April 29, 2022
Welcome back to Moldova Matters! This week Moldova Matters got cited by the Washington Post in Adam Taylor’s excellent article on the attacks in Transnistria. Thank you all! Your subscriptions make writing Moldova Matters possible and allow us to bring more and more news and information from Moldova to an English speaking audience. For all the new subscribers following the article – welcome! We hope you stick around to learn more about just why #MoldovaMatters.
Tension and Speculation following Attacks
Following the 3 attacks in Transnistria this week Moldovans on both sides of the Nistru river are trying to understand what this all means for the country’s security. People and leaders are trying to understand possible links to Russian movements in Ukraine and the rhetoric of Russian leadership to parse what comes next.
Following the first strike on the Zatoka Bridge in southern Ukraine the Russian military struck the bridge a second time fully destroying it.
Photos show the location of the bridge as well as the damage from the first strike. Now the bridge is completely destroyed.
Additionally, Transnistrian authorities have released security video showing the RPG attack on their “Minister of State Security.”
There have not been further attacks in Transnistria but rumors swirl. The Transnistrian authorities claim to have found and disabled 10 more explosive devices in the village of Mayak where the large AM radio broadcasting antenna was destroyed. This has not been independently confirmed.
More worryingly, reports emerged of gunshots near the Transnistrian village of Cobasna where a *massive* depot of Soviet era arms is located. Initial reports from the Transnistrian authorities made it sound like a firefight had taken place. Subsequent reports confirmed that it was only 1 or 2 shots fired 2km away from the village in Ukraine. These were heard by local farmers which started a mini-panic. At the same time the Transnistrian authorities report citing of drones flying over the facility leading to a ban on all drone flights in Transnistria without a “government” permit.
What’s at the Cobasna Arms Depot Again?
A lot. This storage facility filled with antiquated Soviet munitions is the largest arms depot in Eastern Europe. Press stories this week have led people to rediscover a report from the Moldovan Academy of Sciences that attempted to quantify what would happen if the facility blew up. Essentially, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and would have a force roughly equivalent to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The report predicts a shockwave traveling around 50 km with any structures in a 4.5 kilometer radius of the facility being completely destroyed. A crater 1.5 km wide and 75 m deep would likely result from the blast. Compared to the 2020 Beruit harbor explosion this would be around 3x larger.
It’s easy to understand how local residents are feeling a bit jumpy.
Ukraine sees High Risk in Transnistria
Multiple Ukrainian officials this week have expressed their opinion that Russia is preparing more attacks on Transnistria in order to blame Ukraine. They believe this is potentially a pretext for beginning offensive operations from the region.
Vladislav Nazarov of Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command noted the following about the potential for false flag attacks:
“In the Odessa region, a repeated missile attack was carried out on the bridge hit yesterday. The operation of the bridge has been stopped. In the Black Sea, the naval grouping of the Rashist fleet with submarines continues to hold tension over the likelihood of missile attacks on Ukraine. Also, enemy forces are preparing provocations with missile strikes on Transnistria in order to accuse Ukraine of attacking the unrecognized republic,”
[note: Rashist = a portmanteau of Russian and Fascist]
Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Aleksey Arestovich spoke about the situation in an interview following the strikes in Zatoka and attacks in Transnistria:
“Today they hit the bridge on the estuary in Belgorod-Dnestrovsk, obviously with a desire to stop the possibility of transferring our troops there. And this means that they can try to organize a landing operation there with a direct run into Transnistria”
Asked if the Russian forces could advance to Chisinau he replied:
“No, there are 5-7 thousand there, but this is not enough. But Moldova can have very big troubles. And the best thing that Moldova can do in this situation, in my opinion, is to turn to Ukraine and Romania,”
Commenting on Ukraine’s ability to intervene:
“This is the territory of sovereign Moldova. We cannot even afford statements of this kind. Only after the appeal of the Moldovan side. If necessary, we will cope [with the capture of Tiraspol],”
In a separate interview he elaborated further:
A little less than 2,000 Russian military men are sitting there, and the Ukrainian army can very quickly take them into a ring and force them to surrender, and destroy those who do not give up. So this is a big problem for the Kremlin, but how will they provide them with security, what options? The only thing holding us back is that we are not an aggressor like the Kremlin. We will not go until Moldova officially invites us. This is the problem, ”
What does all this mean?
With public statements like these a few things seem clear. Firstly, that Ukraine is seriously considering the scenario where Russia lands troops in the southwestern region of Ukraine that is now cut-off from military support from Odessa. In this scenario, Russia would land troops in this sparsely populated region with an intention to link up with Transnistrian troops. To do this, they would need to traverse southern Moldova in the Palanca region directly invading Moldovan territory.
To say that this would be a “bold” move is a massive understatement. It would involve an amphibious landing on beeches far from any ports or infrastructure. Then troops would have to cross around 60 km of Ukrainian territory, invade southern Moldova and cross into Transnistria. At the same time the Ukrainian army is highly confident it can quickly overwhelm Transnistrian and Russian forces and capture the region.
Militarily, this whole scenario makes absolutely zero sense. Russia has made huge miscalculations and senseless maneuvers all through this war so nothing can be ruled out. But a move like this would truly echo the movie “Downfall” where Hitler spends the last days in his bunker moving imaginary armies around on a map. Is Putin at that stage? We’ll see.
Moldovan Reactions and Response
At all official levels, the Moldovan position on Transnistria remains the same, the country is committed to resolving the frozen conflict only via peaceful negotiations. Meetings have taken place this week between Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Oleg Serebrian and Presidential Advisor Dorin Rechan and Vadim Krasnoselsky, the leader of Transnistria. They discussed the tensions in the region but did not release details of the meeting.
President Sandu commented on the situation as follows:
“According to our analysis, there is no immediate danger, at least for citizens on the right bank. We can speak about this with great confidence, because here our institutions have access, they can ensure public order and the safety of citizens. I really hope that there will be no attempts to endanger the lives of citizens on the left bank,”
All Eyes on the Moldovan Army
It’s well known that Moldova’s tiny, poorly equipped army is not designed for the security environment that the country is in. Speaking on this topic President Sandu gave a speech to collected Military offices on the 30th anniversary of the General Staff of the National Army. Here are selected excerpts:
“Created two years after the national flag, the General Staff of the National Army appeared to protect the borders and citizens of Moldova, the independence of the young state and was tested by the conflict on the Dniester. But the truth is that the political class did not pay enough attention to the development of Moldova’s defense capabilities that could withstand the current tests,”
“Our army was left without equipment, without military equipment. And now we are acutely feeling the consequences,”
“a strong and well-equipped army gives the country freedom of action, self-confidence and strategic choices”
“This is an investment in the security and defense of the country,”
“Now, when there is a war right on the border, we understand this very well. Investments in the army are necessary, it is important for the state, infrastructure, and security. Moldova should adopt the experience of other neutral states in strengthening the armed forces,”
The President has proposed a modernization program for the Moldovan Armed Forces in the context of the changed regional situation. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Anatoliy Nosatii has sought to assure the public that the army is prepared to defend the country right now.
Speaker of Parliament Igor Grosu spoke directly about the new security consensus that seems to be emerging. Simply put, if you want allies to help you, you need to be ready to help yourself. Basically, be like Ukraine.
“If you want someone to help you, to plead for you, that partner must see that you, who live in this house, who have lived all your life and still live on this earth – you are the one who wants to defend it. This is the basic principle. We will be in position and we are ready to do everything possible to defend our country, if we want and pretend to be a state. That’s the basic rule. There is no other rule, “
The Situation in Transnistria
Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselsky is struggling to maintain control of the information space in the region. Local authorities have closed access to government websites to anyone outside of Transnistria citing cyberattacks. Krasnoselsky has issued daily statements begging residents not to fall prey to fake news. Lots of supposedly “official” announcements from the Transnistrian authorities are circulating calling people to protest, citing plans for a “referendum” on some topic or another, and suggesting that local authorities were preparing for mass mobilization and martial law.
Additionally, Ukrainian sources say that Transnistrian residents are getting text messages directly to their phones that claim to be from the Ukrainian army or intelligence services (SBU) warning them to flee. The messages tell people they should evacuate because Ukraine plans on attacking the region with rockets and artillery. Ukraine suggests that Russia is likely behind these messages, fake news and propaganda. Krasnoselsky continues to beg residents not to panic and to only obtain information from trusted sources.
At least some residents appear to be taking the advice and leaving the region as there are long lines at the “border” points with Moldova. At the same time, it isn’t clear if this is a real outflow or caused by other factors. It’s Easter week in Moldova and many people travel between the regions to see family. Additionally, with the “Code Red” terror alert in Transnistria increased security checks are slowing down processing.
Transnistria is in a Pickle
As we discussed in our previous Explainer “Moldova is in a Pickle”, Moldova’s ability to react to this crisis is extremely constrained. Based on the events of the last week we also see the serious situation that Transnistria is in. There is next to zero support in the region for getting involved in this war either at an elite level or among the population. Since the start of the war no protests or rallies have been organized or have appeared spontaneously in support of Russia.
At an elite level all political and economic incentives are for the status quo. Transnistria has a pretty good deal from their position. A small clique of oligarchs rule the region as a personal fiefdom. Russia gives them free gas subsidizing their budget and allowing ample opportunities for corruption and theft. Meanwhile, since they are technically part of Moldova, the region benefits from an EU association and trade agreement. Since the EU is their number 1 trading partner accounting for 75% of the regions exports that is also big money.
The reality is that while Transnistria may not want war, this special arrangement they have comes with a catch – Putin is fully in charge of the region.
Is Transnistria Doomed?
It is honestly time to start asking this question very seriously. The status quo of the last 30 years does not seem to be tenable going forward. If Russia wins this war they plan to fully incorporate the region into Russia – no free gas, no EU trade agreement, no special treatment. Lots and lots of sanctions.
We can see this plan on maps circulated by Russian propaganda:
Dionis Cenusa @DionisCenusa#Ukraine_Moldova: Russian propagandists have big appetite. This is what the map of Ukraine and Moldova should look like. It is not only the Transnistrian region of Moldova, but also its Gagauzian autonomy that is being sought as part of the “Novorossiya”. Found by @jelger_ April 28th 202229 Retweets41 Likes
Note that the map shows an intention to annex Gagauzia as well.
On the flip side, what if Ukraine wins the war? It seems incredibly unlikely that in this case Ukraine will tolerate a garrison of Russian troops at their backs. It would likely be possible for a victorious Ukrainian army to force these troops out without firing a shot via blockade and other diplomatic measures backed by force.
So is the last holdout of the Soviet Union doomed?
Very possibly. The question remains just how the situation can develop. Moldova hopes for a peaceful resolution and it is possible that one might be found in the increasingly more likely case of a Ukrainian victory.
At the same time, the events of the past week and the statements of Ukrainian officials hint that something else might be in store. If Putin knows he will lose this trump-card in Moldovan politics at the end of this war perhaps he would calculate this is a “use it or lose it” moment. Would he sacrifice the troops there in a doomed attack in Ukraine just to tie up some Ukrainian forces there for a while as Russia attacks in the east?
On the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. That said, none of this does.
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