Since the beginning of Russia's war against Ukraine, the security environment around Moldova has weakened for various reasons, due to the refugee crisis and disruptions to businesses. Until now, it was believed that the situation around the breakaway region — Transnistria — was under Chisinau’s control. Perhaps, this might have led to a certain degree of complacency on the part of Moldovan authorities. Transnistria’s nonaggressive stance towards Chisinau or Ukraine indeed created the impression that the existing status quo could be maintained until the end of the war in neighboring Ukraine. However, the reality looks slightly different now and is evolving. According to media reports, there are clear indications of forces interested in destabilizing the Transnistrian region with links to a network of spies working undercover in the region on behalf of the Russian military.
Complacency or correct reading of the cards?
As one might expect, the Moldovan government started assessing the costs to the Transnistria region if it were to join the Russian aggression. Moscow’s forces would prove insurmountable against a small, unrecognized, self-proclaimed, and landlocked "republic" that is wholly dependent on Ukraine and the rest of Moldova for access to regional economic supply chains and markets. Neither Transnistria’s political leadership nor the local kleptocratic groups controlling the holding company Sheriff — the second-largest company in the breakaway state — are ready to burn the bridges with Ukraine, as it would result in too great a dependency on Moscow or a political and economic default due to total isolation. The conditions under which Sheriff operates are crucial for the region's budget, accounted for 286 million dollars in 2014 — half of the company's income that very year. As such, Sheriff’s strategic interests are crucial when analyzing Tiraspol’s political and military considerations.
However, the circumstances are shifting towards unpredictability about the permanent interests of the region’s actors vis-à-vis Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova’s constitutional authorities. A series of provocations in Tiraspol and elsewhere in the region that began amid the Christian Orthodox Easter celebrations were quickly attributed to a false flag operation by Russian forces or their proxies. The real perpetrator of these acts of destabilization is yet to be uncovered, but Ukraine and Russia have engaged in a mutual blame game. Russia’s arguments that Ukraine is behind such attacks are not convincing as Kiev is not interested in opening another battlefront without a clear necessity of defense. At the same, it is also true that dragging Transnistria into the war could be fatal for the region as well as Russia’s strategic position in Moldova. So far, the provocations include a grenade attack on the Transnistrian intelligence service building, the blowing up of two radio transmission towers, and other acts of low-scale destruction aimed at inflicting damage on critical infrastructure. No human casualties have been recorded thus far, indicating that the perpetrators (domestic or external) are interested in spreading a wave of shock and instability in the region and for it to spill over across Moldova.
Chisinau reacts with a heightened alert regime, Tiraspol with a "red code"
Until now, the Transnistria region has shown no interest in being dragged into the war; however, its room for manoeuvre is shrinking now, especially if the attacks involve civilians and cause extensive destruction. However, Tiraspol has been unhappy and critical of Chisinau, accusing it of staging an economic blockade. In fact, the Moldovan side has been applying restrictions on certain imports to the region following Tiraspol’s noncompliance with Moldovan legislation. At present, relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau are further complicated since the former expected the latter to contact it through political and diplomatic channels to ease the tense situation. For its part, Chisinau criticized some of the measures adopted by Tiraspol, deeming them too harsh for the population in the region.
While the identity of those behind the explosions in the region is still unclear, Moldova has raised the alert level around its security zone with Transnistria, with police patrolling along the borders and within the country to ensure the highest level of protection to critical infrastructure. For their part, the separatist authorities have adopted a far more drastic set of measures, ranging from the cancellation of public gatherings, including the May 9th celebrations, to the tightening of supervision at entry points to the region and the control of weapons currently in circulation. The scale and detailed nature of such measures — in place for at least 15 days — are incomparable with the relatively generic adjustments made by the Moldovan National Security Council.
Three types of actions are necessary to prevent the current destabilization attempts from turning into military escalations similar to the ones Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, which would ultimately lead to destruction — primarily in Transnistria — and the intensification of Moldova’s humanitarian crisis.
First, it is of the utmost importance to support Ukraine's military to prevent the advance of Russian forces on the West (in the Odesa region), as well as to help the Ukrainian resistance in other parts of the country.
Second, assistance must be offered to Moldova, even if it does not seem to be publicly asking for it. Given its neutrality status, if it were to overtly ask for military support, pro-Russian political forces could perceive it as a breach of the constitution at best. This could escalate the situation before Moldova managed to receive any substantial support. Protecting critical infrastructure, conducting an inventory o military reserves, and possibly supplying the lacking supplies to law enforcement agencies are essential measures to ensure a minimum level of preparedness.
Third and last, international actors should use the existing negotiation formats around the Transnistria conflict with — or without — Russia’s participation to ensure permanent communication between Chisinau and Tiraspol. The EU is the best placed actor for the job, particularly some European countries, such as Sweden, which have good communication with the region’s de jure authorities. Without communication, it is impossible to prevent certain decisions that might otherwise lead to partial destabilization or, worse, full-fledged escalation.