A rare look inside Transnistria, the breakaway republic that borders Ukraine led by Russian-backed separatists

  • Transnistria broke away from the Republic of Moldova in 1992, aided by Russian intervention.

  • Although declaring itself a "state," it is not recognized by any other country.

  • Insider traveled there to see what life is like on the ground.

TIRASPOL, TRANSNISTRIA — Just 48 hours before unidentified actors carried out attacks in late April in Transnistria, Insider traveled to the Kremlin-backed breakaway republic — inside Moldova, along the border with Ukraine — to see what life is like in a territory that is home to roughly 1,500 Russian soldiers.


Transnistria is a Russian-backed separatist region in Moldova.

Sign for a tile company in the city of Bender.Charles Davis/Insider

It borders Ukraine and is home to more than 300,000 people.

Casino and bus station in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

Transnistria declared itself an independent nation after a brief war in 1992.

Apartment building in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

The war came after Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union.

Apartment building in Bender.Charles Davis/Insider

Newly independent Moldova had declared Romanian to be its official language.

Cargo train station in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

Russia then intervened, ostensibly to protect the rights of Russian speakers in Transnistria.

Empty cargo train station in Bender.Charles Davis/Insider

Transnistria's claimed sovereignty is not recognized by any nation, including Russia.

Closed ticket window at Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

But at least 1,500 Russian troops are believed to be stationed in the region as "peacekeepers."

Cargo train station in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

Peacekeepers with armored vehicles are stationed at the de facto border between Moldova and Transnistria.

Calendar from 2020 at Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

Transnistria is not able to stamp passports, so foreign visitors are issued a piece of paper informing them how long they can stay.

Recycled battery box at Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

When Insider visited, authorities asked no questions about the reporter's US passport, allowing them to stay for up to 12 hours.

Soviet-era telephone at Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

Soon after Insider's visit, Transnistrian authorities reported a series of explosions that they blamed on outside elements.

Moldovan soda at Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

Russian officials have claimed they intend to conquer southern Ukraine in part to connect Transnistria to Crimea.

Sign at Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

Russia's stated intentions have sparked concern that a new war could break out in Transnistria.

Sign commemorating Russian czarsCharles Davis/Insider

Transnistria was the most heavily industrialized part of Moldova under the Soviet Union.

Parking lot at Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

Today it continues to provide the majority of Moldova's electricity, powered by free Russian gas.

14 tracks at the Bender train stationCharles Davis/Insider

Transnistria has a military of its own, believed to number up to 10,000 soldiers, with many more available on reserve.

Soviet-era train cars at the station in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

It is also home to one of the largest ammunition depots in Europe, a relic of the Soviet Union that Russia has cited to justify its military presence.

railroad cars on tracks
Train cars in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

In late April, Transnistrian authorities claimed the area around the arms depot was attacked and that surveillance drones had been launched from Ukraine.

Elevated walkway in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

Ukraine denies that it has launched any attacks inside Transnistria.

Elevated walkway in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

Some military experts believe the alleged attacks have been carried out by Russia to either justify intervention or divert Ukraine's attention.

Graffiti in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

The attacks have contributed to a desire by Moldovan authorities to strengthen their military capabilities.

Graffiti on a wall near the cargo train station in Bender.Charles Davis/Insider

Transnistrian authorities have long expressed a desire to join Russia, with Russian flags hanging on government buildings in the capital, Tiraspol.

Train museum in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

But Transnistrian officials have not explicitly endorsed Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

Train museum in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians live in Transnistria, including recent refugees.

Lenin Street in BenderCharles Davis/Insider

The only public sign of the war in Ukraine are the Ukrainian license plates on vehicles driven by recent arrivals.

Lenin statute
A statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin at a park in Bender, Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

Despite its political isolation, the region does not appear more economically depressed than Moldova.

A movie theater in Bender plays some of the latest films from Hollywood and Russia.Charles Davis/Insider

Clean streets are lined with cinemas, cafes, and restaurants.

A movie poster at the cinema in Bender.Charles Davis/Insider

The streets are also full of modern luxury vehicles.

A copy and printing shop in Bender.Charles Davis/Insider

What you won't find in Transnistria are many international corporations, with Russian banks dominating the financial sector.

Charles Davis/Insider

Many in Transnistria enjoy Russian, Moldovan, and Romanian citizenship, the latter allowing them to travel visa-free to Europe.

Bender apartment buildingCharles Davis/Insider

Despite Russia's support, Transnistria enjoys close connections with Europe, with a majority of its exports going to the European Union.

EU project at Bender Fortress.Charles Davis/Insider

Insider witnessed European Union projects intended to boost Transnistria's tourism industry.

Signs advertise European Union support for a reconstruction project at the Ottoman-era fortress in Bender.Charles Davis/Insider

Russian soldiers and local volunteers collaborate at military bases in Transnistria.

military base
Bender military base.Charles Davis/Insider

Military equipment can be see from a tower at the Ottoman-era fortress in Bender.

Bender Fortress in Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

Although they undergo regular combat exercises, troops in Transnistria rely on old, Soviet-era equipment.

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

The majority of Transnistria is located on the eastern side of the Dniester River.

bridge over river
A bridge in Bender, Transnistria, is painted in the colors of the Russian and local flags.Charles Davis/Insider

For the last 30 years, residents have been taught that Moldova tried to wipe out the area's Russian speakers.

museum statue of Russian soldier
A museum at the Ottoman-era Bender Fortress in Transnistria celebrates Russian intervention.Charles Davis/Insider

Nearly all business in Transnistria is controlled by oligarchs, with the "Sheriff" brand on supermarkets and football stadiums.

man walking in front of supermarket
Supermarket in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

Moldovan authorities have suggested there is an elite split in Transnistria between military and economic powers.

A building believed to house military officers in Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

Despite some uses of Soviet-era imagery, Transnistria practices Russian-style capitalism.

Transnistria billboard with flag and crescent
A billboard in Tiraspol welcomes visitors to the "Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic."Charles Davis/Insider

Leaders are more nostalgic for the pre-communist Russian Empire than they are for the Soviet Union.

tank monument
A tank monument in Tiraspol celebrates Russia's "Great Patriotic War" and the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.Charles Davis/Insider

Russian and Transnistrian flags wave in Suvorov Square in Tiraspol, the self-proclaimed capital.

Flags of Transnistria and Russia
Suvorov Square in Tiraspol on April 23, 2022.Charles Davis/Insider

Photographing government buildings in Transnistria is discouraged.

A government building in Tiraspol, Transnistria.Charles Davis/Insider

On a Saturday in April, streets were full of cars, including a BMW drivers' club, and sidewalks full of pedestrians.

A public monument in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

Tiraspol hosts consulates for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two other Russian-allied separatist regions not recognized by the international community.

tkCharles Davis/Insider

A menu advertises Russian and Ukrainian cuisine in Tiraspol.

Restaurant in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

Because it is not an internally recognized state, Transnistria cannot have its currency produced by reputable printers, forcing it to turn to plastic tokens like those used in casinos.

sign for coins
An ad for the Transnitrian currency in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

The airport in Tiraspol is not open to commercial aviation and was recently the target of a claimed attack.

A travel company in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

In light of recent explosions, Moldovan authorities have stepped up searches of vehicles leaving Transnistria.

A building destroyed by fire can be seen from the main street in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

A monument to the 18th-century Russian general Alexander Suvorov is located in the center of Tiraspol.

Suvorov Square in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

Transnistria is formally known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.

A billboard welcoming people to Transnistria in front of the tank monument in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

New buildings feature modern architecture that would not be out of place in US or European cities.

A high-end restaurant in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

The House of Soviets in Tiraspol is today used as the city hall.

The House of Soviets in Tiraspol.Charles Davis/Insider

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