The war in Ukraine is getting ever closer to Romania’s borders, and not just in geographic terms. In recent days, tensions have escalated in the separatist region in Eastern Moldova, and more and more Russian officials are talking about the need to defend the approximately 200,000 Russian nationals living in this country. A Russian general recently referred to Transnistria as one of the objectives of the second phase of the war in Ukraine. Will Russia stop in Transnistria, or will it actually reach Chișinău, which is literally a stone’s throw away? And what should Romania do if that happens? 1940 is the year on everyone’s lips these days…
A separatist republic that Moscow has endorsed for 30 years
Transnistria or the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, which is the official name of this self-proclaimed entity, is a separatist region on the left bank of the Dniester, spreading over a surface of over 4,000 square kilometers, with a population under half a million inhabitants, according to the latest census. The real number is probably a little over 300,000. Moscow claims that 200,000 inhabitants also own the Russian citizenship. In turn, Chișinău says that over 260,000 people in Transnistria (citizens over 18 years of age) also have the Moldovan citizenship, approximately 100,000 have the Ukrainian citizenship as well (according to separatist authorities), and some of the inhabitants of this Moscow-backed region are also Romanian citizens. The Moldovan media wrote that the wife of separatist leader Vadim Krasnoselsky’s would also have the Romanian citizenship.
The region was annexed by the Republic of Moldova in 1940 when the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic was created, but it broke away in 1990, after the collapse of the USSR. In 1992, it was involved in an armed conflict with the Moldovan forces. The conflict was settled de facto by maintaining the status quo, based on a peace agreement signed with Russia. Transnistria describes itself as independent, although it is not recognized internationally as such. However, it enjoys the political, economic (it never pays for its natural gas imports) and (indirect) military support of Moscow. Apart from a peacekeeping corps controlled by the Russian and Transnistrian forces, Transnistria is also home to approximately 1,500 Russian soldiers who are guarding some 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition stored in Cobasna.
An explosion at the Cobasna depot would be tantamount to an atomic blast
Although we’re not talking about a significant military force, any attack on this region might be seen in Moscow as a threat to its citizens (including its soldiers) and to “regional security”, due to the weapons depot in this area. The warehouse was built in the 1940s in order to store over 40,000 tons of ammo, most of it brought over from Germany and Czechoslovakia in the wake of the withdrawal of Soviet troops in the 1990s. The quantity of weapons and ammo halved in the early 2000s, right after Russia partially evacuated the warehouse or destroyed it, as per its previous commitments.
According to a study conducted by the Moldovan Academy of Science in 2005, recently quoted by the media in Chișinău (although no news agency has published the study), a potential explosion of the warehouse would be tantamount to the blast of an atomic bomb, similar to the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, with devastating effects on the separatist region and territories on the right-hand side of the Dniester and Ukraine.
Transnistria in the context of the war in Ukraine
Separatist authorities have adopted an official position of neutrality towards the Russian military aggression in Ukraine since the outset. On February 24, Krasnoselsky told the media that “things are under control”, not warranting any special action, also announcing measures designed to facilitate the border crossing of refugees.
On the other hand, Moscow’s client in Moldova has aroused suspicion in Kyiv ever since 2014, when the Ukrainian side strengthened its border with Transnistria and dug anti-tank trenches. Concerns were compounded during the first days of the war, considering that an attack from the West, albeit of a lower scale, would have clearly stretched Ukraine’s forces thin, at a time when it was involved in a standoff on three fronts.
Right from the start, the media was flooded with “news” about attacks on Ukraine from Transnistria, or about the alleged bombing of Vinnytsia. On March 4, Russia blew up a bridge linking the country to Transnistria. In the second phase of the war, when Ukraine’s resistance exceeded all expectations, Kyiv started to deny the military threat Transnistria might pose.
The general who disclosed “the secret”
Public attention focused again on Transnistria with the announcement of Russia’s military plans by Russian Major-General Rustam Minnekaev. The Russian general claimed that, during the second phase of military operations in Ukraine, the Russian army is reportedly planning to take control over Donbas, as well as southern Ukraine, all the way down to the separatist republic of Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova. He made the statement during a meeting with representatives of the military industry from the Sverdlovsk Oblast (located some 1,700 km east of Moscow). The meeting was attended by a TASS corresponded, who quoted Minnekaev. Was it mere coincidence?
Three days later, the Ministry of State Security in Tiraspol was attacked, whereas two emitters broadcasting Russian channels were destroyed. Later, the military airport in Tiraspol was also reportedly attacked, while gunfire and explosions were allegedly heard close to the military warehouse in Cobasna. The separatist authorities raised the terrorist alert threat to maximum, secured all city exists and cancelled all graduation exams.
Who staged the terrorist attacks in Transnistria? Three possible answers
Tiraspol claims the attacks in the separatist region came from Ukraine, a position Moscow has seconded. On the other hand, the authorities in Kyiv say Moscow is preparing false-flag operations and attacks from the territory of Transnistria against Ukraine. In turn, the president of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, said the attacks in Transnistria were organized from within the breakaway region by forces that “support the war”.
The truth is that the destabilization of Transnistria would serve both Kyiv and Moscow, since they can easily turn this scenario to their favor. Kyiv would be interested if things got to the point where it would be morally entitled to intervene with its armed forces and annihilate the risks posed by the Russian army and Transnistrian troops, irrespective of numbers. As a matter of fact, Zelensky’s adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said that Ukraine is ready “to set things straight” in Transnistria, if Chișinău calls for help, and that its forces will be able to occupy Tiraspol “in the blink of an eye”.
In turn, Moscow would be interested to find new reasons to justify a potential military intervention in Transnistria (and to the right of the Dniester). And the threats facing its own citizens, who are “subject to terrorist attacks orchestrated by Ukrainian Nazi nationalists” would be reason enough to warrant a “special operation”.
To reach Transnistria / the Republic of Moldova, Russia will first have to occupy the western part of the Odessa Oblast, namely the three counties in southern Bessarabia, which in 1940 were transferred to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. The Russians have destroyed the bridge that links this region to the rest of Ukraine, and now the only connection on land is through the Republic of Moldova.
Will Romania intervene in case the Republic of Moldova is attacked?
With an army that is virtually inexistent, Moldova is not a member of any military structure (since it upholds a status of neutrality. At the same time, a significant part of the population would greet Russian troops would bread and salt, as well as with fuel canisters for their tanks. The Republic of Moldova is by far the most vulnerable country in the region.
The question that is on everyone’s lips these days is what will Romania do in the case of an attack? A commonplace reference is the year 1940, when Romania conceded Bessarabia without a fight. Things are different now. On the one hand, the Republic of Moldova is not a part of Romania. On the other hand, over a million Moldovans have Romanian citizenship, and relations between the two countries are very close. Just like in 1940, Romania is clearly overpowered by Russia in terms of military strength, but this time around it benefits from NATO protection, which, by the way, is activated only if a member state is attacked, not if it intervenes in another country. Besides, considering how slow the Russian advance in Ukraine was, the bravado of Russian general Lebed about having breakfast in Tiraspol, lunch in Chișinău and dinner in Bucharest doesn’t seem that frightening.