Moldova urges calm after Russian threat over breakaway region

Moldova has urged citizens to remain calm after Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed Ukraine was preparing to take over a breakaway Moldova region home to a large ammunition depot.

The Moldovan government said Thursday it “does not confirm the information circulated by the Russian Defense Ministry this morning.” Ukraine did not comment on the statement.

Moscow’s statement referred to Transnistria, a region under its control that broke away from Moldova after an armed conflict in the 1990s. The region is still home to 1,600 Russian soldiers and has one of the largest ammunition dumps in the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s rhetoric towards Moldova has escalated in recent weeks after President Maia Sandu’s pro-Western government revealed information about an alleged Russian plot to overthrow her, an issue she raised at meetings with senior EU and US officials. Sandu met with US President Joe Biden in Warsaw on Wednesday, who pledged support for her country.

For Moldova, which has applied for EU membership but maintains a neutral defense policy, the war in Ukraine has made it harder to contain longstanding tensions with Russian-backed separatists in Transnistria.

The war has also exposed Moldova’s fear of being drawn into a direct confrontation with Russia. Sandu only confirmed the Russian plot a few days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made it public.

At the start of the war, military experts saw Transnistria as a possible launch pad for Russia to conquer southern Ukraine. However, as Russian troops are pushed back to the south-east of the country, there is a significantly reduced possibility that Russia will use the breakaway region of Moldova militarily or establish supply lines through Ukrainian territory.

Still, an estimated 22,000 tons of munitions are stored in Transnistria as Kiev and Moscow struggle to replenish their own dwindling munitions stocks.

Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian told the Financial Times on Tuesday that “controlling the largest stockpile of ammunition in Eastern Europe is important in this war.” However demoralized or unwilling they may be, he said it will be difficult for Transnistrian soldiers to disobey Russia’s orders.

“Our question now is how high the degree of autonomy of the Transnistrian authorities is,” said Serebrian, who oversees relations with Transnistria. “We realize that if they were ordered by Russia to do anything, even suicide, they would do it.”

A significant part of Transnistria’s depot dates from the early days of the Cold War, when ammunition was transported there from East Germany, and it is unclear whether the oldest explosives can still be used. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conducted the last western inspection of the depot in 2006, but access at the time was restricted by Russian troops stationed there.

“One of the big problems that Ukrainians now have is not controlling a very large stockpile of Soviet ammunition just 8 km from their border,” said Victor Munteanu, a security expert at the Institute for Public Policy, a think tank in Chisinau. “There might be a temptation for the Ukrainians, who need more ammunition to get their hands on the depot, but also for the Russians to use the threat to the depot as an excuse [attack] with rockets from the Black Sea.” Moldova urges calm after Russian threat over breakaway region

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