CHISINAU, Moldova – A breakaway republic on Ukraine’s south-west border, which supports Russia and is seen as a possible staging post for Moscow’s Ukraine invasion, hosts out-of-date weaponry and reluctant fighters, experts have said.
Transnistria, a 250 mile long strip of land sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova, has attracted attention from military analysts as Russian forces edge closer to it, but concerns it could enter the war may be exaggerated, experts have told Defense News.
The territory remained loyal to Russia in the early 1990s when its two larger neighbors – both former Soviet republics – gained independence from Moscow at the end of the Cold War.
Officially part of Moldova, Transnistria has since been an unrecognized statelet with a population of 300,000, claiming autonomy while receiving free Russian gas and keeping a military force of around 1,300.
Now, as Russia slowly pushes west into Ukraine and may seek to occupy nearby Odessa, speculation has grown that Russian troops will advance to Transnistria and use it as a launch pad for further operations in Ukraine or even an invasion of Moldova.
On paper, Transnistria looks like a perfect place for President Vladimir Putin’s forces to occupy. As well as hosting a garrison of pro-Russian troops, it stores 20,000 tonnes of weaponry, much of which was stashed there by the Russian military at the start of the 1990s when it pulled out of Moldova.
Nicu Popescu, Moldova’s foreign minister said an arms dump is situated in the village of Cobasna on the Ukrainian border.
But the age of the armaments would render most of them unusable in a conflict today, he said.
“We estimate 11,000 tonnes have expired and 9,000 tonnes are usable,” he said, adding no recent access had been granted, making an accurate assessment difficult.
“Right before the war we had a dialogue with the Russian Federation about destroying the expired weapons. … They said they were willing to evacuate or destroy most of the weapons. But we have not discussed the matter in the new context,” he said.
The troops stationed there may not be much use either. Although local forces fought a brief war of independence with Moldova in 1992 in which 1,000 died, they reportedly do not have much will to fight today.
Of the 1,300 soldiers now stationed in Transnistria, 400 take part in a local peacekeeping mission. Of the total, only 50-100 are Russian soldiers dispatched from Russia, said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
Most of the remainder are locals who have been given Russian passports said Popescu.
“They were born there, they have homes there, why would they want to fight?” said Alexandru Flenchea, a former deputy prime minister of Moldova.
Popescu said, “We do not see signs of intentions by the region of Transnistria or its local security forces or Russian military personnel stationed in Transnistria (to prepare) for deployment in military action in Ukraine.”
He cautioned however, “We need to be prepared for all possible risks and a lot will depend on the course of the war in Ukraine.”
While free gas and pension payment top-ups from Russia have kept Transnistria loyal to Moscow in recent years, the statelet has also been admitted into the European Union’s free trade zone. It sells electricity to Moldova and is also a flourishing crossroads for smuggling gasoline and cigarettes between Moldova and Ukraine.
All of which means it has benefitted from its unresolved status and, despite professing loyalty to Russia, is not pleased with the prospect of being reabsorbed into Russia – should Russia take over Ukraine, analysts said.
The problem facing the republic’s leaders is that if the Russians do arrive, they will be unable to turn them away, said De Waal.
“If the Russians show up they will say ‘You owe us,’ and Transnistria would be unable to say no,” he said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.