Very few of us would’ve had occasion to know about a place called Transnistria. The current war in Ukraine has disabused us of that notion. Russia wants it inside its borders in the worst way.
Transnistria is a breakaway region in the small, poor nation of Moldova (pop. 2.6 million). It is one of several separatist regions in former Soviet states, including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Donbas region, of course, designed and supported by Russia to destabilize its neighbors and prevent them from joining the European Union and/or NATO. The transatlantic alliance, in particular, prohibits membership to countries with ongoing conflicts.
Transnistria is also the easternmost edge of Russia’s Novorossiya (or “New Russia”) territorial expansion, because current giant-ass Russia is never big enough.
Don’t be shocked to learn that this region is both rich in natural gas deposits and would dramatically increase Russia’s strategic coverage of the Black Sea (while also denying Ukraine, that petulant, ungrateful child, their own ocean access.) Russia pretends that it’s about protecting Russian-speakers from imagined persecution. But as usual, these territorial ambitions are about natural resources.
In recent weeks, Western and Ukrainian intelligence have warned of impending Russian action in Transnistria, with several “false flag” events trying to either compel the region’s entrance into the war or justify direct Russian intervention. There are already 1,500-2,000 Russians in the region, ostensibly to guard the Cobasna depot, the largest Soviet-era depository of ammunition in eastern Europe. While Russia claims Ukraine wants its hands on the 22,000 tons of ammo stored at the facility, it is by all indications old, rusty, leaky, and inoperable. Seems like an ecological nightmare, actually, and still incredibly dangerous. Moldova’s Academy of Sciences has warned that an explosion at the depot would be "equivalent to the atomic bombs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Russia has staged several false flag events over the last couple of weeks, here, here, here, and possibly here, as it gins up the local populace for … something. There are two theories:
1) The first is that Russia, desperate for cannon fodder, wants to drag the region into the war. Outside fodder is of particular value, since it protects Vladimir Putin from the domestic consequences of his idiotic war. Russian mothers can threaten his regime. Mothers from Chechnya, Transnistria, Syria, Libya, and those other breakaway regions? No one in Russia cares.
Thing is, Transnistria is tiny, with a population of only 347,000. Its army is only around 5,000 large, and is more of a local militia than trained force. Russia would have no problem feeding those soldiers into the Donbas wood chipper, but Transnistria has zero interest in surrendering its youth to Russia, or to give Moldova a military opening to reassert control over the region.
Not that Moldova could take advantage of any such situation. Its army has only 5,000 soldiers and is poorly equipped and trained. Russia could’ve waltzed in before invading Ukraine.
2) The other possibility is an outright invasion of Moldova, using the Transnistria garrison, along with an amphibious landing south of Odesa, to take near-defenseless Moldova and subsequently open up another front on the Ukrainian border. Russia loves opening new fronts.
Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko literally revealed a map with Russian designs on Transnistria. (Something Kamil Galeev believes was purposeful sabotage.)
Russia has repeatedly hit a bridge connecting Odesa to Ukrainian lands to its south, which would cut off defensive reinforcements during a Russian amphibious landing, and not only is the Russian garrison in Transnistria on alert, but their families are being evacuated to Russia.
As I wrote previously, this would be so patently idiotic it can’t possibly be under serious consideration: “Would Russia really be stupid enough to open up yet another front, spreading out its troops even further, and risk additional naval losses, for a logistically unsupported assault on a piece of land with zero value to the current war effort in Ukraine?”
That chunk of Ukrainian territory south of Odesa is marshy, full of sand banks, and lacks a major port for resupply. (A small one can be blown by Ukraine if an amphibious assault materializes.) The area has scant roads, with the best route into Transnistria within easy Ukrainian artillery range, in a place remote enough that Russia couldn’t protect its forces from the Ukrainian Air Force. And good luck not running out of fuel before ever getting to Transnistria.
The Russian garrison is light infantry, no tanks, and I’ve seen suggestions that it is heavily made up of locals with issued Russian passports. In other words: mall cops. Ukraine has blown all bridges to Transnistria and has kept a watchful eye, but it hasn’t seemed particularly concerned as it moved troops previously stationed in Odesa to the Kherson theater. If Russia could mobilize those troops for something useful, it would.
So if a Moldovan invasion is too stupid to attempt, and Transnistria is uninterested in killing off a sizable chunk of its youth, why else would Russia be stirring up trouble? It could be as simple as an attempt to “fix” Ukrainian forces near Odesa, pinning them down on the off-chance Russia manages to pull something off, instead of committing them to the main areas of conflict.
Either way, Moldova is helpless to do anything about anything. It’s just too weak, the poorest nation in Europe with nominal GDP per capita of only $3,096 per year. (The second-poorest is Ukraine; endless war is not lucrative, all part of Russia’s designs.) But there is an answer, and it has to do with its far better-off (though still poor) next-door neighbor, Romania (nominal GDP per capita of $15,000) .
Moldova speaks Romanian, and in fact, it was a founding territory of the country of Romania.
Most of Moldovan territory was a part of the Principality of Moldavia from the 14th century until 1812, when it was ceded to the Russian Empire by the Ottoman Empire (to which Moldavia was a vassal state) and became known as Bessarabia. In 1856, southern Bessarabia was returned to Moldavia, which three years later united with Wallachia to form Romania, but Russian rule was restored over the whole of the region in 1878. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, Bessarabia briefly became an autonomous state within the Russian Republic, known as the Moldavian Democratic Republic. In February 1918, the Moldavian Democratic Republic declared independence and then integrated into Romania later that year following a vote of its assembly. The decision was disputed by Soviet Russia, which in 1924 established, within the Ukrainian SSR, a Moldavian autonomous republic (MASSR) on partially Moldovan-inhabited territories to the east of Bessarabia.
Reintegration with Romania makes sense in every way possible. Economically, Moldova would gain immediate entry into the European Union. Militarily, Moldova would gain protection from both Romania’s more capable armed forces, as well as instant NATO protection. Transnistria would remain a festering problem—the 1992 war that carved out the territory was sparked in part because of unification talks. But the separatist region could be left to its own devices, along with another restless Moldovan region, Gagauzia (pop. 134,000), in Moldova’s southern tip. (Romania’s constitution forbids special regions based on ethnicity.)
Romanians dig the idea, with 74% supporting unification in a 2018 poll. Romanian land mass would increase, and the country would receive a population boost at a time of massive demographic decline (pop. 19 million in 2020, down from 23 million in 1990). Moldova has been less enthusiastic. In January of this year, two polls showed unification support at 34% and 38%, with around half of respondents in opposition. However, that was when few believed Russia would so brazenly invade a neighbor. Moldova is now desperately looking to the EU for security guarantees, and that Romanian reunification might suddenly start looking a lot better.