The Soviet-style crest of Transnistria. The pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova borders western Ukraine. DPA/PA Images

Russia-Ukraine war spilling into Moldova would have 'far-reaching implications for EU and NATO'

There has been a series of explosions in recent days and a Russian commander claimed Russian speakers in Moldova are being oppressed.

LAST UPDATE | Apr 27th 2022, 9:20 PM

FEARS THAT RUSSIA’S invasion of Ukraine will spill into neighbouring Moldova have heightened in recent days following a string of explosions in the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria.

Russian forces have been on the ground in the region – which borders western Ukraine– since the early 1990s, when the predominantly Russian-speaking region seceded from Moldova.

Last week a senior Russian commander caused alarm by claiming that Russian speakers in Moldova were being oppressed. This claim was also made by Russian officials ahead of its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

Moldovan president Maia Sandu was elected in 2020 on a pro-Western programme. The former Soviet republic of 2.6 million people is one of Europe’s poorest countries. Unlike neighbouring Romania – with which it has significant cultural ties – Moldova is not a member of NATO or the European Union (EU).

In recent days a series of blasts have hit Transnistria’s security ministry, a radio tower that carried Russian broadcasts and a military unit. Authorities in the unrecognised breakaway state labelled the incidents “terrorist atacks” while Moscow said it was “concerned” about the developments.  

On the other hand, the Moldovan government said the incidents were aimed at “creating pretexts for straining the security situation” and Ukrainian officials said Russia was trying to “destabilise the Transnistrian region”.

Three theories

Dr James Kapaló, a Moldova expert at University College Cork (UCC), said there are three leading theories to explain the explosions. 

These are that it’s a so-called ‘false flag’ attack to provide Russia with cover for sending more troops into the region.

The second theory is that it’s a diversion to prevent Ukrainian forces in the area from being redeployed to eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s major military ambitions lie. 

The third theory is that the blasts are genuine acts of sabotage by anti-Russian Moldovan groups, who are seeking to reactivate the conflict that has been frozen since 1992.

“The three theories are all possibilities. But I would suspect it is a diversionary tactic to make sure that Ukraine cannot use its forces – that are in western Ukraine near to the Transnistrian border – it cannot utilise those forces immediately, to move them to the east,” Dr Kapaló told The Journal. 

The UCC lecturer – who has travelled extensively in the region – said that Russian forces are unlikely to be very effective in Transnistria as there are not a huge number of them and the border with Ukraine is porous with numerous crossing points known to people in the area. 

However, he noted that recent reports about the airport at the regional capital Tiraspol being developed to allow larger aircraft may be a potential indication that troop numbers are set to be boosted.

“​​If you look at a map, you can see that it’s a very, very, long, thin, sliver of land and the river Dniester separates it from the rest of Moldova.

moldova-and-transnistria-political-map-republic-of-moldova-with-capital-chisinau-and-the-pridnestrovian-moldavian-republic-pmr Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“So, attacking across into Moldova is very unlikely – but sending troops down towards Odessa is more of a possibility. However, it makes it very, very vulnerable to Ukrainian attack. It’s not a very defensible territory.”

‘Implications for EU and NATO’ 

Moldova has a diverse population with strong ties to Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Many Moldovans are also entitled to EU citizenship through their ethnic Romanian and Bulgarian backgrounds.

“If Moldova is drawn into this war, it could have far reaching implications for NATO, the EU and Ireland,” Kapaló said.

“Interestingly, from an Irish perspective, a lot of workers came to Ireland as Romanian citizens, but actually they are from the Republic of Moldova and they have the right to Romanian citizenship. 

“As the war moves closer to the Republic of Moldova, there are a number of these entanglements with EU passport holders as Moldova has a large number of Romanian and Bulgarian passport holders,” Kapaló explained.


The complications don’t end there as Moldova has another autonomous region called Gagauzia, which also had a conflict with Moldova’s central authorities in the 1990s.

There’s significant pro-Russia sentiment in Gagauzia however there’s also prominent ties to Turkey as the Gagauz people are ethnically Turkic and the Turkish government has made efforts to build its influence in the area.

“This is a region to watch in Moldova. The local press is reporting that there’s been a lot of pro-Russian demonstrations recently. And also the sentiment towards Ukrainian refugees has not been very positive,” Kapaló said. 

“The real risk for the EU and for Turkey, would be if both Transnistria and Gagauza Autonomous Region, become embroiled in the conflict – because of these multiple entanglements through citizenships in EU states and Turkey’s role in the south of Moldova, which has always been a counterbalance to Russia’s influence. 

“What precisely Turkey would do is another question. They don’t have troops there, but of course, Turkey is a NATO member…  

“The interesting thing is just to what extent Turkey has an influence over the region, when it’s tested against Russian influence,” Kapaló said.

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