The Russians have threatened to move on Moldova for eight years. One of their top generals threatened it again last week. Maybe we should start taking it seriously after explosions in the pro-Russian Transnistria region appear to give Vladimir Putin the pretext he wants for invading the technically unaligned state … if Russia can penetrate that far:
A pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova on Tuesday imposed a terror red alert after a second unexplained attack on its infrastructure just miles from the Ukrainian border.
In a worrying sign for Moldova’s separatist enclave hosting Russian troops not far from EU member Romania, Transnistria ordered schools to shut down and set up checkpoints across the area.
Transnistria, an enclave in the former Soviet nation of Moldova, borders on Ukraine’s south west, including the Odesa region which saw an uptick in Russian assaults in recent days.
Ukraine has suggested the attacks could be “false flags” that allow the Kremlin to extend its invasion, while an unnamed Russian official has claimed Kyiv was behind the “provocation” in an attempt to make the conflict “spill over” into Transnistria.
On Tuesday, an unidentified explosive device blew up radio and TV towers outside the regional capital. The two damaged towers carry some of Europe’s most powerful AM radio transmitters dating back to the Soviet times.
The Moldovans are not taking any chances. Its president has called a meeting of their security council, especially given that Putin has troops on the ground in Transnistria already:
Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, is convening a meeting of her security council on Tuesday after a series of incidents in the breakaway Moldovan republic of Transnistria and a warning from Moscow that the Russian-backed region could be drawn into the war in Ukraine. …
With Russian backing, Transnistria fought a war against Moldova in the early 1990s that left the territory with de facto independence and a permanent Russian garrison. Russian state media – widely available in Transnistria – have played a significant role in cementing pro-Russian attitudes in the enclave as Moldova has shifted towards the west under the leadership of its liberal president.
Last week, Sandu signed into law a bill banning the orange and black striped ribbons of Saint George, which enjoy wide popularity in Russia as a way to show public support for the government and the military, a move that angered Russian officials. In the same bill, Sandu banned the prowar signs “Z” and “V”, first used by the Russian armed forces.
Everyone may assume that Russia plotted the explosions as a pretext, and that assumption may well be accurate. It may also be a sign of nascent civil war in a western-leaning country that’s had enough of Russian troops backing separatists for the last 30 years, especially given what’s happening in Ukraine. Or it might be a rogue effort by the Russian troops themselves to force Putin to come to their aid. Putin would use any of these as a pretext … if he could.
The problem with the pretext argument is that Putin’s still not anywhere in range to take advantage of it. He’s still struggling to invest Mariupol after almost two months of siege warfare. Despite the reorganization of the Russian army in the Donbas, the lines aren’t moving much there at the moment, and Ukraine’s defense forces keep growing in strength. A stab at Transnistria might be possible, but at the risk of having the salient cut off and destroyed. Ukraine still controls Odessa, and with it the path to Moldova.
That doesn’t mean it’s still not a pretext, but perhaps more in service of a propaganda move by Putin. His troops need some reason to keep fighting, especially since by now they’ve long figured out that the “Nazis” live in Putin’s head rather than Ukraine. They got their asses kicked in the north, and now they’re at best getting fought to standstills by what was supposed to be a people yearning for liberation by Russians. About the best way to motivate them now is to make them believe that their fellow soldiers are under attack on the other side of Ukraine and that they have to save them by relieving Transnistria.
Moldova has some tough decisions to make in the meantime. They don’t want to bait Russia by joining NATO, and until recently Ukraine served as a buffer for putting off that issue. With Ukraine under attack and a Russian general naming Moldova as next on their hit list, Sandu may have run out of options — and time.