Kyiv today accused Russia of trying to ‘destabilise’ Moldova’s breakaway region that borders Ukraine after two explosions there prompted fears of Russia launching ‘false flag’ attacks to justify invading the territory.
The explosions destroyed two powerful Soviet-era radio antennas that were re-broadcasting Russian stations in the region of Transnistria, an unrecognised Moscow-backed sliver of land bordering southwestern Ukraine, on Tuesday.
The blasts occurred in the small town of Maiac roughly 12 kilometers (7 miles) west of the border with Ukraine, just days after a Kremlin military chief warned that ‘Russian-speakers’ had been ‘oppressed’ there.
A day earlier, several explosions believed to be caused by rocket-propelled grenades were reported to hit the Ministry of State Security in the city of Tiraspol, the region’s capital. No one was hurt in the explosions, officials said.
On Tuesday, a military unit in the village of Parcani was also targeted. Officials did not offer any details on the incident, but declared a ‘red level of terrorist threat’ and promised to impose additional security measures in the region.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak accused Russia of trying to destabilise Transnistria and warned that ‘if Ukraine falls tomorrow, Russian troops will be at Chisinau’, the Moldovan capital.
‘Russia wants to destabilise the Transnistrian region and hints Moldova should wait for ‘guests’,’ Podolyak said. The United States has warned amid the war in Ukraine that Russia could launch ‘false-flag’ attacks in nearby nations as a pretext for sending in troops.
Last week, Kremlin military chief Rustam Minnekayev said Russia sought control of southern Ukraine, which could provide access to Transnistria, ‘where there have been cases of oppression of the Russian-speaking population’.
Minnekayev, the deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, said Moscow planned to forge a corridor between Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula which Russia annexed in 2014, and the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
Moldova’s foreign ministry summoned Russia’s ambassador over the comments, which it called ‘unfounded and contradicting Russia’s position in support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country within internationally recognised borders’.
The suggestion by a senior Russian official that Moscow needs to defend supporters in a nearby country is a chilling echo of its previous justification for invading Ukraine. And today, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is closely following events in Transnistria, adding that news from the region was a cause for serious concern.
Moldova’s president Maia Sandu said the attacks in Transnistria were an attempt by factions within the territory to increase tensions, as she urged the country’s citizens to remain calm.
Speaking after Moldova’s Security Council held an urgent meeting, Sandu said: ‘From the information we have at this moment, these escalation attempts stem from factions from within the Transnistrian region who are pro-war forces and interested in destabilising the situation in the region.’
She said the security council had recommended improving the combat readiness of security forces, increasing the number of patrols and checks near Moldova’s border with Transnistria, and monitoring critical infrastructure more closely. Sandu said: ‘We urge citizens to keep calm and feel safe,’ while urging authorities to tighten public safety measures and protection of critical infrastructure.
Transnistria’s president, Vadim Krasnoselsky, also called on Tuesday for anti-terrorist security measures to be imposed at a ‘red level’ for 15 days, including setting up blockposts at the entrances to cities.
The Moldovan authorities are sensitive to any sign of growing tensions in Transnistria, especially since Russia invaded their neighbour Ukraine. Transnistria, a strip of land with about 470,000 people between Moldova and Ukraine, is recognised internationally as part of Moldova but is effectively controlled by Russia, which has given citizenship to separatists.
An estimated 1,500 Russian troops are permanently stationed in the Transnistria, but concerns are high that the region could be used as a launch pad for new attacks on Ukraine. Russia’s military base still guards a stockpile of some 20,000 tonnes of munitions which were brought there when Soviet troops withdrew from Europe.
In the early hours of Tuesday, two explosions hit a radio tower re-broadcasting Russian stations near the Ukrainian border. ‘Early on April 26, two explosions were heard in the village of Mayak in Grigoriopolsky district,’it said in a statement. It said the blasts at 6:40 am and 7:05 am (0340 GMT and 0405 GMT) targeted the ‘Mayak’ radio centre, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the regional capital Tiraspol.
The ministry said two ‘powerful’ antennae that were re-broadcasting Russian radio were out of order, and shared images of them lying on the ground. There were no injuries, it added. This came after the Transnistrian authorities said the offices of the state security ministry in Tiraspol were hit by what appeared to be a grenade-launcher attack on Monday evening.
No one was injured in the incident, which happened at around 6:00 pm on a public holiday for the Orthodox Easter. But windows were blown out in the state security ministry building and smoke was ‘billowing out of the buildings’, the Transnistria region’s interior ministry said in a statement. There was no immediate reason to suggest a link between the two incidents. The conflict in Ukraine has provoked fears in Moldova that the country could become Russia’s next target.
Moldovan President Sandu on Tuesday called for a meeting of the country’s Supreme Security Council in response to the incidents. ‘The Supreme Security Council will meet from 1300 (1000 GMT) at the Presidency. After the meeting, at 1500, President Maia Sandu will hold a press briefing’, the president’s press office said in a statement.
On Monday, the Moldovan government said the Tiraspol blasts were aimed at creating tensions in a region it had no control of. Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest states, was part of the Soviet Union but a war broke out between Moldovan forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Transnistria area in 1992. A ceasefire was agreed but the conflict remains unresolved.
Unlike Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova is not seeking Nato membership. The landlocked country, with a population of just 2.6million, has only a few thousand active military personnel, so it would not be able to withstand a Russian invasion.