A series of attacks in Transnistria has raised concerns that a new front may be opened in the war in Ukraine. The Moldovan government has already said that these are problems of domestic terrorism, the Russian government has described the situation as not worrying, while the Ukrainian premier has said that Russia is using these means to intimidate Moldova.
Let us see how the situation is read in the Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan social spheres.
According to some Russian military analysts, against the background of the special military operation, as Moscow calls the Ukrainian invasion, being carried out by the armed forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, “external forces” may be preparing to unlock yet another local conflict in the post-Soviet space. In a nutshell, this interpretation considers that ‘armed actions committed on 25 and 26 April in Transnistria show that Western countries and their satellites represented by the Kiev regime, which has fallen under their influence, are ready to unleash another massacre of the Russian-speaking population under the pretext of “fighting Russia”‘.
According to the same analysts, who are present in the Russian sphere, the issue of Transnistria, a ‘republic’ located on a narrow strip of land along the Ukrainian border, has been repeatedly raised on the net over the past two months. Russian peacekeepers, analysts explain, are deployed there.
Despite Ukrainian alarms on social networks of a supposed possible “breakthrough” of Russian troops from the Dnestr, the peacekeepers of the Transnistrian Operations Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria during the military operations in Ukraine have continued to carry out their tasks, enshrined in the agreements between Moscow, Chisinau and Tiraspol, maintaining order in the entrusted territory.
For the historical record, the Russian Federation has an unspecified number of soldiers in Transnistria, an internationally unrecognised secessionist state and region of Moldova. This Russian military presence dates back to 1992, when the 14th Army of the Soviet Guards, led by General Alexander Lebed, on the orders of Boris Yeltsin, intervened in the Transnistrian war in support of Transnistrian separatist forces. The conflict was then frozen. In July 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, DMR Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov and Moldovan President Mircea Snegur signed an armistice. Since then, the Russian army, now the Operational Group of Russian Forces, created in 1995 on the basis of the former 14th Army, has patrolled the area and maintained a certain stability, part of which is currently guarding the ammunition depot in Cobasna.
The Moldovan government considers the presence of these Russian troops illegitimate and has demanded their withdrawal and replacement with international forces. However, Russia has always opposed this. On 15 March 2022, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recognised Transnistria as Moldovan territory occupied by Russia.
The situation, according to the narrative on Moldovan social media, began to heat up on 25 April 2022. That’s the day the first reports of explosions near the building of the Ministry of State Security of the Transnistrian Republic of Moldova in Tiraspol arrived. The building was hit by grenade launchers: local residents posted photos of RPG-22 and RPG-27 launching tubes lying on the street; windows of nearby houses were damaged. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Transnistria, there were no victims of the attack. Almost at the same time as the attack on the building of the Ministry of State Security, other sources reported explosions in the military area in the village of Parkany.
In the night of the same day, the situation in the security zone of the Transnistrian conflict was calm, as reported by Oleg Belyakov, co-chairman of the Joint Control Commission for the management of the peacekeeping operation in Transnistria. The Moldovan government also expressed its opinion: Chisinau considered the Tiraspol explosions as an attempt to aggravate the situation and assured that it was in contact with Tiraspol to collect information about the incident.
In the morning of 26 April, explosions continued on the Trans-Inistrian territory: at about 9:00 a.m., explosions were heard on the territory of the radio and television centre “Mayak” in the region of Grigoriopol. Presumably, the attack was carried out by a drone, which is still being investigated. As a result of the attack, two towers of the broadcasting centre were destroyed, there were no casualties.
Against the background of the incidents in Transnistria, Moldovan President Maia Sandu convened a meeting of the Moldovan Security Council and the leadership of the Transnistrian Republic of Moldova announced that it would take decisions in defence of the republic’s interests. Following the decision of the Transnistrian authorities, a ‘red’ level of terrorist threat was set throughout the region, with checkpoints set up at the entrances to cities, the cancellation of the 9 May parade and the switch to distance learning for schools and universities until the end of the school year. Energy facilities also switched to an enhanced mode.
In addition to the incidents already described, there were also events on the morning of 27 April. Gunfire was heard in the direction of the village of Cobasna and drones were seen arriving from Ukraine, according to the authorities in Tiraspol. The Transnistrian interior minister reported that at 8:45 local time, shots were fired from the Ukrainian side in the direction of the village of Cobasna. No information on casualties is available at the moment. The same reported that also on the evening of 26 April, in the sky above the village of Cobasna, Ribnita district, several drones were observed, coming according to local authorities from the Ukrainian territory.
In Cobasna, as mentioned above, there is a large arms depot. According to local experts, it is the largest ammunition depot in Europe. It should be noted that the co-chairman of the Unified Control Commission for the Management of the Peacekeeping Operation in Transnistria, Oleg Beleakov, denied the reports of shooting in the area of the military depot in Cobasna: ‘The information about shooting in the area of the depot in Cobasna reached the headquarters of the peacekeepers. These have been verified but not confirmed’; according to him, several shots were fired from the territory of Ukraine, the border is only 2 km away from the warehouses. The warehouses are said to contain 20 thousand tonnes of ammunition, including grenades, aerial bombs, mines and cartridges, which have expired but are suitable for use by Ukrainian vehicles and weapons.
Even before the start of military operations in Ukraine, Russian experts assumed that a new phase of the Transnistrian conflict could begin in the very near future. The reason for these assessments was the statements made by the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, immediately after her victory in the presidential elections. In an interview published in the Ukrainian Evropeyskaya Pravda, the newly elected president of Moldova stated that the ‘soft approach’ in the negotiations for the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict ‘has not been effective’ and that the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers should be the ‘first step’. At the same time, in recent years, the pro-Western Moldovan party led by Sandu has often talked about the possibility of a new war in Transnistria and the possible withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers. The issue of Transnistria was raised during the Moldovan president’s first foreign visit to Kiev with Volodimyr Zelenski.
In the social sphere, hours before the attack on the MGB building in Tiraspol on 25 April, posts began circulating on social networks according to which Turkey, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine were allegedly preparing an armed conflict in Transnistria. According to these posts, Ankara is allegedly transferring Bayraktar drones, multiple rocket launchers and elite special forces to Bucharest, while Romanian officials are in Moldova to train the army, and according to the same posts are believed to be coordinating an attack on Transnistria.
This is the background to the events of 25, 26 and 27 April, which are seen as possible military provocations. Moreover, in such a context, the appearance of Romanian and Turkish experts can only mean one thing: an external Western interference, which became concrete at the end of January when Moldova signed cooperation agreements with NATO.
Graziella Giangiulio e Antonio Albanese