February 24, 2023 - 9:30am

Given the sheer scale of the carnage, it seems wrong to describe the war in Ukraine as ‘limited’. But in one important respect it is. Despite the involvement of other countries in providing support to either Kyiv or Moscow, all of the fighting so far has been between Ukrainian defenders and Russian invaders. 

Further, aside from the occasional Ukrainian strike on Russian infrastructure, the military action is confined to Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Thus, since the start of the invasion a year ago, only one international border has been violated. 

However, that might be about to change. For weeks, tensions have been mounting between Russia and Moldova, which borders Ukraine. Earlier this month, the Moldovan President, Maia Sandu, accused Moscow of plotting a coup against her country’s pro-Western government. This week Vladimir Putin cancelled a foreign policy decree that recognises Moldovan independence.  

This morning, there are reports of a claim from the Russian Ministry of Defence that Ukraine is planning to move against Transnistria — a Russian-backed breakaway republic on Moldovan territory. This could provide the pretext for another Russian invasion. 

If the geography is confusing you, here’s a quick primer: Moldova is a small country of 2.6 million people sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. It is not a member of NATO or the EU — and so if Putin has territorial ambitions beyond Ukraine, Moldova is acutely vulnerable.

Indeed, Russian troops are already there — and have been for decades. In 1991, a sliver of territory on Moldova’s eastern fringe broke away to establish the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ — better known as Transnistria. No member of the United Nations recognises Transnistrian sovereignty — not even Russia (officially). However, Russian ‘peacekeepers’ stationed on the territory have enabled its de facto independence from the rest of Moldova. 

Now, the war in Ukraine has unfrozen the Moldovan conflict. Had the invasion gone to plan, with the Russians conquering all of southern Ukraine from Mariupol to Odesa then that would have created a land bridge from Russia to the Moldovan border. There would have been nothing to stop Putin from incorporating Transnistria into his new empire — and perhaps the rest of Moldova, too.

However, the Russians were held back at Mykolaiv. They then retreated from Kherson. Transnistria is therefore more isolated than ever — and the Russian troops stationed there surrounded by hundreds of miles of hostile territory and airspace. 

But why would Putin be so obsessed about this sliver of land, which at some points is less than five miles wide? Yes, there are ethnic Russians living there, but according to the latest census they make up just 29.1% of the population (the remainder is largely divided between ethnic Moldovans and ethnic Ukrainians). 

Transnistria may be the key to controlling the rest of Moldova, but why bother? This is the poorest country in Europe, with no strategic resources. What’s more, from a Russian nationalist point of view, the Moldovan language (which is near identical to Romanian) is derived from Latin, not Slavic, roots. 

The only real motivating factor here is that Moldova used to be part of the old Soviet Union. As should be plainly obvious from Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Georgia — and from Moscow’s growing encroachment on the independence of Belarus — Putin’s ambition is to recreate the USSR.

The post-Soviet history of Transnistria and the other Russian-backed breakaway states is a reminder of the real causes of conflict in Eastern Europe. The notion that NATO expansion provoked Russia is a cynical lie. The truth is the precise opposite: countries like Romania and the Baltic States joined NATO to escape Russian expansion. It’s why they don’t have Russian boot on their soil — unlike Ukraine and Moldova. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.