Russian forces in Moldova run the risk of being overrun. Image: Russia Ministry of Defense

The Ukraine war is slowly but surely spilling over into Transnistria. Moldova’s breakaway region which has been under a de facto Russian control since 1992 seems to be turning into a place where the Kremlin could suffer a significant and humiliating military defeat.

Russia has roughly 1,500 military personnel stationed in Transnistria, also known as Pridnestrovie, or Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR).

Moscow’s peacekeeping operation in the self-proclaimed entity started in 1992 after Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities, on the initiative of then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin, signed a ceasefire agreement that ended a short war that the PMR won.

On March 15, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe designated Pridnestrovie as a territory occupied by Russia. From the Western perspective, Moldova now has the full right to launch a war against the stationed Russian forces and its proxies in the region. Reports suggest that Transnistria is already on the verge of a military confrontation.

On April 25, several explosions were reported near the State Security Ministry building in Tiraspol, the PMR’s capital. The day after, two explosions occurred in the village of Maiac, which resulted in the destruction of transmission towers. Moreover, a military airport, located not far from Tiraspol, has been attacked. 

Ukrainian security services claim that incidents in Transnistria are part of “Russia’s false flag operations” in the region. Given that Pridnestrovie has been sandwiched between Moldova in the West and Ukraine in the East, from a purely military perspective it would make little to no sense for the Kremlin to stir tensions in the PMR. It is far more probable that Moldova and Ukraine could try to open a second front against Russia.

However, Moldova, with its 5,000-7,500 active military personnel, cannot likely defeat the Transnistrian Armed Forces, composed of 4,500-7,500 soldiers, and helped by the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria, as well as the peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation.

Moldova troops in formation in a file photo. Image: Facebook

But if NATO member Romania – which has very close ties with Moldova – provides full support to its eastern neighbor, Russian chances to preserve control over Pridnestrovie will narrow significantly. Moreover, it is not improbable that Ukraine could also get involved in a potential conflict, which would put the Kremlin in a very difficult position.

Although Russian Major General Rustam Minnekayev recently said that the Russian army has been tasked with establishing “full control over the Donbass and southern Ukraine,” as well as creating a corridor to Transnistria, in reality such ambitious plans can unlikely be achieved any time soon.

In order to reach Pridnestrovie, Russian troops would first need to seize the Ukrainian port cities of Nikolayev and Odessa, which at this point seems extremely improbable. The only way for the Russian Armed Forces to make significant gains in the region would be to deploy hundreds, if not thousands, of additional troops to Ukraine.

In other words, Moscow would have to declare at least a partial mobilization, which is something that the Kremlin refuses to do.

Without additional troops, Russia will not be able to preserve control over Ukrainian territories it currently holds, let alone to protect Transnistria. According to Azerbaijani military expert Agil Rustamzade, Russia’s politically-motivated tactical changes are preventing the Russian military command from properly planning and conducting its operations in Ukraine.

“While the Kremlin has certain forces and resources in the Donbass, their reserves in the south are not enough to reach Nikolayev, let alone Odessa and Transnistria. The Russian military does not have the capabilities to enact such a plan,” Rustamzade said.

On the other hand, Russian political analyst Bogdan Bezpalko believes that “someone is trying to destabilize the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. Perhaps this is preparation for military aggression against Transnistria.”

Given that Pridnestrovie probably has the largest weapons depots in Eastern Europe, located in the village of Kolbasna only two kilometers from the Ukrainian border, there are reportedly concerns in Russia that the Ukrainian Armed Forces could attempt to capture the facility.

It is worth remembering that the Russian Army recently seized a large arms depot in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. Although Ukraine continues to receive all kinds of weapons from the West, from a military perspective it would be in Kiev’s military interest to establish control over 19,000 to 21,500 thousand tons of ammunition from Transnistria.

A potential Ukrainian or a joint Ukrainian-Moldovan attack on the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic would have a significant impact on its population of over 450,000. It is estimated that half of the PMR’s residents have Russian citizenship, while others hold Moldovan, Romanian, as well as unrecognized Transnistrian passports.

Many of them have already started leaving the region amid fears an eruption of hostilities is only a matter of time. But if Moldova, Europe’s poorest country of around 2.6 million people, manages to defeat Russian troops in its breakaway province and restores its sovereignty over Transnistria, the Kremlin will face a humiliating defeat.  

Follow Nikola Mikovic on Twitter at @nikola_mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”