The region of Transnistria, a Russia-backed breakaway region located between Moldova and Ukraine, has recently been the subject of several discussions and articles. While the region is in a state of frozen conflict, Russia invading Ukraine in February 2022 started a series of information and false-flag operations aiming to disrupt Moldova and distract Ukraine. However, if and how Transnistria will fit into the Ukrainian conflict, if at all, remains uncertain.
· It is highly unlikely that Russia will invade Ukraine on a new axis from Transnistria in the next six months. It is also highly unlikely that Russia will capture Odesa and then link up with Transnistria.
· It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will invade Transnistria without Moldova’s consent. Without a significant Russian provocation, Moldova will not request Ukraine’s help.
· Russian forces will highly likely continue conducting information operations in the next 12 months to disrupt the social cohesion of Moldova. The Kremlin will almost certainly continue to interfere in Moldovan political life by financing pro-Russian parties, portraying NATO as a threat, and accusing the president of trying to drag Moldova into the war.
· It is unlikely that Russia will invade Transnistria in the following six months. Monitoring the situation closely for signals of an increased risk of aggression is recommended.
Background: The Region of Transnistria
The region of Transnistria, located in Eastern Europe between Moldova and Ukraine, has been a subject of geopolitical concern and instability for several decades. Its status as a breakaway territory, self-proclaimed as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), remains unrecognised by the international community.
The roots of the Transnistrian issue can be traced back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Moldova declared independence. Transnistria, inhabited primarily by Russian-speaking population, feared potential discrimination and exclusion in the newly formed Moldovan state.
As a response, Transnistria declared its independence, leading to a brief armed conflict between Moldovan forces and Transnistrian separatists in 1992. The conflict resulted in a ceasefire agreement and the establishment of a de facto independent Transnistrian entity.
Since then, the region has been in a state of frozen conflict, with limited progress towards resolution. Despite not being internationally recognised, Transnistria operates with its own government, security forces, and institutions.
Russian Involvement in Transnistria’s Geopolitical Dynamics
Russian involvement in Transnistria has been a significant factor shaping the current situation in the region. It primarily manifests in the form of political, military, and economic support provided to the breakaway territory.
Russia’s presence in Transnistria is rooted in several factors that provide insights into Russia’s motivations for maintaining its involvement in the region. Transnistria’s population is predominantly composed of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers (Russophones).
The presence of a sizable Russophone population has influenced Russia’s interest in reportedly ‘protecting the rights and interests’ of these communities. More importantly, though, Transnistria holds strategic importance for Russia in the context of its broader geopolitical objectives.
The region’s location provides Russia with a potential foothold in Eastern Europe. Russia’s involvement in Transnistria grants it a degree of leverage over the Moldovan government and the broader region. By supporting the breakaway territory, Russia can influence the negotiation process and shape the outcome to align with its interests.
Maintaining influence in Transnistria allows Russia to project power, maintain a sphere of influence, and protect its perceived interests in the region, particularly against perceived encroachment by Western actors.
Additionally, the area serves as a transit point for illicit activities, including smuggling and human trafficking, which will likely have economic implications for Russia.
Russian Presence in Transnistria and its Implications for Peaceful Resolution
One of the most visible aspects of Russian involvement in Transnistria is the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops. Deployed in the aftermath of the 1992 conflict, these troops were intended to maintain stability and prevent further violence.
Transnistria is home to the Russian-operated Joint Operational Group of Forces (JOGF), comprising a mixture of troops from Russia and Transnistria, established in 1995 due to negotiations between Moldova, Transnistria, and Russia. It is under the command of the Russian military and operates separately from the Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in Transnistria.
Its composition includes various military units, including infantry, armoured, artillery, air defence, and support elements. The exact number of troops within the JOGF is not publicly disclosed, but estimates suggest that it consists of 1,500 troops. Their continued presence, though, raises concerns about potential destabilisation.
Moldova and international actors have expressed concerns about the JOGF’s continued presence, considering it a violation of Moldova’s sovereignty.
They argue that the JOGF perpetuates the frozen conflict in Transnistria and hampers efforts to find a peaceful resolution.
The Russian Invasion of Ukraine – 2022 Onwards
In January 2022, while Russia amassed approximately 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border and diplomatic talks were going on to try and resolve the standoff, Russian information operations in the form of disinformation on social media started intensifying.
Narratives about the deterioration of human rights in Ukraine, the increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders, blaming the West for escalating tension in Eastern Europe and highlighting humanitarian issues in Ukraine were emphasised by Russian officials and influential people online.
The US tracked nearly 3,500 social media posts per day sharing these narratives in December 2021, a 200-per cent increase from the daily average in November 2021.[i] Moscow has long been accused of using disinformation as a tactic against adversaries in conjunction with military operations and cyberattacks, as had happened in the lead-up to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea – this is part of Russian hybrid warfare doctrine and their ability to operate in the ‘gray zone’.
At the same period, it was reported by the Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence that Russian special services were preparing “provocations” against Russian servicemen located in Transnistria in order to accuse Kyiv.[ii]
On January 13, 2022, an official meeting was held at the 3rd OMSBr of the Transnistrian Armed Forces, during which the personnel were informed that provocations from Ukraine were expected in the area of Cobasna.
There were no orders to bring the brigade to higher levels of combat readiness, but the readiness of the personnel to perform the assigned tasks “on the first command” was emphasised.
According to US Intelligence officials, Moscow had dispatched operatives trained in urban warfare who could use explosives to sabotage Russia’s own proxy forces in eastern Ukraine – blaming the acts on Kyiv.
It is almost certain that Russia was trying to create a pretext for a broader invasion of Ukraine and conduct a “false flag operation” to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sow divisions in Ukraine.
The ‘outing’ of this reported plan by the Ukrainian intelligence organs was almost certainly an attempt to prevent the acts occurring, as it is difficult to conduct a convincing “false flag” operation when the information and pretext is already in the public domain.
After Ukraine’s invasion, Russia occupied strategically important cities, such as Kherson, just 170 km from Transnistria. As Russia was slowly pushing west into Ukraine and was seeking to capture the port city of Odesa, speculation grew that Russian troops would advance to Transnistria to control or even annex it.
In the spring of 2022, Russian Major General Rustam Minnekaev openly admitted that one of the goals of Moscow’s “special military operation” was the creation of a land corridor to Transnistria.[iii]
Logistical issues in the Russian army, such as their inability to control the railway network, caused a failure to take and hold large cities and push its offensive deeper into the Ukrainian territory.[iv]
However, it is unlikely that some logistical problems would be ameliorated if Transnistria assisted Moscow. The village of Cobasna, hosting a garrison of pro-Russian troops, stores 20,000 tons of weaponry, much of which was stashed there by the Russian military at the start of the 1990s and is out-of-date or unusable in a conflict today.
Transnistria’s most useful role would be providing medical aid and food, guarding convoys and securing the railway network.[v]
A series of false flag operations followed in April 2022, with explosions taking place in Transnistria, claiming Ukrainian “infiltrators” were responsible.[vi] The goal was to destabilise the situation, threatening Moldova with unspecified ‘consequences’ if they supported Ukraine.
On April 27, 2022, after incidents of explosions and shelling were reported in Transnistria, Ukraine’s presidential office stated that if Moldova formally asked them to, they would take control of the region.[vii]
Transnistrian leaders hastened to assure Kyiv there was no threat emanating from their side and reached out to Chisinau, intensifying dialogue and collaboration between Tiraspol and Moldova.[viii]
However, Russian intent of securing Odesa and reaching the Moldovan border highly likely faded following Russia’s retreat from the Kharkiv region in September 2022 and the liberation of Kherson in November 2022. The city was a crucial link in Russia’s effort to control the southern coastline along the Black Sea.
Transnistria will unlikely be a launch pad for further operations in Ukraine or even an invasion of Moldova. However, Transnistria supports Russia and would likely obey directions from the Kremlin if compelled to do so, as Russia guarantees the security of the breakaway area of Moldova as well as supplying it with gas.
On February 24, 2023, Russia’s defence ministry accused Ukraine of intensifying preparations to invade Transnistria, claiming Ukraine posed a direct threat to Russian troops in the Russian-speaking region, setting the conditions for a potential false-flag operation[ix], or even conventional intervention.
Russian state media, including 1TV, NTV, TASS, Vedomosti.ru, and RIA, as well as their affiliated Telegram channels from Moldova and the Transnistria region, quickly amplified the official statement.
This aggressive disinformation is part of Russia’s psychological operations to destabilise Moldova, and discourage it from helping Ukraine in any way, especially now that they are both EU candidates, by destroying its image and portraying it as unfriendly.
Russia was also accused of laying the groundwork for a coup that could drag Moldova into the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Moldova’s President accused Russia of using foreign saboteurs from Russia, Serbia, Belarus and Montenegro who have undergone military training disguised as civilians to stoke unrest amid a period of political instability.[x]
Ukrainian President Zelensky also warned that Ukrainian intelligence intercepted a Russian plan to destabilise Moldova’s already volatile political situation. The resignation of the country’s prime minister followed an ongoing period of crises, headlined by soaring gas prices and sky-high inflation.
Pro-Russian protests took place in the capital, Chisinau, backed by a pro-Moscow opposition political party. Russian efforts to explore and exploit the information space in Moldova using propaganda, and other tactics such as Russian political proxies, have intensified this year. Russia’s defence ministry claimed it had detected a “significant amount of [Ukrainian] personnel and military vehicles” near Transnistria, but no evidence was presented.[xi]
Russian Accusations and Provocations against Ukraine and Moldova
On March 9, 2023, security services in Transnistria claimed they had thwarted a plot by Ukraine against the entity’s leadership.
They said that the suspects were operating “under the direct control and instructions of representatives of the security service of Ukraine (SBU) to carry out the murder of officials”, and they intended to detonate a Land Rover full of explosives in central Tiraspol to cause maximum casualties. Ukraine said the claims were a provocation by Moscow.[xii]
One week later, Russia again accused Ukraine, this time of allegedly preparing “provocations with radioactive elements” on Transnistria. According to them, containers with radioactive substances arrived in Odesa on February 19, which indicates that Ukraine could “create a dirty bomb.”
The Ministry of Defense of Russia also drew attention to the provocation that the Kyiv regime is allegedly preparing to accuse the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation of carrying out indiscriminate strikes on radioactively dangerous objects, which can lead to the leakage of radioactive substances and contamination of the area.
Both Ukraine and Moldova denied these Russian statements.[xiii]
Russian Disinformation Campaign in Moldova
Since February 2023, the Kremlin has been flooding Moldova’s information space with narratives designed to undermine support for its pro-Western government, intending to sow discord in the country. As part of this information operation, Russian-affiliated Telegram channels created false alarms, disseminated forged documents, and misinterpreted facts, using state media as amplifiers.[xiv]
This disinformation campaign exacerbates the regional security situation and undermines Moldova’s internal political stability, as exemplified by the protests held by pro-Russian opposition forces intent on forcing a state coup.
The main disinformation narratives have been the weaponisation of Moldova by the West to wage war in Transnistria and the preparations of NATO and Ukraine to open a second front in Transnistria.
During the last year, Russia-affiliated news portals posted a series of analyses amplifying the militarisation of Moldova.
Between May and September 2022, Eadaily.com, a website known for promoting the Kremlin’s narratives, ran a series of articles highlighting how the West is arming Moldova.
Although the possibility of a Ukrainian military intervention in Transnistria has been discussed regularly in pro-Russian networks over the last year, it gained momentum at the end of January 2023.
On January 31, in an interview with Transnistrian Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatiev, Moldova’s ongoing militarisation was highlighted as a form of Chisinau’s pressure on Transnistria.
He also said that he does not rule out the possibility that the Ukrainian army would make the first assault.[xv]
Moscow also used Ukrainian channels linked to the Kremlin to stir up talk of an impending Ukrainian attack on Transnistria.
On February 21, Ukrainian blogger Anatoly Shariy with more than a million subscribers, whom Ukrainian authorities charged with high treason, uploaded a video to YouTube called “Transnistria may blaze” and published information to his Telegram channel from unidentified sources about the movement of Ukrainian forces near the country’s border with Transnistria.[xvi]
Besides Moldova, Russia has built several alternative scenarios around Transnistria, including the involvement of third parties like Romania, with Russian Telegram channels spreading speculation concerning Romanian military participation in the conflict.
On February 14, when Moldova’s airspace was temporarily closed due to the detection of an unidentified object, the Telegram channel “Old Square”, with 136,000 subscribers, published a panic-inducing message stating in Russian, “[…] Under the leadership of President Maia Sandu [a Romanian citizen], a conflict with Transnistria with the participation of British special services will be provoked.
After that, Romanian troops will enter the territory of Moldova under the guise of military assistance to the ‘fraternal’ people.”[xvii]
On April 21, 2023, Moldova expressed concern after Russian soldiers stationed in Transnistria undertook military manoeuvres without seeking Chisinau’s consent, violating the Security Zone regime.
Between February and April, Russian armoured military equipment moved outside the range of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces. The unannounced movement of military equipment was perceived as a possible attack. The Russian contingent stated that the uncoordinated movement was to check the equipment.[xviii]
On May 8, Leonid Manakov, who represents Transnistria in Moscow, made requests for an increase in the number of Russian peacekeepers, including a request to recruit from among Russian citizens currently residing in Transnistria.
The current number of Russian peacekeepers does not exceed 450, while the legal framework of the Joint Control Commission allows for up to 3,100 personnel.[xix]
On June 1, 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denied any military action in Transnistria without Moldova’s official request.
The president emphasised that Kyiv has no territorial claims on the territory of Transnistria, and no request was made to Ukraine for military assistance from Chisinau. He also stated that after Ukraine wins back its land, it will play one of the main roles in reunifying Moldova due to their common border.[xx]
On June 12, the Ukrainian Independent Information Agency reported on Telegram that Ukraine and Moldova signed an agreement to build a bridge over 1.4 km long across the Dniester River near the settlements of Yampil (Ukraine’s Vinnytsia Oblast) and Cosăuţi (Moldova’s Soroca district).
The bridge will provide the shortest route for Ukrainian exporters from central Ukraine to Central and Southeast Europe, bypassing Transnistria.[xxi]
It is almost certain that sufficient forces are available between the JOGF/Transnistrian Army, and amphibious forces in the Black Sea, to encircle and seize Odesa. Any serious attempt by Russia to capture Odesa would almost certainly need a sizeable land component from the east, which would need to cross the Dnipro (and floodplains caused by the recent breach of the Nova Kakhova Dam) and seize Mykolaiv first.
Due to Kherson’s liberation, Russia would first have to recapture the city and Oblast, something is highly unlikely to attempt right now whilst focusing on defending the occupied territory threatened by the Ukrainian summer counteroffensive.
Odessa has had significant time to construct defences and fortifications, further increasing the risk to any Russian amphibious operation.
It is highly unlikely that Russia would try to attack Odesa when during the last months, it has been obvious that, logistically, it cannot even afford to hold the locations it has already captured; it would open another war front that there are no resources to support.
The threat from Ukrainian Coastal Defence Cruise Missiles and uncrewed surface vessels to the Russian Black Sea Fleet further increases the threat to any attempt at an amphibious landing.
Therefore, as long as the Ukrainian counteroffensive is succeeding, Russians are likely to be focused on winning to prove their superiority, and it is highly unlikely that Russia will invade Ukraine on a new axis from Transnistria.
It is also highly unlikely that Russia will capture Odesa and then link up with Transnistria.
Assessment of the Likelihood of Ukraine Invading Transnistria without Moldovan Consent
In order to sow discord in Moldova and create a pretext for invading Transnistria if needed, Russia has been conducting psychological operations spreading disinformation about Ukraine planning to attack Transnistria and creating false-flag operations to blame the former.
This has been prevalent from the number of posts on social media such as Telegram and Russian-language websites.
Ukraine has repeatedly stated that it will not attack or invade Transnistria without Moldova requesting them to, even though people from the Moldovan government have said that a preemptive strike from Ukraine’s side would be on its rights.[xxii]
Since there is no evidence of Russia having significant power over Transnistria or actively trying to use it to inflict harm on Ukraine, Ukraine is highly unlikely to attack it first. Even though a preemptive strike is considered acceptable in international law in case of clearly imminent danger, it would still create a wrong impression of Ukraine if it had not had Moldova’s consent first.
Thus, it is highly unlikely that Ukraine will invade Transnistria without Moldova’s consent.
We also assess that Moldova will not request Ukraine’s help without a substantial Russian provocation.
Russian Interference in Moldovan Politics
In the same context of information operations, the Kremlin relies on Russian-controlled media to spread and amplify disinformation through its propaganda ecosystem.
The use of these non-conventional military tactics, while maintaining plausible deniability, fits the Russian hybrid warfare doctrine that has been used since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia will almost certainly continue interfering in Moldovan political life by financing pro-Russian parties, portraying NATO as a threat and accusing the president of trying to drag Moldova into the war.
It would not be the first time that the Kremlin has incited riots to destabilise a country, especially in Moldova, where the pro-Russian party holds six seats in the parliament.
What Russia had not predicted is that its aggression against Ukraine is helping to consolidate Moldovan society in favour of the European Union and emancipation from Moscow.
Russian forces will highly likely continue conducting information operations in the next 12 months to disrupt the social cohesion of Moldova.
The Likelihood of Russia Invading Transnistria
Transnistria’s strategic importance to Russia lies in its potential as a military base and its capacity as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine.
The presence of Russian forces in the region can serve as a deterrent and provide leverage during diplomatic discussions.
In case Russia decided to invade Transnistria under the pretext of protecting it and possibly invading Moldova to prevent it from further westernising, as happened in 2008 with Georgia and 2014 with Ukraine, the response from both Moldova and Ukraine, as well as potential intervention from other countries would also need to be considered.
While tensions between Russia and its neighbouring countries persist, a full-scale military invasion of Transnistria remains unlikely, given the regional dynamics’ potential consequences and complexities.
Additionally, launching a large-scale military operation requires careful planning, logistical support and the risk of engagement with other well-equipped national armed forces. As Russia is currently focused on holding the captured territories in eastern Ukraine, it is highly unlikely it will attempt to open another insecure front.
It is unlikely that Russia will invade Transnistria in the following six months. Since the geopolitical landscape can rapidly evolve, monitoring the situation closely for signals of an increased risk of aggression is recommended.
Indicators of a potential attack by Russia from Transnistria against Moldova or Ukraine can include various political, military, and diplomatic developments. While the following indicators should be considered within the broader context and assessed collectively, they may signal an increased risk of aggression:
- Military Build-up: Unusual and significant military movements, including the deployment of additional troops, equipment, and vehicles, could indicate preparations for a potential military operation. Observing an influx of military personnel, including specialised units and equipment, would be noteworthy.
- Russia refocusing on Odesa: A launched offensive that centers on Ukraine’s south may seek to creep towards Odesa and then link up with Transnistria, essentially creating a land bridge that sweeps through southern Ukraine and inches even closer to NATO territory.
- Heightened Tensions: A sharp increase in political rhetoric, hostile exchanges, or diplomatic deadlock between Russia and Moldovia, particularly accompanied by a breakdown in negotiations or failure to resolve the Transnistrian issue, can indicate escalating tensions and a potential military response. A false-flag operation targeting Ukraine as the perpetrator is likely to be an excuse for invasion.
- Evacuation of Non-Essential Personnel: If there is a sudden evacuation of non-essential personnel, diplomatic staff, or civilians from the Russian contingent in Transnistria, it may suggest that Russia anticipates a deteriorating security situation or is preparing for military action.
It is important to emphasise that these indicators should be analysed in conjunction with the overall geopolitical context and validated through multiple sources. Their presence does not guarantee an imminent attack, but they may contribute to a broader assessment of the risk level and the need for heightened vigilance and preventive measures.
Therefore, monitoring the situation closely and encouraging peaceful dialogue and diplomatic efforts to prevent any escalation of tensions is essential.
The geopolitical landscape in Transnistria is complex and highly dynamic, with the potential for tensions to rapidly escalate.
To ensure a safe and secure environment for residents, it is essential that decision-makers remain vigilant and informed on the latest developments.
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