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Why a strip of land in Moldova revived fears of a Ukraine war spillover

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Over the weekend, pro-Russian separatists claimed that Ukrainian drones dropped explosives on an airfield in Transnistria, a pro-Russia breakaway region of Moldova bordering Ukraine. Western analysts have cast a lot of doubt on those drone claims, but they came two weeks after a series of explosions were reported in the region. No one was injured in either event, but they were a reminder of the risks if the Ukraine war spills beyond its borders.

The explosions also rattled the status quo of a decades-long “frozen” conflict. Amid the fall of the Soviet Union, Transnistria, backed by Moscow, fought to break away from Moldova. A 1992 ceasefire stopped the fighting, but Transnistria still maintains its de facto independence, though its status is not formally recognized by the international community — not even by Russia.

No one claimed responsibility for the recent blasts in Transnistria, which targeted an empty state security ministry in Tiraspol, its capital, along with a radio tower that broadcast a Russian-language station, and a local military unit.

The lack of attribution meant a lot of accusations. Transnistria officials blamed Ukrainian “nationalists” for committing a terrorist attack. Ukrainian officials accused Russian security forces of a “false flag” operation to create a pretext for intervention. Moldova’s foreign minister said that the attacks were “pretexts for straining the security situation in the Transnistrian region.” Maia Sandu, Moldova’s pro-European Union president, said rival factions within Transnistria were responsible.

Experts said whoever staged the attack likely did it more for messaging than intentional harm. But it did succeed raising fears that reignited tensions might draw Transnistria, or Moldova, into a wider conflict. There were other hints, too. On April 22, the acting commander of Russia’s central military district, Rustam Minnekayev, indicated that Russia’s efforts to control southern Ukraine could create a bridge to Transnistria, where, Minnekayev claimed, there is “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.”

Ukraine has also worried that Russia would use Transnistria as a possible staging ground to carry out attacks in southern Ukraine, including near the port city of Odesa, or use it as another front to expand the war.

Moldova, a small, poor country with a tiny military, is in a precarious moment: seeking more support from the EU and the West, while maintaining its neutrality and trying to avoid provoking Russia. And Transnistria itself may have a pretty complicated calculus: though it was largely dependent on Russia, it has expanded trade with the European Union, to its own economic benefit, and that would all go away if it is subsumed by Russia.

For Russia, despite its claims for a land bridge, the goal has always been to use Transnistria as a leverage point to destabilize Moldova and the region. The territory itself is not the Kremlin’s aim. Right now, that is still Ukraine. And the Kremlin is still fighting to control territory in Ukraine’s east and south — which means the realities on the ground temper some of those risks of escalation. “The only thing that’s saving [Transnistria] from being taken over is geography — the fact that Ukraine is in between them and the Russians,” said Stuart Kaufman, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.

What is Transnistria?

Transnistria has always had closer linguistic and cultural ties to Moscow than the rest of Moldova, the western part of which tends to share closer ties to Romania. The Soviet Union also heavily industrialized Transnistria, making it economically important during the Soviet era, and leaving Moldova as a whole more dependent on the region.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, said Michael Eric Lambert, an analyst and expert on the region, that identity also meant Transnistria didn’t want to go with the rest of Moldova, and wanted to be either independent, or part of Russia.

Transnistrian separatists, with Russian backing, fought a civil war that killed about 1,000 people, until a 1992 ceasefire that basically gave Transnistria de facto independence. Russian armed forces became permanently stationed in the region, including a few hundred peacekeepers as part of the ceasefire and the so-called Operational Group of Russian Armed Forces, about 1,500 troops that guard a massive munitions cache. Transnistria also has about 10,000 of its own soldiers, according to the Los Angeles Times.

If you’re Moldova, this situation was always a little unsettling, and that was exactly the point of Transnistria for Russia. “Russia creates political pressure on Moldova to keep it in its sphere of influence and keep it from participating in Western European structures such as the European Union,” said Agnieszka Miarka, a professor of political science at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. Moldova is officially neutral and has said it will remain so, but if Moldova ever decided to change its mind, having pro-Russia troops on its soil would also make NATO membership impossible.

Transnistria’s de facto government is pro-Russia, and as experts said, the region does have a shared history, language, and culture with Russia. (At the same time, the territory of about 400,000 has sizable Ukrainian and Moldovan or Romanian-speaking minorities.) The territory was traditionally dependent on the Kremlin for things like energy and pensions — though Moscow hasn’t been as generous lately as it once was.

But Transnistria’s economic ties started to shift in recent years, a consequence of Moldova’s trade agreement with the EU. Now, about 70 percent of Transnistria’s exports go to the European Union. That has created a dichotomy, where the region’s political sympathies still align with Russia, but its economic interests are more firmly tied to Moldova, and the European Union. And that may be one reason working against the possibility of a spillover conflict.

How likely is it that the Ukraine conflict spills over into Moldova?

Transnistria’s de facto government has not condemned Russia’s invasion — but it hasn’t supported it, either.

As experts said, even though Transnistria won’t abandon its Russian ties, it doesn’t want to go out of the way to invite Moscow to march across its doorstep. There’s the economic factor; Transnistria would be cut off from the Western economy that it’s increasingly dependent on, and instead rely on a sanctions-crunched Russia. There are also more common-sense reasons. “Would you like the war to come to your home? I don’t think so,” said Tatsiana Kulakevich, a global studies professor at the University of South Florida.

So, Transnistria is kind of laying low. “‘We support Russia. Russia is our ally. Russia, Russia,’” Kulakevich said of the region’s likely thinking. “But Russia needs to reach us first.”

That is, Moscow would need to actually create the land bridge that at least one Russian general claimed the Kremlin wanted to make. And experts really doubt that Russia can do that right now, given that the Russian military is bogged down in eastern Ukraine, and while it has made advances in the east and the south, these battles are depleting Russian troops, too.

Since Russia doesn’t border Moldova, it couldn’t easily supply or bring troops to Transnistria, making it an unlikely front from which to wage an attack on Ukraine. “I don’t think the Russians have any ability to do anything militarily with the troops they have in Transnistria because they can’t supply them,” Kaufman said.

Still, some analysts said just threatening Transnistria may serve a purpose — specifically, by forcing Ukraine to move troops to the area to defend places like Odesa, and away from other active fronts. It also lets Russian President Vladimir Putin “pretend that he’s winning more than losing,” as Lambert put it.

And as experts pointed out, the threat keeps Ukraine and Moldova on edge. Moldova applied for EU membership in March, though the country has a long pathway to go before reaching it. The EU has also said it will step up military assistance — in addition to financial support the West is providing for the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who’ve crossed into Moldova. But Moldova has also been careful to reiterate its neutrality, and remains dependent on Russia for its energy. And officials have downplayed the risks of a spillover.

As experts said, it makes little sense for Russia to expand the Ukraine conflict, given how it already had to revise its war aims. Right now, the possibility of a real spillover still seems low. But Putin has made inexplicable military moves throughout the Ukraine conflict, and wars, once started, are inherently unpredictable. “There’s a risk of escalation,” Lambert said. “It’s a reality.”

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Doug Mastriano Warned of ‘Hitlerian Putsch’

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“Two decades before he was Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, Doug Mastriano warned in a master’s thesis that the United States was vulnerable to a left-wing ‘Hitlerian Putsch’ that would begin with the dismantling of the U.S. military and end with the destruction of the country’s democracy,” the Washington Post reports.

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House Republicans vote to protect price-gouging oil companies from investigation

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Four Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the measure, which is guaranteed to be filibustered by Republicans in the Senate.

As U.S. consumers paid higher prices at the pump, Exxon’s profits in the first quarter of 2022 were more than double what they were in the first quarter of 2021. BP’s quarterly profit was its highest in more than a decade. But Republicans don’t want the Federal Trade Commission to be able to even investigate price-gouging.

The Republican opposition to the government doing anything to rein in price-gouging by oil companies came a day after most House Republicans voted against a bill providing the Food and Drug Administration with $28 million in funding to help address the baby formula shortage. And it came two days after every Republican but one voted against a domestic terrorism bill in the wake of the racist mass shooting in Buffalo.

All this is, at base, because Republicans do not want the government to be effective at solving problems. They want the problems to continue so that they can use them as bludgeons against President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats. Gaining an advantage for November’s elections is desirable to Republicans in a way that ensuring babies are fed and people can afford gas to drive to work are simply not.

It’s true, Republicans are also not interested in limiting gas company profits, at least unless and until those gas companies do something outrageous like speak out for the rights of LGBTQ kids, and they’re not interested in addressing domestic terrorism or the guns often used to carry it out. Protecting Black people in a supermarket from a heavily armed white supremacist would not be a Republican priority. (Go figure.) But most of all, they just want to reap partisan benefit from things going badly in this country, and they’re willing to block potential solutions to keep things going badly.

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A Feminist Debate on Sex Work

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Do people who hire sex workers deserve to go to jail, or should all laws prohibiting consensual sex work be repealed?

On May 9, 2022, writer and activist Julie Bindel debated Reason‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown at the Sheen Center in lower Manhattan. The resolution was “A good society should criminalize the purchase of sex.”

The event was hosted by The Soho Forum, a monthly debate series sponsored by the Reason Foundation.

Bindel is the London-based author of The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. She opposes arresting women for the selling of sex but wants their customers to face consequences for their actions.

Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown, who’s also the co-founder and president of Feminists for Liberty, took the position that all laws prohibiting consensual sex work should be abolished.

The debate was moderated by Soho Forum Director Gene Epstein.

Narrated by Nick Gillespie; intro edited by John Osterhoudt

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