On the same day that the first of a series of explosions rocked Transnistria, a thin strip of land in Moldova bordering Ukraine illegally occupied by Russian soldiers, three Russian cruise missiles were aimed at a bridge not far from the black border. Port city of Odessa.
One of them hit its target on Monday, according to Ukrainian military officials, but the bridge was still standing. The next day, the bridge was hit again.
The strikes on the bridge, which connects southwestern Ukraine to Romania across the Dniester estuary, have raised alarms that Moscow is trying to cut off part of the region ahead of more aggressive military moves. They have also fueled growing concerns that Russia is seeking to establish a pretext to use the Transnistria region as a springboard for attacks on Odessa and southern Ukraine.
Russia has also placed warships near the coast of Odessa to keep Ukrainian forces pinned down, a senior US Department of Defense official said Thursday.
In response to growing tensions in Transnistria, Ukraine’s military announced on Thursday that it was moving more troops to the border, according to Serhii Bratchuk, spokesman for the Odessa regional military administration.
“We have strengthened the protection of the state border with the so-called Transnistria, where Russian provocations continue in order to create certain hotbeds of tension for the Odessa region”, he said on Telegram.
At the very least, the unrest in Transnistria – which the Ukrainian army general staff has described as a “red level” threat – forces the Ukrainians to deploy resources hundreds of kilometers from the eastern front.
And while Russia failed in its bid to march on Odessa in the first phase of its invasion, Ukraine’s military has said in recent days that Russia is regrouping for a fresh assault. However, military analysts have said aggressive Ukrainian counterattacks in southern territory controlled by Russian forces are undermining those efforts, and there is no indication that Russia currently has enough forces in place to stage a successful campaign.
Despite the resumption of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, focused mainly on the eastern front, a Russian commander, General Rustam Minnekayev, recently declared that Moscow wanted full control of southern Ukraine and intended to cut off the Black Sea countries.
“Transnistria’s most useful role for Russia would be to provide medical aid and food, to guard convoys and to secure the rail network,” wrote the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based group, in a recent report. “Russia could use the civilian railways leading from Ukraine to Transnistria to resupply its troops, repair equipment and allow them to regroup in less hostile territory than Ukraine, buying more time.”
Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu said it was “a new, very dangerous moment in the history of our region”.
“We are increasing the intensity of patrols and checks on the territory of the Republic of Moldova and on the border,” he told reporters on Wednesday. He said there were “certainly forces around Moldova and in Moldova that are interested in the further deterioration of the situation and the deterioration of the security situation at the same time”.
Mr Popescu’s government is paying particular attention to activities around a Russian ammunition depot in the village of Kolbasna, where unconfirmed reports of gunfire have been reported in recent days.
While the depot is thought to contain mostly obsolete Soviet-era weapons, the report by RUSI, the London-based institute, said the pro-Kremlin press appears to be setting up the depot’s ‘vulnerability’ weapons as possible. pretext for Russian military action.
The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of plotting “false flag” attacks in the region and seeking to destabilize the government of Moldova.
Russia has already described the explosions in Transnistria as “acts of terrorism, aimed at destabilization”.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told a briefing on Thursday that Moscow “condemns attempts to drag Transnistria into what is happening in Ukraine.” His comments were echoed by Vadim Krasnoselsky, the chairman of the separatist government of Transnistria.
But it was the strike on the bridge more than comments from the Kremlin or its proxies that set off the Ukrainian alarm.
On the day the first missile hit the bridge, Oleksiy Arestovych, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said that “the military-political situation around Ukraine has changed.
He said the attack on the bridge was intended to prevent Ukraine from moving troops into the area. “So we can assume that they can organize a landing operation there,” Arestovych said, referring to Russian troops. “The main thing is that we understand that they have added a new operational direction.”
This knowledge, he said, would allow the Ukrainians to stop any new line of Russian advance again.