BRUSSELS – A series of explosions on Monday and Tuesday shook Transnistria, a small breakaway region in Moldova and bordering Ukraine, raising fears that the war next door could spill over into neighboring countries and become a wider conflict.
It remained unclear Tuesday who was behind the attacks in Transnistria, a self-proclaimed republic linked to – and heavily dependent on – Russia. Local authorities there blamed Ukraine, while Ukraine accused Russia of orchestrating the explosions as a pretext for further aggression.
The Ukrainian army said on Tuesday that Russian troops stationed in Transnistria had been placed on high alert. Some Ukrainians have expressed fears that, with Russia already invading their country from the east, south and north, they could add a new front from Transnistria, including from the west.
Moldova, a former Soviet republic, said the explosions are still under investigation, although an interior ministry official said there was initial evidence suggesting Russian involvement.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, heavily armed separatists in Transnistria, which has a significant minority of Russian speakers, fought to break away from Moldova. In fact, with Russian support, they won independence, but Transnistria is not formally recognized internationally.
At least 12,000 Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria, which reached within 40 miles of Odessa, Ukraine’s main port and third-largest city. Odessa may be a prime target in Moscow’s stalled attempt to capture Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
A Russian general said last week that Russia was planning to take control of a stretch of land that stretched not only to Crimea, the peninsula it captured from Ukraine in 2014, but all the way to Transnistria. But it was not clear that his statement reflected Kremlin policies.
The attacks in Transnistria were carried out on vacant or disused buildings while on holiday, and there were no casualties, Moldovan deputy interior minister Sergiu Diaconu said. He said explosions appeared to be an attempt to destabilize the country, possibly serving as an excuse for a military response from Russia, not as a serious attempt to cause damage.
In addition, Mr Diaconu said, the grenades used were produced by Russia and are only used by the armies of Russia, Transnistria and Gabon. He said of the attackers: “I don’t think these were the Gabonese.”
Still, the Moldovan authorities did not accuse Moscow of being behind the explosions. The country’s president, Maia Sandu, did not name Russia when asked about the attacks on Tuesday, saying only that there were “tensions between various forces in the regions, which were interested in destabilizing the situation”.
There were three separate explosions, local authorities in Transnistria said. One targeted a security agency building in the capital, Tiraspol. The other explosions hit the local airport and a radio station in Mayak village.
Vadim Krasnoselsky, the president of Transnistria’s separatist government, called the explosions “terrorist attacks” and blamed Ukraine. “Tracks of these attacks lead to Ukraine,” he said in a statement, without providing details. “I assume that those who organized this attack have the aim of dragging Transnistria into the conflict.”
For their part, Ukrainian officials were quick to point the finger at Russia. Ukraine’s defense ministry said its intelligence indicated the explosions were “a planned provocation” by Russia, aimed at fueling “anti-Ukrainian sentiment”.
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Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said on Tuesday that “forces not interested in regional stability and wanting to create a new hotbed of tensions are behind this”. He didn’t say who those powers were.
Transnistria, with a mixed population of Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian speaking, has been a problem for the Moldovan government for more than three decades, since retired Soviet soldiers living there led the uprising.
“Transnistria has been artificially created to keep Moldova under constant threat,” said Alexandru Flenchea, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Moldova.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Moldovan authorities have been increasingly concerned about the possibility that Russia might activate its Transnistria-based forces to attack Ukraine or invade Moldova, which is not a member of NATO or the European Union. . and has limited armed forces.
Mr Flenchea said that the people who run Transnistria may not be fond of war because it would hinder one of the region’s main economic activities, smuggling.
Iulian Groza, the head of the Institute for European Policy and Reform, a research institute in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, said a Russian invasion of Moldova seemed imminent. The Russians’ short-term goal, Groza said, appeared to be to destabilize the region and undermine Moldova’s pro-European government.
Whether the threat of invasion is real or not, Moldovans are concerned. Many people reacted to the news of the explosions in Transnistria in the same way they reacted to the outbreak of the invasion of Ukraine, fearing the worst.
“People are panicking again,” said Carmina Vicol, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Chisinau. “The worst thing is that war starts here and disrupts everything.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia.