Transdniestrian Escalation: What Was It?

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Sergiu CEBAN
There are at least a few versions of the real reason for the “Ukrainian invasion of Transdniestria” being so hotly debated
The gradual escalation of tension around Moldova in recent weeks culminated on 24 February, the anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. For the first time since last spring, there was an uneasy feeling on both banks of the Dniester that things might get out of hand and our country would be dragged into the maelstrom of war. It all started with an early (5 a.m.) report from the Russian Defense Ministry that Ukrainian troops were preparing a provocation against Transdniestria. Allegedly, the Ukrainian armed forces would invade the region, having previously staged an attack by Russian troops from there into Ukraine. Also, the Russian military said that it was closely monitoring the situation “on the Ukrainian border with the PMR” and was ready to respond to any changes in the situation. The same evening, the Russian Defense Ministry said that “Kyiv was intensifying preparations for an incursion into the Transdniestrian region, due to a significant accumulation of personnel and military equipment of the Ukrainian units which was registered by Moscow, including the deployment of artillery at firing positions, as well as an increase in drone flights over the territory of the left bank of the Dniester.” Because of the threat to the Russian peacekeeping contingent this time, the Russian Defense Ministry threatened “adequate response measures”. Equally entertaining was a press release from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which appeared in between the two communications from their military colleagues. It warned the US and NATO member states against any adventurous moves and noted the intention of the Russian Armed Forces to protect compatriots, Russian peacekeeping contingent, OGRF troops and military depots in Cobasna. And the most noteworthy point, to which many drew attention, was that “any action that threatens their security will be considered under international law as an attack on the Russian Federation.” In the end, there was a reaction from Kyiv, at the level of the president, to all this pressure. Volodymyr Zelensky rejected any suspicions of an intention to violate the state border and the sovereignty of Moldova and reminded that Russia wanted to change the Moldovan leadership, and due to the lack of a common border, some sort of landing was planned precisely in Transdniestria. Therefore, the Ukrainian authorities do not rule out further destabilization of the situation by Moscow in order to find a suitable pretext to carry out a military operation in Moldova. Finally, our Foreign Ministry qualified the Russian statements about planned provocations by the Ukrainian armed forces as untrue. Their main purpose was allegedly to mislead the public. The security situation in the region was described as stable and the high-profile statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry as a provocation, to which the Foreign Ministry found nothing better to respond than to routinely call on Moscow to withdraw its troops and ammunition. The most interesting thing is that the potential “victim of aggression” itself – Tiraspol – has kept radio silence all these days. It was only on Monday that Tiraspol leader Vadim Krasnoselsky stated that the situation was tense, but urged “to remain calm” and assured that he would “personally inform the people of the region in case of a real danger”. A few days later, when the tension had subsided, many experts and even ordinary citizens wondered: what was that all about? There are at least a few theories, but what was the real reason for the “Ukrainian invasion of Transdniestria”, we will probably find out only with time. First of all, it is worth noting that experts have previously discussed what the Kremlin’s tactics would be in the event of an aggravation around the Transdniestrian region: from a “neutral and submissive” scenario to a decisive armed invasion. Actually, it is not so important who has now initiated the rising tensions, but it is quite obvious that this situation gave clues as to the scheme of Moscow’s possible actions. First of all, it could be a targeted missile strike and an airborne operation. Particularly alarming and provoking in the Russian statements is the explicitly arrogant disregard for Moldova’s territorial integrity, which for the first time looks like the Kremlin’s potential willingness to consider Transdniestria as a separate entity or, much worse, as its own territory. One can also assume that Kyiv had intelligence about Moscow’s intentions to inflict a painful blow to the rear of the Ukrainian armed forces in Odessa region on February 24, and the fighting, in turn, could have been a pretext for the subsequent arrival of airborne reinforcement. By the way, Zelensky stated at his press conference that a year ago, shots were allegedly fired from Transdniestria toward Ukraine in order to provoke Kyiv to invade Moldova. Thus, it is reasonable that the Ukrainian authorities could have taken the path of preventive measures and pulled additional reserves closer to the left bank in order to ruin someone’s plans and neutralize the possibility of an unpleasant “surprise” on the anniversary of the beginning of the war. We also cannot rule out that the hostile climate of last Friday was a follow-up to the story with the plan to forcefully oust the current authorities in Moldova that Kyiv had warned us about. That might be the reason why Ukraine took such a demonstrative step by amassing troops and weapons at the borders to warn Moscow against attempts to land in Moldova and threaten the AFU from the rear. Additionally, in this way Kyiv signaled the readiness of its army to enter Moldovan territory immediately in order to help Chisinau resist Russian invasion while NATO countries hold consultations and decide on their algorithm of action. One might well assume that active speculations about Russian arsenals in Cobasna reflect Washington’s military and diplomatic efforts to change the status quo around these stockpiles. Today, by the way, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter, arrived in Tiraspol, whose visit was preceded by a regional escalation. It is possible that the American diplomat suggested that the Transdniestrian administration should consider setting up an OSCE monitoring group for the site, given the growing tension around the Russian warehouses, in order to reduce the likelihood of a military solution to the problem. Despite the relatively painless recovery from the quick crisis this time, one thing is clear: there is less predictability and stability in Moldova, and it is likely that these indicators will drop due to the impact of external factors. Unfortunately, the Russian-Ukrainian war is expanding and threatens to spill over into our country. Therefore, today the authorities should brace themselves not only to cushion the economic or energy crisis, but also to minimize risks and prevent the fragmentation of the state.