A series of unexplained explosions have occurred in parts of Transnistria, a breakaway territory within Moldova that has housed Russian troops for decades, sparking fears that Moscow’s war could soon stretch beyond Ukraine and create a new theater of conflict in eastern Europe.
Two radio towers in the territory were damaged by explosions in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Transnistrian Ministry of Internal Affairs said in a statement. On Monday, a series of explosions had been heard in Transnistria’s capital Tiraspol, near the Ministry of State Security building, according to Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.
Ukraine described the blasts as a planned provocation by Russian security services. Ukraine has also blamed Russia for firing cruise missiles Tuesday at a bridge across the estuary of the Dniester River, suggesting Moscow is attempting to cut off the southwestern corner of Ukraine that borders Moldova.
The explosions, and a drip feed of comments by Russian officials regarding the region – including a senior Russian commander saying that the army’s plan to capture southern Ukraine would open up a land corridor stretching to Transnistria – have raised intense concern in Moldova that the disputed territory within its borders is included in Russian President Vladimir’s war strategy.
Transnistria is unrecognized by the international community, which considers it a part of Moldova. But the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, essentially has no control over the territory, which declared itself a republic more than three decades ago.
Here’s what you need to know about the territory.
A disputed land
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the emergence of a handful of “frozen conflict” zones in eastern Europe – often-unstable regions where allegiances have been fiercely disputed since the creation of the 15 post-Soviet states.
Those regions include the breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, inside the territory of Georgia, and the slither of land along Moldova’s border with Ukraine known as Transnistria.
The territory – a 1,300 square mile enclave on the eastern bank of the Dniester River – was the site of a Russian military outpost during the last years of the Cold War. It declared itself a Soviet republic in 1990, opposing any attempt by Moldova to become an independent state or to merge with Romania.
When Moldova became independent the following year, Russia quickly inserted itself as a so-called “peacekeeping force” in Transnistria, sending troops in to back pro-Moscow separatists there.
War with Moldovan forces ensued; the conflict ended in deadlock in 1992. Transnistria was not recognized internationally, even by Russia, but Moldovan forces left it a de facto breakaway state. That deadlock has left the territory and its estimated 500,000 inhabitants trapped in limbo.
Since then, Transnistria has played host to thousands of Russian troops – currently estimated at 1,500 – and developed a reputation as a land lost to time, a Soviet wormhole within a young, transitional Moldovan democracy.
It has a flag, a constitution and a national bank, and celebrates its own independence day.
The major roads of its capital Tiraspol include Lenin Street, Strada Karl Marx and 25th October Street – commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. A towering statue of Vladimir Lenin stands in the middle of the city’s main square.
Transnistria has long been powered by its industrial output, and its economy is heavily dependent on Russian subsidies. A conglomerate called Sheriff is almost omnipresent, owning many of its factories, supermarkets and gas stations and lending its name to the region’s soccer club, FC Sheriff, which competes in Moldova’s national league and last year claimed a famous Champions League victory over Real Madrid.
Ethnic Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainains all live in the region. It runs its own presidential and regional elections, though international watchdogs say opposition is suppressed and there is a lack of genuine competition at the ballot box.
The US non-governmental organization Freedom House, which tracks trends in world governments, rates the territory as “not free.”
“Impartiality and pluralism of opinion in the media is very limited, and authorities closely control civil society activity,” it said in its most recent global report.
Despite occasional negotiations with Moldova, the prospect of a resolution to the Transnistria question has remained dim.
“The break-away region persists as a challenge to a unified and developed Moldova,” the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) wrote in 2020.
“There is the risk that those without commercial, family, or personal ties on the other side of the river will increasingly feel estranged from their fellow Moldovans, fostering the kind of mistrust and misunderstanding that can further hinder the resolution of this conflict,” the agency said.
What are Russia’s plans for Transnistria?
Concerns about Russia’s long term plans for Transnistria have never faded – they only intensified after Moscow’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
That invasion piqued longstanding concerns that Putin would seek to invade and control southern Ukraine. A Russian-backed separatist enclave at the southwestern edge of Ukraine could now present a potential bookend to any Russian assault westwards from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Russia’s supposed “peacekeeping” presence in Transnistria, which has in practice seen the Kremlin prop up a puppet state that seeks to undermine Moldova’s sovereignty, has also mirrored Moscow’s pretext for invasions in Georgia and Ukraine.