A Russian minister refused to rule out Moldova’s breakaway region Transnistria being drawn into the Ukraine war, in a potential escalation of the conflict to another European country.
The deputy foreign minister, Andrey Rudenko, said on Tuesday said Moscow “was concerned” over the string of recent explosions in Transnistria, saying Russia “would like to avoid a scenario” in which Transnistria would be dragged into the war.
Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Rudenko said the “situation with the explosions” in the region indicated that “certain forces” behind the attacks were interested in creating “another hotbed of tension in Europe” – a reference to two episodes of violence reported in the enclave in as many days.
“An investigation will be carried out accordingly, and we hope that the reasons will be established and those responsible will be punished,” RIA Novosti cited Rudenko as saying.
Transnistria, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists and permanently hosts 1,500 Russian troop bases as well as a large arms depot, borders western Ukraine.
Rudenko’s statements came after Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, convened a meeting of her security council on Tuesday following the two incidents.
On Tuesday morning, local authorities said two antennas that carried Russian radio broadcasts were blown up, while on Monday unknown attackers shelled the region’s state security ministry in Tiraspol with a hand grenade launcher.
After the security council meeting, Sandu said certain unnamed “forces inside Transnistria” were in “favour of war” and were interested in destabilising the situation in the region.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, earlier on Tuesday told journalists that he was “concerned” about the news that came out of Transnistria, while the leader of the self-proclaimed republic in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, told the RIA Novosti that Moscow should “take into account what is happening in Transnistria” when planning the next stage of its military campaign.
Last week, a senior Russian commander said the goal of Russia’s new offensive was to seize control of southern Ukraine and to gain access to Transnistria, first creating worries that the small east European country could become a new flashpoint in rising tensions between Moscow and the west.
Commenting on the explosion at the security ministry, the Moldovan government said it had been aimed at “creating pretexts for straining the security situation” in the breakaway region.
Officials in Transnistria on Tuesday announced a number of new security measures, further raising concerns about a possible escalation in the breakaway state. Measures included the instalment of military checkpoints at the entrances to the cities of the region and the cancellation of the annual 9 May victory day parade.
Bob Deen, an expert on Moldova and a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute thinktank, said it was difficult to know whether the recent incidents were a false-flag operation by Russia or genuine acts of sabotage by anti-Russian groups.
But he said recent Russian rhetoric pointed to some of the long-term goals Russia had in mind for Transnistria. “We have seen that the topic of Transnistria is becoming discussed more openly in the Russian public domain. Russian recent statements could be an indication of the ambitions Moscow has there.”
According to Deen, it was unlikely that Russian forces would be able to stage an offensive toward the border with Moldova, given that Moscow was engaged in heavy fighting in the eastern Donbas region. To get to Transnistria, Moscow would need to stage an offensive toward Odesa, which has been hindered by the recent sinking of the Moskva cruiser, which forced Russian warships to move further away from Ukraine’s coast.
Deen was also sceptical that Transnistria’s own forces, which number about 7,500 troops, would be used in an attack on Ukraine from its western border.
“There is little appetite to fight in Ukraine among the Transnistrian troops as well as the general population in the region, many of whom are leaving towards Moldova to escape any potential violence.”
“Similarly to Belarus, the region does not want to be fully dragged into this war,” he said, adding that the recent rhetoric by Moscow may be a ploy to get Ukraine to pull troops away from the Donbas towards its western border.
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.