Vladimir Putin’s regime has long invested in holding Moldova within its orbit. The dark operations of its military and intelligence services have been illuminated by various reports; its “peacekeeping forces” (an army of occupation) have severed the long sliver of Moldovan territory it calls Transnistria from the rest of the country, and its state-owned energy companies have delivered misery to the population and its economic prospects.
Now there is evidence — according to Moldovan and Ukrainian officials — that it is seeking to unseat the elected government and replace it with a more Kremlin-friendly alternative using pro-Russian local forces, as detailed by Moldovan President Maia Sandu on February 13.
As if to confirm her words, on February 28, a protest rally “Movement for the People,” which included representatives of the pro-Russian Șor and PACE parties, was held in the capital, Chișinău. Participants tried to break through the police cordon to the government building, which resulted in fighting between the protesters and law enforcement officers.
The official Russian media emphasized that the protesters not only opposed an increase in tariffs and prices (inflation rose above 30% last year), but also “demanded the resignation of the president and government.” Meanwhile, the ruling Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) commented that such behavior was designed to “destabilize the situation in the country” and help the head of the pro-Russian opposition, Ilan Șor, “hide from justice.” Șor, convicted in absentia, is believed to be in Israel.
Moldova suffered a deteriorating economic situation last year, mainly as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. GDP in 2022 slumped to around 1% from the previous year’s near-14% rate as energy prices soared and refugees poured in from Ukraine. The country remains dependent on remittances from Moldovans working overseas and from international grants and loans.
But what appears to have triggered the latest events are underlying shifts in the Moldovan and Russian outlook on negotiations about Transnistria. These were long-organized through the so-called 5+2 process (of Moldova and Transnistria, plus Russia, Ukraine, the US, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.) But with that format in abeyance since Russia’s February invasion, the Moldovan government indicated in February it was seeking alternatives to reuniting the country, and removing the 1,500 or so Russian troops. That was anyway implied by the EU’s 2022 decision to grant candidate status to Moldova, and by its greatly increased engagement with the country.
If this feels like an old script, that’s because it is. It was Ukraine’s decision to embrace the EU that triggered Putin’s initial invasion in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin has made clear it will not accept what it sees as satellite states moving into the mainstream European orbit.
On February 16, Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean described his government’s goals and priorities in relation to Transnistria, which included, among other things, the complete evacuation of the 1,500 “unlawfully stationed” Russian troops, their arms, and an enormous arsenal of ammunition thought to total around 20,000 tons. The Prime Minister stressed that he sought a diplomatic solution “leading to the recovery of Moldova’s full sovereignty.” This may sound predictable, and even inoffensive given his emphasis on the need for a peaceful solution. For Vladimir Putin and his entourage, however, this may have sounded like a veiled intent to force Russia out of the lands it seized in 1992.
Taken together, the effective end of the 5+2 and the beginning of an accelerated EU-Moldova process will be seen by Russia as laying the groundwork for another strategic defeat.
This fits the Kremlin’s outlook and fills in details of the West’s supposed proxy war against it. As described by Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev, a key Putin ally, Russia was engaged in “a military confrontation between NATO, and above all the United States and England.”
This may also explain the Kremlin’s accusations that Ukraine of organizing armed provocations against the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” (PMR.) Despite the lurid nature of the accusations (the last thing Ukraine wants is another front on its southwest), the Kremlin’s statements may well betray a worry about its exposed position wedged between Ukraine, Moldova, and NATO. Russia may worry that Moldova will seek Ukraine’s help to demilitarize Transnistria, perhaps following a major Russian setback. A Kremlin “false flag operation” to implicate Ukraine may be possible, as the US Institute for the Study of War has said.
There is also a more immediate concern. Russian military analysts from the Military Review website, which is close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, claim that Ukraine’s interest is “a huge amount of ammunition [see above] that has been stored for many decades in the arsenal in Cobasna” on the territory of Transnistria. It seems that the Kremlin is seriously afraid that this arsenal could fall into the hands of the Ukrainian army.
Indeed, back in 2015, Moldovan experts noted that the storage sites are among the largest in eastern Europe, and include artillery rounds, grenades, cartridges, aircraft munitions, and so on. At a time when both Ukrainian and Russian forces are desperately short of ammunition, the bunkers are a potential military gold mine. In addition, according to an investigation by the FSB Dossier Center published in October, the FSB’s main headquarters in the region is located in Transnistria. It trains and coordinates personnel for illegal work in the south of Ukraine, including the training of sabotage teams.
The investigators also noted that General Dmitry Milyutin, who oversees FSB work in the “near abroad,” including Moldova, is an ardent supporter of the restoration of the Soviet Union and believes post-Soviet countries must remain within Russia’s orbit. Clearly, though, the Russian garrison and about 8,000 Transnistrian troops are cut off from resupply and would struggle to defend the territory. Even in the eyes of Russian military experts, “these units do not represent a serious military force.”.
The truth is that Russia is playing a weak hand in Transnistria. As a result, the Russian Foreign Ministry tried to intimidate Ukraine and Moldova, saying that any threat to Russian peacekeepers, citizens, and military depots in Transnistria will be considered “as an attack on the Russian Federation.”
The Kremlin has so far tried to destabilize the region from within. For example, in the spring of last year, a series of explosions occurred in the building of the Ministry of State Security of Transnistria in Tiraspol, which the Russians attributed to “Ukrainian saboteurs.” Moldovan President Maia Sandu attributed this to Russian forces.
Russian military analysts have also proposed something much darker, suggesting the destruction of the Transnistria arsenal.
“Can you imagine what would happen if a shell or a mine hit the arsenal?… Or would some commander of the defenders prepare the arsenal for destruction in case the defense is breached?… The earthquake caused by the explosion of ammunition in Cobasna would be approximately the same strength [as in Turkey]. Experts talk about the magnitude of 7 and even 7.5. Imagine how many territories of densely populated Europe would fall into the earthquake zone,” they said.
This could be dismissed as the fantasy of one single author, but at the same time, the more mainstream Nezavisimaya Gazeta suggested that “the leaders of Transnistria are afraid of explosions in ammunition depots.” It did not acknowledge that the first victims of such a blast would be the people of its puppet republic. As with Putin’s nuclear threats, Russian blackmail requires enemies to believe it is indifferent to the consequences of its actions.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.