within [...] four months, as estimated in a 1998 plan, when about 35,000 tons were being considered.
The plan was drawn up considering the railway capacity, Russia's ability to make troops available to transport them, and Ukraine’s total opening. Ukrainian legislation is quite strict when it comes to potentially dangerous shipments, and it has tightened even more recently. If from the beginning we say that the problem of moving [through Ukraine] to the Russian Federation is very complicated, the option of scrapping or destroying the ammunition would be the best choice”, the Minister of Defense from Chisinau believes.
Fears in Kiev
Russia knows that keeping the depot is extremely dangerous due to the nature of its contents and can cause several problems. Recently, similar depots of old Soviet ammunition have exploded. In August 2019, in the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia, such an incident left dead and wounded, and in October 2020, a warehouse storing about 75,000 tons of ammunition exploded in the Ryazan region, leading to the evacuation of 2,000 people from the neighboring villages. The secessionist leader in Tiraspol, Vadim Krasnoselski, also supports the idea of dismantling the ammunition, but strongly opposes the withdrawal of the Operational Group of Russian Forces, which guards them.
But this equation to be used for the destruction of ammunition in the Transnistrian region automatically involves Ukraine, due to the fact that the depots are located a short distance from its borders.
The former Ukrainian minister responsible for the occupied territories and refugees, Vadim Cernis, said in 2018 that the ammunition depots in the village of Cobasna were a danger to both the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.
“This place is practically on the border between Ukraine and Moldova, and the presence of the Russian troops only increases the tension and danger. We know that the strategic depots in Cobasna are home to almost 20,000 tons of ammunition for various purposes, from small arms to missiles with multiple launch systems”, the former Ukrainian official told Evropenskaya Pravda.
According to Cernis' estimates, the depos in Cobasna have been out of the surveillance of international observers since 2000.
“We need answers to several questions: is there a security monitoring being carried out, or an inventory? This information is necessary to all the parties obliged to support the negotiation process and the peaceful settlement of the Transnistrian conflict in western Ukraine”, the minister stressed at the time.
What Moscow’s got to lose
Despite Kozak's statements, it is not at all certain that Russia really wants to destroy the ammunition in Cobasna, given that their guarding is the official reason for the presence of some of the Russian soldiers in Transnistria. Russia maintains two types of troops in the Transnistrian region: those that are part of the peacekeeping forces and the so-called Operational Group of Russian Forces (GOTR), which is stationed on the left bank of the Dniester under the pretext of guarding the ammunition.
GOTR reports directly to the Western Military District of the Russian Federation based in St. Petersburg. In other words, if these ammunitions are destroyed, in a scenario hoped for by everyone, except Tiraspol and Moscow, there would be no reason for GOTR to operate any longer on the territory of the Republic of Moldova on the left bank of the Dniester.
Without demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria, Chisinau could solve the problem of their presence on its territory. GOTR is in fact a late reminiscence of the former 14th Army, which played the role of a rapid reaction force for the Odessa region. Thus, Transnistria can play the role of a strategic outpost along several directions: Chisinau-Odessa-the border with NATO and the EU (Romania). It is hard to believe that Moscow would give up such a strategic advantage, especially against the background of the current tense relations with Kiev and on the eve of parliamentary elections due this autumn in Russia.