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Mysterious attacks in Transnistria add further intrigue to Ukraine war

A woman walks past a coat of arms of Transnistria in 2021. (Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images)
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For decades, Transnistria’s reputation was as an outdated oddity in Europe. The breakaway region, officially known as Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, sits on a sliver of land in the small post-Soviet state of Moldova. It operates as a de facto separate state, but it has little international recognition. Despite backing from Moscow and the presence of Russian troops, the only governments that recognize it are other self-declared states like Abkhazia, Artsakh and South Ossetia.

Transnistria is often seen as a quirk of geography and history, though it also became more worryingly known as a murky hub for organized crime and people smuggling. As my colleague Claire Parker wrote recently, “Moldovans make fun of the sliver of land as a backwater stuck in the Soviet era, where Lenin statues remain, international bank cards don’t work and a monopolistic company, Sheriff, controls virtually everything.”

But since Russia invaded Ukraine over two months ago, the state of this Soviet throwback has come under renewed interest. And this week, a series of unexplained explosions in Transnistria added new intrigue to a war that already has no shortage of it.

A Russian general last month suggested that one aim of the invasion could be to capture land along Ukraine’s south, forming a land corridor to Transnistria. Officials from Moldova and Ukraine condemned the remark, though it remained unclear if it is official policy. Tensions were ignited anew in recent days by reports of explosions that Transnistrian officials said hit a radio center and a security headquarters. On Wednesday, there were further reports that a village housing a Russian arms depot was hit by shots after drones flew over from Ukraine.

Who was responsible for the attacks was unclear, with Russian officials quickly rejecting Ukrainian suggestions they were involved and vice versa. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking in Germany on Tuesday, said the United States is examining the situation but was “not really sure of what’s that all about.”

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Right now, no one is. There are several possible scenarios, as local entrepreneur and analyst David Smith outlined in his newsletter Moldova Matters: that Russia is attacking its own proxy forces, that Ukraine is behind the attacks or alternatively, that Transnistrians are fighting among themselves. None of these scenarios seems particularly logical; and as Smith notes, they are not mutually exclusive.

The idea that Russia may be seeking to open another front in the war may seems to follow a pattern of aggression, but it is also hard to understand given the setbacks the country’s military has seen in Ukraine itself. Speaking to the Moscow Times, a long-running English-language newspaper in the Russian capital, military experts ridiculed the potential strategy.

“The chances of them breaking out and fighting through to Odesa and Transnistria are slim,” explained Sam Cranny-Evans, a military analyst at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank. “They’d probably all die if they tried.”

Earlier fears that the Moscow-controlled troops stationed in Transnistria — an estimated 1,500 officially called “peacekeeping” forces — could enter Ukraine from the West have so far failed to play out. However, when The Post’s Chico Harlan visited in March, he found that many in Moldova were unsure what to predict after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There is another unusual detail: Railway and local officials this week reported Russian attacks on a rail bridge in Odessa, raising concerns Moscow is trying to cut off Ukraine from its southwestern tip and the trade hub of Izmail, which is used to transport grain and other goods to mainland Europe. Intriguingly, though there are two other rail routes, both pass through Moldova. One, which goes through Transnistrian territory before reaching Izmail, was blown up in March.

Russian officials have suggested, predictably, that it is Ukraine that is inflaming tensions with Moldova. State news agencies have noted that the attacks inTransnistria came just after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Austin visited Kyiv and accused the West of being ready to “destroy Moldova.”

But there are other signs that Moldova looks toward the West as its potential savior. “The Russian military aggression in Ukraine is making every single person in Europe feel less secure and is having a negative impact on every single person in Europe,” Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu told The Post’s Josh Rogin during a recent visit to Washington. “And of course, this impact is more negative on Moldova, because Moldova is right there.”

Moldovan President Maia Sandu was elected in 2020 on a reformist, anti-corruption agenda. In recent years, the low quality of life in Moldova, known as Europe’s poorest country, had overshadowed the geopolitical pressure that had long overshadowed its domestic politics. But the war in neighboring Ukraine has brought that pressure back into focus, both for Moldova and the West — the European Union this month gave out the paperwork that could make Moldova and Georgia, another country with its own Moscow-backed breakaway region, members.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 has already shaken up this long-dormant situation for Transnistria. Though Transnistrian politicians have openly called on Russia to annex them, there appears to be little appetite for the prospect in Moscow. But Ukrainian crackdowns on smuggling and corruption after 2019 have upset the delicate balance that supported Transnistria, dealing a heavy blow to the illicit trade that dominates the breakaway republic’s economy.

Could war now come for this frozen conflict, too? It seems illogical, but many in the country are taking no chances. As Evgheni Liuft, 32, who lives in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau, told The Post weeks ago: “You never know what is in the mind of a crazy person.”