Moldova has urged citizens to remain calm after the Russian ministry of defence claimed Ukraine was preparing to take over a Moldovan breakaway region that is home to a large ammunition depot.
The Moldovan government said Thursday that it “does not confirm the information disseminated this morning by the Russian ministry of defence”. Ukraine did not comment on the statement.
Moscow’s statement referred to Transnistria, a region under its control that broke away from Moldova in the 1990s following an armed conflict. The region is still home to 1,600 Russian soldiers and has one of the largest ammunition depots within the former Soviet Union.
Russia’s rhetoric vis-à-vis Moldova has escalated in recent weeks after the pro-western government of President Maia Sandu unveiled intelligence of an alleged Russian plot to topple her, an issue she raised in meetings with senior EU and US officials. On Wednesday, Sandu met US President Joe Biden in Warsaw, who pledged support for her country.
For Moldova, which has applied for EU membership but maintains a neutral defence policy, the war in Ukraine has made it harder to control longstanding tensions with the Russian-backed separatists in Transnistria.
The war has also exposed Moldova’s anxiety about being dragged into a direct confrontation with Russia. Sandu only confirmed the Russian plot days after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy went public about it.
At the beginning of the war, Transnistria was seen by military experts as a potential launch pad for Russia to capture southern Ukraine. But with Russian troops being pushed back into the south-east of the country, there is a significantly reduced possibility of Russia using the Moldovan breakaway region militarily, or establishing supply lines through Ukrainian territory.
Still, some 22,000 tonnes of ammunition are estimated to be stocked in Transnistria when Kyiv and Moscow are struggling to replenish their own dwindling stocks of ammunition.
Moldovan deputy prime minister Oleg Serebrian told the Financial Times on Tuesday that “control over the biggest stock of ammunition in eastern Europe is important in this war”. However demoralised or unwilling they might be, he said that it would be hard for Transnistrian soldiers to disobey Russia’s orders.
“One the big problems that the Ukrainians have now is not to control a very big stock of Soviet ammunition just 8km from their border,” said Victor Munteanu, a security expert at the Institute for Public Policy, a think-tank in Chișinău. “There might be the 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 to [attack] with missiles from the Black Sea.”