Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
Washington, DC 20001

As the Ukraine war enters its third month, the eyes of the international community remain firmly transfixed on Eastern Europe. One frontier of Russian influence which has seemed curiously frozen during this escalation, has been the tiny breakaway state of Transnistria, within the recognized territory of Moldova. The perception of a statelet motionless in the conflict was challenged by a recent series of explosions in the tiny former Soviet region. The Transnistrian Ministry of State Security as well as the airport at Tiraspol, and a major Russian broadcasting station were all hit with minor explosions. The attacks’ origins are unknown, but Moldovan president Maia Sandu accused “pro-war factions” in Transnistria of trying to force an escalation. While Transnistria has so far not participated in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its evolving role in the conflict remains deeply uncertain.

The snaking, unrecognized, Russian-backed republic sits on the eastern side of the Dniester River, an isolated borderline between Moldova and Ukraine. While internationally recognized as part of Moldova, the territory has been self-governing with heavy Russian support since 1992. An estimated 1,500 Russian soldiers operate from the territory, backed by approximately 5,000 members of the Transnistrian armed forces. Ten to fifteen thousand reservists are also claimed to be ready for mobilization, though outside analysts cast doubt on Russia’s claims of these numbers. Irrespective, the presence of Russian forces numbering in the thousands on Ukraine’s south-western border is undoubtedly concerning.

The most significant concern would be the connection of the current southern axis of Russian advance, moving westward from Crimea and Kherson to Russia’s existing forces in Transnistria. This would allow the Russian armed forces to suddenly press a long thin frontier, expanding the battlefront by 250 miles. Perhaps more importantly, it would also give the Russian spearhead access to railways, food, and medical supplies from Transnistria. Were Russia to push further to the port city of Odessa, near the border with Transnistria, they may choose to activate those forces to help contribute to the offensive. Whether as a distraction, forcing Ukraine to pull troops to the lengthy border or as a southward push to Odessa, Transnistria could yet play a role in the conflict.

Moreover, the threat of re-igniting hostilities between Transnistria and Moldova could be a useful political tool for Russia during this time of tension. While sparking a new conflict may seem counterintuitive given Moscow’s current predicament, Moldova fields an army of less than 10,000 and is distinctly averse to conflict. As neither a member of the European Union or NATO, Moldova lacks collective security assurances and must maintain a tense peace with a belligerent Russian Federation. By coercing Chisinau with the threat of military action through the breakaway state, Russia could force Moldova to remain neutral and allow it to resupply through its airspace or borders. Such a strategy is risky, however, and may draw more western ire, particularly from Moldovan co-ethnics in Romania, but a cornered animal is a desperate one.

These concerns are perhaps mitigated by the hard facts on the separatist region’s military capabilities. The forces deployed in Transnistria are, by all accounts poorly trained, badly equipped and logistically not ready for combat. The majority of the “Russian” soldiers in Transnistria are also recruited from the local population, and not subject to the same training and preparation. Transnistrian air defense systems are also expected to be outdated and not widely deployed. Additionally, the region has suffered issues with resupplying even in peacetime, as use of the surrounding Ukrainian airspace is easily denied, and land routes are unavailable. Moldova, a state which has previously balanced Russian and western interests with keen awareness has historically allowed Moscow to use their airspace for such purposes. In the case of direct conflict and with rising tensions in mind, Moldova is unlikely to be as cooperative in the current environment, unless substantial coercion was applied.

Ultimately, Transnistria does not present a significant military threat to the Ukrainians or offer an obvious gamechanger in Russia’s invasion calculus. It is, however, an asset of Russia’s which can be leveraged politically, and possibly militarily, forcing Ukraine to draw troops westward, which at a critical moment could be more relevant than it has been given credit for. A battle for Odessa would also prove costly and difficult and may force Russia to make the questionable decision of mobilizing its Transnistrian forces and proxies. Additionally, should the war in Ukraine end in a fashion favorable to Moscow, Transnistria, much like the Donbass separatist republics, offers Russia a staging ground for intervention in yet another former-Soviet republic. Transnistria, as one of Russia’s westernmost footholds in Europe, remains a potential weapon in the war in Ukraine, but its immediate practicality and utility are deeply questionable.


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