Transdniestria is a Tempting and Dangerous Target for Ukraine

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Andrei Voznesensky Regional security has been facing regular challenges recently, which are purposefully shaped by loud slogans, provocations and information manipulations. All this ultimately only undermines stability and creates real threats of the outbreak of hostilities. A clear confirmation of this is the recent incident in the Kerch Strait and the events that followed it.

Kyiv recalled the ‘Transdniestrian threat’

Since 2014, it has become common in Moldova and Ukraine to blame Russia for all troubles and to explain failures in the domestic and foreign arena with the “arm of the Kremlin”. The economic and political situation in these countries shows no signs of recovery, and the ratings of the ruling forces continue to fall steadily. Under these conditions, the authorities of Moldova and Ukraine adopted simple tactics – to attract the attention of external partners by any means, exposing themselves as victims of Russian aggression. Numerous speeches at international venues are considered by the leadership of the two states as an opportunity to conceal domestic problems and find a scapegoat for the failure of implementation of European reforms. Often, such maneuvers really help to get the desired diplomatic and financial assistance from abroad. In this context, the topic of military threat from Transdniestria, which they have been emphasizing for more than a year, remains quite fertile for Kyiv and Chisinau. Many Ukrainian experts continue to reflect on the possibilities for Russia to use the operational group of its troops in the unrecognized republic. Almost every day, information about the impending attack on Ukraine from the western flank appear in the Ukrainian media sphere. And although in reality there are not so many Ukrainians who are really ready to believe in the ‘Transdniestrian threat’, these constant supplies of information give the Kyiv authorities a wide field for ‘preventive’ actions. For example, to dig a defensive ditch near Transdniestria, to fight against smuggling from the TMR (despite the financial costs for the local Ukrainian population) through border controls with Moldova, and also to send regularly additional armored equipment and manpower to the border areas. The ‘Transdniestrian factor’ gained a second wind after introduction of martial law in Ukraine that was extended to areas bordering Transdniestria. At the same time, there is an idea promoted in the information space that after Russia’s failed attempt to discredit Kyiv through the incident in the Sea of Azov they will need a new provocation – in Transdniestria and ‘better’ with casualties. Thus, the ground for the new ‘Kerch incident’ is ready – all that remains is to light the fuse.

Who is preparing a new provocation in the region?

The problem for Chisinau and Kyiv is that “danger from the TMR” is rather a product for domestic consumption, which so far is poorly absorbed by international partners. Indeed, it is difficult to convince someone of a real threat if it is not supported by facts. So in a recent speech by the Foreign Minister of Moldova Tudor Ulianovschi at the 25th OSCE Ministerial Council, the problem of the presence of Russian troops in Transdniestria was mentioned only in relation to general conflicts in the GUAM area and events in the Kerch Strait. Moreover, it was not about a direct military threat to Moldova, but about environmental and humanitarian risks emanating from Russian weapons depots. It seems that the topic of a possible Russian provocation from Transdniestria has to be literally ‘picked out of nose’. If you look at the situation from the outside, it becomes clear that repeating the Kerch scenario in the unrecognized republic will be much more difficult. Neither Kyiv nor Moscow officially claims this territory, unlike the Crimea. As for the Russian military in Transdniestria, they have a rather limited tasking that is participation in the peacekeeping mission on the Dniester and guarding of weapons depots left over from Soviet times. There are about 1,500 Russian military in the region, and much of their weapons and military equipment are outdated or unusable. According to experts, the offensive potential of this group is minimal. The only possible scenario when Russian troops can use force is an immediate danger to themselves, to the facilities they guard or Russian citizens living in the region. But if Moldova and Ukraine are going to choose Transdniestria as their goal, then they have both political reasons and practical possibilities for this.

Transdniestria at gunpoint

Back in this July, the defense ministers of Moldova and Ukraine held talks in Odessa, where the head of the Ukrainian military ministry declared Kyiv’s readiness to “assist” Chisinau in restoring the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova “by all possible means”. In October, at a meeting of the commanders of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the National Guard and the border service, the President of Ukraine declared the border with the unrecognized republic “a dangerous area” and ordered the transfer of additional military contingents there. Similar news appeared after the introduction of martial law in Ukraine, when armored vehicles were sent to the borders of the Odesa oblast to strengthen security measures. At the same time, military preparations also take place in Moldova. The leadership of the Republic of Moldova regularly emphasizes the neutral status of the country, but it does not seem to apply to military cooperation with NATO and the United States. Moldovan soldiers participate in Alliance exercises abroad; the Americans modernized the base to train Moldovan special-operation forces in the village of Bulboaca, in Moldova itself, near the very borders of Transdniestria. Now there are held joint exercises at times with military personnel of special forces from Romania and the United States to develop skills in the performance of special missions, including in the urban conditions. The USA built a similar training center in Yavorovo, Lviv oblast. The multinational military exercise Fire Shield has been held in the Republic of Moldova with the participation of contingents from the United States and Romania for the fourth year in a row. It is not a coincidence that the United States and the OSCE have recently shown an increasing interest in the Russian weapons depots in Transdniestria and are seeking, through various channels, to obtain information on the working procedure, security regime and personnel at this facility. At the same time, OSCE attempts to strengthen its influence on the activities of the peacekeeping operation on the Dniester are regularly fueled by statements by Moldovan politicians about the need to change it towards a civilian mission with an international mandate. Taken together, all these factors demonstrate a high likelihood of preparing sabotage or provocation with several goals: remove Russia’s military presence in the TMR, cause a new round of international pressure on Moscow, finally solve the Transdniestrian issue. It can be assumed that development and implementation of this plan will take place, if not with direct support, then, at least, with the tacit approval of the United States. It is unlikely that Washington in the context of growing confrontation with Moscow will impede such a serious blow to its strategic interests in the region. The likelihood of possible sabotage in Transdniestria increases as parliamentary and presidential elections in Moldova and Ukraine are approaching. The political forces ruling there may have illusions to solve their problems at one stroke with low electoral ratings (which leave them no chance to stay in power without force majeure situations) and with lost support from Brussels. Besides, they’ll get a chance for additional funding to repel the “Russian aggression”, which is urgently needed due to the severe economic crisis that Kyiv and Chisinau are faced with. As we see, today the geopolitical puzzle in the region is complicated in such a way that even the most dangerous scenarios cannot be excluded. However, the consequences of a new provocation can be much tougher than the incident in the Kerch Strait. Moldovan, Ukrainian and Russian experts interviewed by RTA agree that in the event of a military threat to their contingent Russia will have no choice but to use force to protect servicemen and 200 thousand of its citizens in Transdniestria. The Kerch incident demonstrated the determination of Moscow. Thus, any provocation against the military of the Russian Federation in Transdniestria can turn into tragic events with serious military-political and territorial consequences for all its participants, first of all, for Ukraine and Moldova as direct performers. As a result, it may happen that no one will ever need higher pre-election ratings.