What Russia’s Failed Coercion of Transnistria Means for the Annexation of Occupied Territory in Ukraine
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]
The series of bombings in Transnistria in late April was likely a false flag operation executed by the Kremlin intended to draw Transnistria into its invasion of Ukraine. Moscow’s effort was likely unsuccessful due to a fundamental misalignment of interests between the Kremlin and Viktor Gushan, the most powerful player in Transnistria. The Kremlin’s failure to coerce Transnistrian leadership could be part of the dynamic, along with recent Ukrainian battlefield successes, driving Moscow to annex occupied territory in Ukraine. This failure also demonstrates the extent to which Moscow’s proxies and allies are hesitant to join the Kremlin’s faltering invasion of Ukraine.
At 5:00 p.m. on April 25, a series of explosions rocked* the Ministry of State Security (MGB) headquarters in Transnistria, a Russian-backed breakaway republic in Moldova. Transnistria’s president quickly went on air and spoke live to the nation, blaming Ukraine for these “terrorist attacks”* and demanding that Kyiv crack down on rogue militant groups within its borders. Russian officials began commenting* on the explosions the next day and warned of the dangers of “Ukraine’s attacks” in Transnistria.
This series of events alarmed many international observers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was stalling at the time. Some experts feared* that Moscow would attempt to open an additional front by invading Ukraine through Transnistria, which the bombings looked like the perfect pretense for. The Critical Threats Project assesses that the bombings were likely an attempt by Moscow to involve Transnistria in the war.
More remarkable than the explosions was what came after them—nothing. There was no significant reaction from the Transnistrian breakaway state. This lack of reaction suggests that Moscow failed to strong-arm Transnistria. While it is unclear what exactly the Kremlin wanted from Transnistrian leadership, it is clear that it wanted them to do something. This failure to coerce is an instructive case on the limits of the Kremlin’s power at a time when Moscow is considering what to do with its proxies in Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine. Understanding this failure may predict the Kremlin’s future course of action with its Ukrainian proxies. The Kremlin may also continue to pressure Transnistria even if success is unlikely. It is important to understand the Transnistrian breakaway state structure to understand what went wrong for the Kremlin in Transnistria and the limits of this case’s predictive power.