Explosions in Transnistria have the 'signature' of Russian military intelligence, former Moldova defense minister says

  • Explosions were reported Monday and Tuesday in the Russia-backed separatist region of Transnistria, which borders Ukraine.

  • Former Moldova Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuta told Insider the attacks look to be Russian.

  • Marinuta believes Moscow is serious about connecting the territory to Russian-occupied Crimea.

CHIŞINĂU, Moldova — Explosions reported in the Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria in the last 24 hours appear to be part of an effort by Russian intelligence to build the case for foreign intervention, Moldova's former defense minister told Insider.

Transnistria — a long sliver of land along Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine that's home to roughly 300,000 people, most of whom are Russian speakers — broke from the central government in 1992 with the assistance of the Russian military.

Around 1,500 Russian soldiers are stationed there today, ostensibly as part of a peacekeeping operation but also to guard a major ammunition depot.

Although leaders of the self-proclaimed republic have long expressed a desire to join Russia — Insider witnessed the Russian Federation's flags on government buildings during a recent trip there, and Moscow generously subsidizes the territory — they have also seemed eager to avoid being drawn into the war in Ukraine, having grown increasingly dependent on trade with Europe. Around a third of the population in Transnistria is ethnically Ukrainian, with the numbers having recently increased with an influx of refugees.

'They have to build a case'

Vitalie Marinuta, who served as Moldova's minister of defense from 2009 to 2014, said it doesn't make sense for either Moldovan or Transnistrian forces to have carried out or staged the attacks. Neither Moldova nor Transnistria have an incentive to turn a frozen conflict hot, and Ukraine would not have an interest in opening another potential front.

hall of the soviets
The House of Soviets, or city hall, in Tiraspol, Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

"What we have left is just the Russian Federation," Marinuta said. "Having studied how the GRU, or their military intelligence, works — it seems like it's their signature."

The explosions come a week after a top Russian general said that Moscow intends to conquer southern Ukraine and link up its forces with those in Transnistria, where he implausibly claimed that Russian speakers were being oppressed by a central government that exercises no control there.

Two days later, there was a reported grenade attack on a building used by security services in Tiraspol, the self-proclaimed capital. On Tuesday morning, there were more reported attacks on radio transmission towers in the region.

In a statement, Moldova's Bureau of Reintegration Policies described the explosions as "pretexts" designed to inflame tensions, with President Maia Sandu on Tuesday convening a meeting of the country's top security officials to discuss the situation.

Marinuta believes the alleged provocations are all about Russia's domestic audience, which needs to be primed to believe intervention is necessary to fulfill President Vladimir Putin's stated goal of protecting Russians in former Soviet republics.

"They have to build a case," he said. "I see them building more and more facts that will give them the 'right' — they'll say the 'right' — to intervene in the Transnistria region," he said.

"Also, probably, they want to convince the Ukrainian government that they will attack from Transnistria — to make Ukrainians bring some more forces here."

military base
Military equipment can be see on a base used by Russian and local security forces in Bender, Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

How an attack could play out

Ukrainians are of course privy to the same facts as other observers of Transnistria. On paper, the territory's armed forces, combined with that of the Russians, could number in the tens of thousands if reserves are called up or locals are drafted. There are tanks there — and that Soviet-era ammunition depot, though the quality of the equipment is anyone's guess.

But will anyone from Transnistria fight outside their own land? Russian officers will likely fight, and force those under their command to do so as well, as they are ideologically committed to Putin's brand of nationalism, Marinuta said. But locals who hold Moldovan or Romanian passports — and have no combat experience — will try to flee, he said.

It's possible Russia could bring in more of its forces by plane — currently unable to by land, thanks to Ukrainian resistance around Odesa. But would they fare any better than those Russian forces already trying and failing to win territory to the east. In one scenario, using Transnistria as a launching pad into Ukraine is a recipe for Russia losing its own grip on the territory.

Marinuta doesn't think that really matters.

"I don't want to make you panic," he said, "but we can see with the Russians that they can make, sometimes, irrational decisions, from our point of view." The war in Ukraine, for instance, was a "special military operation" that Moscow initially believed could be over days.

As for Moldova, another former Soviet republic with Russian speakers that the Kremlin could and has claimed are oppressed — Marinuta doesn't see an immediate threat of military intervention. He thinks Moscow is content for now to sit back and change the government here through peaceful means: Regime change in the next elections.

The current party in charge is trying to join the European Union, but Moldova has a record of electing pro-Western governments only to throw them out every few years for the pro-Russia opposition.

If it did come to war, though, Marinuta does not think Russia will face much resistance, at least not from Moldova's small military.

"I don't think they will have a hard time," he said.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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