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Mysterious explosions in Transnistria region of Moldova rattle Ukraine's neighbor

Explosions reported at Ukraine-Moldova border
Explosions reported along Ukraine-Moldova border 05:50

A series of mysterious explosions have taken place across Transnistria, a pro-Kremlin breakaway territory of Moldova that hosts Russian troops, sparking fears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine may spill over to other countries in the region.

Moldova is facing "a very dangerous new moment," Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister Nicu Popescu said Thursday, warning of unnamed forces attempting to stir tension in Transnistria, a narrow strip of land that shares a border with Ukraine.

Transnistria proclaimed independence from Moldova in 1990 and de-facto runs itself independently of Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, but is not internationally recognized.

The attacks come days after the Russian military commander signaled that Moscow could be seeking a path to Moldova in its "second stage" of the military operation.

"Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are also facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population," the acting commander of Russia's Central Military District Rustam Minnekaev said, in what is the most direct threat to Moldova voiced by Russian officials to date.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the alleged discrimination against Russian speakers in Ukraine as justification to launch a brutal attack on Ukrainian cities in late February.

This week Transnistrian authorities said explosions targeted a state security ministry headquarters in Tiraspol, the breakaway territory's main city; a military unit in Parcani village; and two radio towers that rebroadcasted Russian news, according to Transnistrian authorities.

On Wednesday, local media outlets reported a shooting incident had occurred near Russian arms and ammunition depots on the outskirts of the Cobasna village.

No one immediately took responsibility for the attack, and there were no reported casualties. But Transnistrian officials pointed fingers at Ukraine.

A Transnistrian serviceman gets off a bus after checking passengers entering the self-proclaimed Moldovan Republic of Transnistria at Varnita border point with Moldova on April 28, 2022. DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images

"We imposed a special emergency mode: a red terror alert," Transnistrian foreign minister Vitaly Ignatiev told Russian news agency Interfax. "According to preliminary data, the traces of those who organized the attacks are leading to Ukraine."

Moldova's President Maia Sandu said Tuesday that the attacks were an attempt to escalate tensions and blamed "pro-war factions" and infighting within the breakaway territory's administration.

"We condemn any challenges and attempts to lure the Republic of Moldova into actions that could jeopardize peace in the country," Sandu said. "Chisinau continues to insist on a peaceful settlement of the Transnistrian conflict."

Moldova has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the war broke out on February 24. Its government has condemned Russia's war and submitted a bid to join the European Union along with Georgia and Ukraine. It is also seeking the EU's support in handling the influx of refugees and calling on the bloc to step up support for the country.

But it is also trying to carefully balance its neutral stance with NATO to signal it is not willing to be the next target for Russia.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said the alleged attacks in Transnistria were a provocation organized by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

"We clearly understand that this is one of the steps of the Russian Federation. The special services are working there. It's not just about fake news. The goal is obvious — to destabilize the situation in the region, to threaten Moldova. They show that if Moldova supports Ukraine, there will be certain steps," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday.

Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an open-source intelligence and military analytics group that has been monitoring the invasion of Ukraine, said a daily briefing: "We see how the tension in the region continues to escalate. The President of the Transnistrian Moldavian Republic, Vadim Krasnoselsky, says he does not want to drag his country into this war. At the same time, we see that checkpoints are starting to appear in Tiraspol and other places in Transnistria to Moldova's concern." 

"Our assumption is, although it is not confirmed yet, is that Krasnoselsky is under pressure from the local Ministry of State Security, which is probably a local branch of the FSB, and is somehow pushing him to war or mobilization."

According to CIT, roughly two battalion tactical groups are located at the Russian base in Transnistria. General mobilization would allow Russian forces to recruit around 10 more such groups.

"This cannot significantly affect the situation in Ukraine, but it can force Ukrainian troops to keep part of their forces near Odesa," CIT said. Odesa is a key port city in Ukraine's south that Russia has failed to capture in its campaign to make Ukraine landlocked.

Russian officials publicly expressed concern about the events in Transnistria.

"We strongly condemn attempts to involve Transnistria in what is happening in Ukraine," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a briefing Thursday. "We call for restraint in Chisinau and Tiraspol and a return to a constructive search for optimal solutions to the issues on the agenda."

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