A string of unexplained explosions in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria has raised fears that President Vladimir Putin could have plans for his war beyond Ukraine.
A Russian general appeared to suggest that the pro-Russian enclave, which borders Ukraine, could be in the Kremlin’s sights.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that Russia wants to capture other countries.
1. WHERE IS TRANSNISTRIA?
It is a sliver of land that runs roughly between the Dniester river in eastern Moldova and Ukraine.
It covers about 4,160 sq km, or about 12 per cent of the territory of Moldova, Europe’s poorest country.
The mainly Russian-speaking enclave is home to fewer than 500,000 people; the rest of Moldova has about 2.6 million.
2. WHAT IS THE HISTORY?
Moldova, including Transnistria, used to be a republic in the Soviet Union.
Even before the USSR collapsed in 1991, Transnistria wanted to remain part of the dying confederation as its own republic, so it declared independence from Moldova in 1990 - a move that wasn’t recognised by the USSR at the time.
In 1992, Transnistria fought a war with Moldova, which had declared its own sovereignty the year before. No United Nations member has recognised Transnistria’s independence, not even Russia.
Russian troops have been in Transnistria since the early 1990s, with their main tasks, according to Moscow, being peacekeeping and protecting ammunition depots.
Russian troops remain in the region despite calls by Moldova’s President Maia Sandu for them to leave.
3. WHAT IS THE STATUS?
There have been several plebiscites on Transnistria’s status, with the last in 2006, when more than 97 per cent backed independence followed by accession to Russia.
An estimated 1,500 Russian troops are stationed in the enclave, according to the IISS Military Balance. Another 7,500 well-trained and armed separatist troops are stationed there, according to a Ukrainian military think-tank.
4. HOW COULD IT GET PULLED INTO RUSSIA'S WAR IN UKRAINE?
A Russian general said last week that the Kremlin aims to secure control of the entire south of Ukraine along with the eastern Donbas region, according to state news services.
That would give Russian forces access to Transnistria, where there is “oppression of the Russian-speaking population”, the TASS news service cited the general as saying.
While no other officials have publicly endorsed that goal, there have been several incidences of violence in the enclave since then.
Moldova’s government said that they are aimed at “creating pretexts for straining the security situation” in the enclave.
The leader of Transnistria, Vadim Krasnoselsky, called on Moldovan authorities not to succumb to provocations or allow a military conflict.
Still, to build a land bridge to Transnistria across southern Ukraine, Russia would have to take a lot more Ukrainian territory. That could be a challenge, as United States officials have said that Russia faces a major depletion of its military hardware.
5. WHAT IS THE BIGGER PICTURE?
Russia supports a string of separatist regions in former Soviet republics, using them as leverage over pro-Western governments in what it considers to be its sphere of influence.
Russia-backed separatists have partly controlled the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of Donbas since 2014, and Putin officially recognised them as a precursor to deploying troops there at the beginning of his invasion of Ukraine.
Russia also supports the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
6. HOW IS MOLDOVA RESPONDING?
It has sought to remain neutral, a status embedded in its constitution, and hasn’t imposed sanctions on Russia. But Moldova has started procedures to join the European Union after making a U-turn by electing a pro-European president and government in the past two years.
Authorities in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, have banned the use of symbols used by the Russian army, seeing them as provocation. The country has also received hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion.
Moldova counts on foreign support and assistance to “manage the refugee crisis and the economic consequences for citizens”, according to Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita.