Is Moldova next on Putin's hit list? Events in Transnistria may signal Russian agenda

Transnistria would be an attractive territorial anchor for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not achieved the quick victory he expected when he attacked Ukraine in February. 

Updated: April 27, 2022 - 11:05pm

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Tension surrounding the fate of Moldova increased on Wednesday when Moscow announced that a shooting incident had occurred near an arms depot inside the breakaway region of Transnistria — ratcheting up already heightened fears that Russia would expand its war farther west.

The incident is the latest in a string of alleged attacks this week inside the narrow strip of land that sits inside Moldova along the border with Ukraine. The mysterious attacks were first reported on Monday, when the Ministry of State Security reportedly was hit with grenades fired from hand-held launchers. The reports continued on Tuesday, when two radio antennae were blown up, and on Wednesday, when shots were fired near an ammunition depot that holds some 20,000 tons of old Soviet ordnance.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu sought on Wednesday to address speculation from inside Transnistria that forces from Ukraine had launched the attacks. 

"From the information we have at this moment, these escalation attempts stem from factions within the Transnistrian region that are pro-war forces and interested in destabilizing the situation in the region," Sandu told reporters in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. 

In comments highlighted by the Russian state news agency, Tass, Sandu downplayed threats to Moldova.

"I can say with certainty that there are currently no serious threats to Moldovan citizens, particularly those from the right bank of the Dniester River," Sandu said.

Kyiv has suggested the attacks are "false flag" in nature, orchestrated in order to give Russia an excuse to expand its invasion beyond Ukraine.

Adopting a now-familiar tone, officials in Moscow seemed to hint at the possibility of being regrettably forced to take aggressive action.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko announced that he would "like to avoid such a scenario" wherein Moscow had to intervene, but added that "certain forces" had created "a hotbed of tension."

Transnistria broke away from Moldova following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Fiercely loyal to the Soviet ideal, the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is known among adventure travelers as a "geopolitical no-mans land." The region is located in eastern Moldova, along a narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border. 

The region is home to an old munitions depot, where weapons have been stored since the Soviet Union was intact.

Transnistria would be an attractive territorial anchor for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not achieved the quick victory he expected when he attacked Ukraine in February. 

A larger goal could be to capture Moldova, observers note.

Moldova does not belong to NATO, and as such, cannot expect to be protected by the alliance, according to one former U.S. security official.

"They don't have the NATO umbrella," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who was a national security adviser to both Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump. "They are self-declared neutral."

Putin likely views the country with an eye toward gaining territory, Kellogg believes.

"Putin in his grand scheme would like to go to Odessa and Moldova," Kellogg said. "And then that puts them right on the border of Romania, which is a NATO ally. I think that's an ultimate goal."

Kellogg made the comments this week while appearing on the John Solomon Reports podcast.

Moldova's Sandu, meanwhile, urged citizens to remain calm in the wake of attacks inside Transnistria. 

"We condemn any challenges and attempts to lure the Republic of Moldova into actions that could jeopardize peace in the country," Sandu said. "Chisinau continues to insist on a peaceful settlement of the Transdniester conflict."

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