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First Ukraine, Now Moldova? Is The Kremlin About To Expand Its War?

A monument to Vladimir Lenin stands in the center of Comrat in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
A monument to Vladimir Lenin stands in the center of Comrat in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

A series of alleged attacks inside Transdniester, a breakaway region of Moldova, has triggered a stream of people to leave and deepened fears that Russia is bent on expanding its war beyond Ukraine.

Kyiv has blamed Moscow for masterminding the attacks that included explosions which damaged two radio broadcast towers and a building housing separatist offices in Tiraspol, the unrecognized capital of Transdniester, which broke away from Moldova in the early 1990s following a brief war.

Moldova's response was more cautious. After meeting with her top security officials on April 26, Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who replaced a long-time Russian ally and advocates for stronger ties with the West, accused "pro-war factions" of trying to escalate tensions in Transdniester.

Two destroyed radio antennas lie on the ground in Maiac in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region on April 25.
Two destroyed radio antennas lie on the ground in Maiac in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region on April 25.

The alleged attacks -- which have caused many to flee, with cars streaming out of Transdniester and heading toward the rest of Moldova -- come after recent saber-rattling from a senior Russian military officer.

In addition to the breakaway region's own fighting force, some 2,000 Russian troops have been based in Transdniester for the last three decades, ostensibly to guard Europe's largest ammunition depot at Cobasna, just 2 kilometers from the border with Ukraine.

Russian Army General Rustam Minnekayev said on April 22 that Moscow intends to take over southern Ukraine, including the port city of Odesa, which would allow it "another way out to Transdniester."

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy said Minnekayev's comment was a signal that Russia's invasion was only a "beginning" and that "they want to capture other countries."

Despite his military's setbacks in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin may opt for a bigger land grab, said Stefan Wolff, an international security professor at Britain's Birmingham University, in e-mailed remarks to RFE/RL.

"In Putin's dream scenario, yes. He takes all of southern Ukraine, recognizes Transdniester, and then stirs up more trouble in the rest of Moldova, including Gagauzia," explained Wolff, referring to Moldova's autonomous region that is populated mainly by Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christians.

Some argue Minnekayev was merely airing the new thinking within the top echelons of the Russian military.

"Russia's military believes that limiting the war's initial goals is a serious error. They now argue that Russia is not fighting Ukraine, but NATO," Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan wrote in an article for the U.S.-based Center for European Policy Analysis.

"Senior officers have therefore concluded that the Western alliance is fighting all out (through the supply of increasingly sophisticated weaponry), while its own forces operate under peacetime constraints like a bar on air strikes against some key areas of Ukraine's infrastructure. In short, the military now demands all-out war, including mobilization," the two wrote.

In a possible sign of a strategy shift, a Russian missile strike on April 26 targeted a key bridge connecting Ukraine's Bessarabia region with the rest of the Odesa region. However, despite that attack, military experts question whether Russia could mount a fresh offensive in the region.

"I don't see this as remotely realistic," said Michael Kofman, who heads the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Virginia.

"Overall, I think the Russian military has dramatically reduced combat effectiveness given high level of losses and force availability constraints. They've scraped together what was left in the standing force to get some reinforcements. It can't make up for losses," Kofman said in a Twitter post on April 20.

A Russian soldier lies dead on a destroyed tank near Hostomel in Ukraine's Kyiv region.
A Russian soldier lies dead on a destroyed tank near Hostomel in Ukraine's Kyiv region.

Russia has only given official figures about its losses twice since the start of the invasion on February 24, and both were much lower than Western and Ukrainian estimates.

On March 2, the Russian Defense Ministry put the death toll at 498, and on March 25, it reported that 1,351 servicemen had been killed. Ukrainian officials have put the figure for Russian deaths at more than 21,000, as of April 27.

Russia has also suffered such heavy losses to its military hardware during two months of fighting in Ukraine that it could be "years" before it is ready for another war, other analysts have said.

"Realistically, Moscow does not have the military capability to do this. They're already struggling to make substantial gains in Donbas," said Wolff. "It's also not clear that they would be able to hold any newly occupied territories -- the current 'plan' presumes the occupation of about one-third of Ukrainian territory. Even with local proxies and occupation troops, they would be letting themselves in for prolonged and costly local resistance, well supported from what remains of government-controlled Ukrainian and NATO."

Defending Mykolayiv

Konrad Muzyka, a Polish defense analyst, is also doubtful Russia will widen its offensive anytime soon. "The Russian focus now is on Donbas and northeast Kherson," Muzyka told RFE/RL, referring to separatist-held regions in southeast Ukraine and the area just north of Crimea.

According to Muzyka and other military analysts, Ukraine's ability to beat back Russian attacks in the southern port city of Mykolayiv has been crucial so far in halting any Russian advance eastward along the Black Sea coast.

"Everyone talks about the Ukrainian defense of Kyiv, but the defense of Mykolayiv has been just as important," Muzyka explained, referring to Russia's retreat last month from areas around the Ukrainian capital, prompting the Kremlin to, at least publicly, downsize its military goals.

And if Moscow did decide to march on Transdniester, it wouldn't get much support from the poorly equipped troops there, Dionis Cenusa, a visiting fellow at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center, told RFE/RL.

"There are up to 2,000 Russian soldiers of the operational group of Russian forces in Transdniester. Why would Russia open a new front in such conditions?" Cenusa said, referring to 1,500 Russian troops said to be guarding the huge ammunition depot at Cobasna, and another 500 soldiers that Moscow describes as peacekeepers that Chisinau has long demanded should leave.

Separatist Transdniester also has its own armed forces, which number between 4,000 and 7,500, although little is known of their fighting capabilities or equipment.

While an all-out assault on Transdniester could be a low priority for now, Moscow may try to destabilize Moldova, where the Kremlin lost a key ally when Sandu was elected president in December 2020. Pro-Western parties also fared well in parliamentary elections in July 2021, further eroding Kremlin influence in the country.

To that aim, the recent incidents inside Transdniester have likely been orchestrated by the Kremlin, according to Wolff.

"I still think it's more likely that this comes directly from Moscow, but could have been executed by some local operatives directly on the Kremlin's payroll. What I have heard from sources on the ground is that both Tiraspol and Chisinau are pretty horrified to be dragged into the war in Ukraine and are trying to avoid any destabilization," Wolff said.

The Russian security services are now likely debating "whether to destabilize Moldova to tie down Ukrainian forces on the southern border, to counter growing pro-European sentiment in the country, and to show the West that support for Ukraine risks wider consequences, including in the Balkans," argued Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds in their recent article, Operation Z: The Death Throes of an Imperial Delusion, published by the British-based Royal United Services Institute.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu (file photo)
Moldovan President Maia Sandu (file photo)

On April 7, President Sandu announced a ban on the display of the Ribbon of St. George -- the black and orange stripes long viewed in Ukraine as a symbol of Russian aggression -- along with Russian military symbols such as the ubiquitous "Z."

After the ban, according to Watling and Reynolds, Ukrainian intelligence began to receive reports that Russia's Federal Security Service was discussing the organization of a protest movement in Moldova.

According to political analyst Cristian Vlas, that type of disruption is the more probable scenario for Moldova. "Even though the pro-Russian Socialists announced that they would hold a rally on May 9 (Victory Day) without the St. George Ribbon or any reference to it, we should expect provocations in Gagauzia, [and] maybe [in the] northern city of Balti," he said, referring to Moldova's second-largest city where pro-Russia sympathies are high.

With rising Russian gas prices hitting people hard in Moldova, Europe's poorest country, the situation is especially volatile now, Vlas said.

"Such a protest movement would not need a big push, as many…[people] have already accumulated concerns regarding the high inflation and the increasing consumer prices."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.