The Ukraine war could soon spill over into Transnistria, Moldova’s breakaway region that has been under Russian control since 1992. If Kyiv and Chisinau launch a joint attack on Russian forces in the self-proclaimed republic, the Kremlin will undoubtedly face another humiliating geopolitical defeat.
For years Russia has been using Transnistria as an instrument against Moldova. Moscow, however, never recognized this entity – also known as Pridnestrovie, or Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR) – as an independent country, despite the referendum that the de facto authorities in Tiraspol held in 2006. The only three states that recognize Transnistria are also disputed territories – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Republic of Artsakh. Since March 15, for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Pridnestrovie is a territory occupied by Russia, which means that, at least from the Western perspective, Moldova has full right to restore its sovereignty over the separatist region which is a home to just under 500,000 people.
Reports, however, suggest that many of them have already left Transnistria, fearing that it is a matter of time before hostilities breaks out. Indeed, the very fact that countries such as Israel, Bulgaria, Romania, United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany, and Russia have called on their citizens to leave Moldova and Transnistria as soon as possible, clearly suggest that another frozen conflict of the Soviet Union is coming back into play.
Sandwiched between Ukraine in the East and Moldova in the West, Transnistria with its 4,500-7,500 troops does not have the military capability to defend itself in case of a potential Ukrainian attack, let alone to seize Moldovan territory. Russia, for its part, has roughly 1,500 military personnel stationed in the PMR. Russian troops in the breakaway region are stationed on a permanent basis in two forms – as the remnants of the 14th Army, now the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria, and also as the peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation. The peacekeeping operation in the region started in 1992 after Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities, on the initiative of then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, signed a ceasefire agreement which ended a short war that resulted in the PMR’s victory.
Three decades later, Transnistria is again on the verge of a military confrontation. This time, however, Russia will not be able to protect its proxy. In order to achieve its ambitious goal and create a land bridge that would connect Russia through the Donbass and south Ukraine with Pridnestrovie, the Kremlin would first need to establish full control over Ukrainian port cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa. With a rather small number of troops in Ukraine, and massive losses that the Russian military suffered in the Eastern European country, Moscow has a hard time preserving control over territories it already controls. Thus, unless the Kremlin declares a nationwide, or at least a partial mobilization – which at this point seems very unlikely – Russian forces will not manage to create a corridor to Transnistria.
It is, therefore, rather questionable if it is in Russia’s interest to open “a second front” against Ukraine in the PMR. It is more probable that Ukraine and Romania will eventually attack Russian and PMR forces in Transnistria, in order to open a second front against Russia. At this point, however, there is only one report – although not a very reliable one – suggesting that neighboring Romania is deploying troops to Moldova, allegedly preparing for escalation in Pridnestrovie.
Previously, in March, NATO has deployed troops to Romania, although that does not necessarily mean that the Alliance will directly participate in a potential conflict in Moldova. Still, if Romania uses Russian strategy and deploys “little green men” to the landlocked country, Russian and Transnistrian troops will have a hard time preserving control over the territory that is just over 4,000 square kilometers. Even if Ukraine launches a large-scale attack on the PMR, Russian defeat in the region will be inevitable.
For Russia, such a scenario would mark another humiliation in the international arena. Pridnestrovie is estimated to house Europe’s largest ammunition stockpile, which means that if Ukraine seizes the region its troops would have enough ammunition to continue fighting against Russian forces in the East and the South of the country.One thing is for sure – if Russia suffers a defeat in Transnistria, the Kremlin propagandist will claim that Moscow never really needed the energy-poor territory. And such a narrative will sound like Aesop’s Fable, The Fox and the Grapes.