A series of explosions on Monday and Tuesday rocked Transnistria, a small breakaway region within Moldova and on the border with Ukraine, raising fears that the neighboring war could spill over into neighboring countries and turn into a broader conflict.
It was not clear on Tuesday who was behind the attacks in Transnistria, a self-proclaimed republic allied with and heavily dependent on Russia. Local authorities there blamed Ukraine, while Ukraine accused Russia of orchestrating the bombings as a pretext for further aggression.
The Ukrainian military said on Tuesday that Russian forces stationed in Transnistria were put on high alert. Some Ukrainians feared that with Russia already invading their country from the east, south and north, they could add a new Transnistrian front, attacking from the west as well.
Moldova, a former Soviet republic, said the bombings were still under investigation, although an Interior Ministry official said some preliminary evidence suggested Russian involvement.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, heavily armed separatists in Transnistria, which has a large Russian-speaking minority, fought to secede from Moldova. With the support of Russia, they actually gained independence, but Transnistria is not officially recognized internationally.
There are at least 12,000 Russian soldiers stationed in Transnistria, which reached within 25 miles of Odessa, Ukraine’s main port and third largest city. Odessa is likely a key target in Moscow’s stalled attempt to seize Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
A Russian general said last week that Russia intends to control a swathe of land extending not just into Crimea, the peninsula it seized from Ukraine in 2014, but all the way to Transnistria. But it was not clear whether his statement reflected Kremlin policy.
Moldova’s deputy interior minister, Sergio Diacono, said the attacks in Transnistria were carried out against empty or unused buildings during a holiday, and there were no casualties. He said the explosions were apparently an attempt to destabilize the country, possibly being used as a pretext for a military response by Russia, rather than a serious attempt to do harm.
In addition, Mr. Diakono said, the grenades that were used were produced by Russia and used only by the armies of Russia, Transnistria and Gabon. “I don’t think those were Gabonese,” he said of the attackers.
However, the Moldovan authorities did not accuse Moscow of being behind the bombings. The country’s president, Maya Sandu, did not mention Russia when asked on Tuesday about the attacks, saying only that there were “tensions between different forces within the regions, interested in destabilizing the situation”.
Local authorities in Transnistria said there were three separate explosions. One of them targeted the security service building in the capital, Tiraspol. Other explosions targeted the local airport and a radio station in the village of Mayak.
Vadim Krasnoselsky, head of the separatist government of Transnistria, called the bombings “terrorist attacks” and blamed Ukraine. “The effects of these attacks are leading to Ukraine,” he said in a statement, without elaborating. “I suppose those who organized this attack had a goal of dragging Transnistria into the conflict.”
For their part, Ukrainian officials were quick to point the finger at Russia. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said its intelligence indicated the bombings were a “planned provocation” by Russia aimed at inflaming “anti-Ukrainian sentiment”.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Andrei Rudenko, said on Tuesday that “powers that are not interested in regional stability and want to create another flashpoint behind it.” He did not say who those forces were.
Transnistria, with a mixed population of Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian speakers, has been a problem for the Moldovan government for more than three decades, ever since retired Soviet military officers living there led the rebellion.
“Transnistria was created artificially to keep Moldova under threat all the time,” said Alexandru Flinci, former deputy prime minister of Moldova.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Moldovan authorities have been increasingly concerned about the possibility of Russia reactivating its forces stationed in Transnistria, either to attack Ukraine or to invade Moldova, which is not a member of NATO or the European Union, and has limited military forces.
Mr. Flincci said that the people running Transnistria might not be keen on war because it would interfere in one of the countries in the region. Major economic activities, smuggling.
Julian Groza, head of the Institute for European Policy and Reform, a think tank in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, said a Russian invasion of Moldova did not appear imminent. Mr. Gruza said the Russians’ short-term goal appeared to be to destabilize the region and undermine the pro-EU government of Moldova.
Whether the threat of invasion is real or not, Moldovans are worried. Many people reacted to the news of the Transnistrian eruptions in the same way they did to the outbreak of the invasion of Ukraine – fearing the worst.
“People are in a panic again,” said Carmina Ficol, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Chisinau. “The worst case is that a war starts here and everything is disrupted.”
Ivan Nikiburnko Reporting contributed from Tbilisi, Georgia.