Will Moldova become the next target of Russian aggression?May 6, 2022 in Uncategorized
On May 2, Ukrainian intelligence sources revealed that they believe that the Kremlin has already taken the decision to launch an invasion of Moldova through the country’s breakaway Transnistria region, suggesting that Russia may attempt to use Transnistria’s Tiraspol airport to land forces and overwhelm Moldova’s army, which numbers less than 4,000 active-duty soldiers. A Times article quoted an unidentified military source as saying “We believe the Kremlin has already taken the decision to attack Moldova. The fate of Moldova is very crucial. If the Russians start to take control, we will, militarily, be an easier target and the threat to Ukraine will be existential.” The source also suggested that an invasion could take place around the time of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on 9 May.
Transnistria, also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR), is a breakaway region of Moldova and self-declared presidential republic, unrecognised by the wider international community (with the exception of mutual recognition with Abkhazia, Artsakh, and South Ossetia), but supported by Russia. Geographically, Transnistria comprises a long narrow strip of landlocked territory of 4,163 km² sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. The region declared independence from Moldova in 1990 sparking a conflict which in 1992 was paused by a ceasefire agreement that has held until the present. In Transnistria’s most recent census in 2015, ethnic Russians made up the largest percentage of respondents at 29.1%. Since the 1992 ceasefire, the Russian Federation has maintained military facilities and around 1,500 are deployed in Transnistria, supporting a Transnistrian paramilitary force of at least 7000.
In the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a publicity video of Putin ally and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko appeared to show a map depicting Russian forces entering Moldova from Ukraine, raising fears that Russia also planned to eventually annex the former-Soviet state. On 14 April, Ukrainian Defence Minister Hanna Malyar claimed that Russia was amassing troops on Ukraine’s border with Transnistria, but this was denied by Transnistrian authorities. On 22 April, Deputy Commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Major General Rustam Minnekayev, speaking at the annual meeting of the Union of Defence Industries of the Sverdlovsk Region, suggested that Russia might push to control the entirety of Southern Ukraine to Transnistria, creating a ‘land bridge’ between Russia-controlled Crimea and Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. On 25 April, Transnistrian sources reported that an attack had been carried out against the headquarters of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) and on 26 April two radio antennas close to Tiraspol near the Ukrainian border were destroyed by explosions. In response to the explosions, the Transnistrian Defence Ministry ordered a general mobilisation of “all men between 18 and 55”.
The opening of a new front in Moldova could provide several advantages for Russa. If successful, controlling southern Ukraine, a key Kremlin aim of the war, and creating a land bridge between Crimea and Transnistria could open up Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, in particular Odessa, for increased transports of forces and materiel into the country. This would facilitate reinforcement of the Russian military and reduce the risk to Russian navy vessels operating on the Black Sea from Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. Mobilisation of Transnistria’s paramilitaries could offer a new source of manpower for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine and open up a new front in the west to split Ukraine’s defence. The Kremlin may also hope that a stronger presence in Transnistria would deter Moldova’s pro-EU President, Maia Sandu, from siding with the west and participating in sanctions against Russia. Expanding Russia’s threat to Moldova could also serve to divert NATO and EU attention and weapons shipments from Ukraine.
There are, however, also arguments against the likelihood of Ukraine’s warning of an impending invasion of Transnistria or Moldova. Although Transnistria’s Tiraspol airport’s runway, at around 2,400m length, would be adequate for the landing of Russian Il-76 transport and aircraft, Russian flights into Transnistria would at present be forced to run the risk of overflying Ukrainian anti-air missile defence systems. At the same time, the Russian military’s push to secure southern Ukraine and the port of Odessa appears to be stalled by strong resistance in the city of Kherson, thwarting plans to link-up with Transnistria. Increased Russian presence on the border of Moldova might also backfire in pushing the Moldovan government further towards the EU and in particular the safety of NATO.
At present the high-risk strategy of Russia expanding its operations to Moldova is judged to be an unlikely outcome. This assessment appears to be shared by western intelligence agencies which have not echoed Ukraine’s warnings, in contrast to the loud and repeated warnings of an impending Russian attack which were made prior to the invasion of Ukraine. However, this situation may change should the efforts of Russia’s push to occupy southern Ukraine become more successful and resistance in Ukraine’s southern cities ceases to hold back Russian forces.