Russia accuses Western powers of waging a “proxy war” via Ukraine. President Joe Biden refers to the conflict as not just a war between Russia and Ukraine but an attack on the “free world.” And some of Ukraine’s supporters say we’re already in World War III. Given the number of countries now involved in the war and the rhetoric they’re employing, it’s almost surprising that the violence — at least in terms of open fighting between militaries — has been largely confined inside the country’s borders.
More than two months into the war, that may be changing. We still haven’t seen the direct NATO vs. Russia combat that many fear, but increasingly, the violence is spilling beyond Ukraine’s frontiers.
Recent attacks on Russian soil and in Transnistria, a semi-autonomous region of Moldova, have been shrouded in murkiness and confusion, making it hard to predict where they might lead. But taken together, these very different incidents suggest the war is spreading outside Ukraine.
Russia’s war comes home
On April 1, fire engulfed a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, just a little over 20 miles from the Ukrainian border. Videos appeared to show two helicopters firing on the facility with rockets, and Russian officials quickly blamed Ukraine for the attack, which would have been the first Ukrainian strike on Russian soil since the war began. Ukrainian officials at first denied responsibility, though President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would later neither confirm nor deny Ukrainian involvement.
Over the past month, the incidents have multiplied: explosions at military and industrial sites in Kursk and Voronezh, and an apparent missile strike in Bryansk. All three are Russian cities near the Ukrainian border. Russia also shot down a Ukrainian drone some 70 miles inside Russian territory.
There have also been a number of mysterious fires at sites near Moscow, well outside the range of Ukrainian drones and missiles: a military research institute in Tver, a chemical plant in Kineshma, an aerospace college in Korolyov.
Most recently, on Monday morning, the governor of Belgorod reported two new explosions, just a day after a fire at a ministry of defense facility of the region. All in all, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has tallied at least a dozen such incidents in Russia over the last month.
The Ukrainian government has been coy about the spate of fires and explosions; they haven’t claimed responsibility, but they haven’t denied it either. Zelenskyy’s Senior Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak described them as “karma” for the Russian invasion. But if it’s not Ukrainian military action, the only other likely explanations are sabotage carried out by Ukrainian agents or sympathetic Russians.
As the Washington Post notes, accidental fires are hardly unheard of at Russian industrial facilities, but it’s hard to believe there would have been so many accidents at facilities linked to the Russian war effort in such a short period of time. Russia has been known to mount “false flag” attacks in the past, but it’s equally hard to see what it would gain from such actions at this point.
Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, told Grid that by not acknowledging its strikes, Ukraine may be trying to “maintain plausible deniability” or to “keep the Russians off kilter.”
In any event, if there was concern at the start of the war about a spillover beyond Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s Western backers don’t seem to have much of a problem with Ukrainian strikes inside Russia. U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a BBC interview last week that Ukraine had the right under international law to “go after the supply lines of the Russian army.” But Wallace said in the same interview that it was unlikely British weapons were being used to attack Russia; and NATO countries are likely eager to avoid anything that looks even slightly like a Western-aided attack on Russian soil. The U.S. and other countries are providing Ukraine with intelligence cooperation; it’s unclear whether they have provided specific information regarding Russian targets.
There’s some irony in this situation: For years, the Kremlin has employed so-called gray zone tactics in Ukraine, sending troops and private contractors into the country while claiming that it’s doing nothing of the sort and that the Russians fighting in Ukraine are simply patriotic volunteers helping the separatists in the Donbas. Now that Russia is openly invading Ukraine, the shadow war may be coming home to Russia.
Transnistria: Rumblings on the Western front?
Last week saw three apparent terrorist attacks in Transnistria, the semi-autonomous, Russian-backed enclave in Moldova, which sits on Ukraine’s Western border and hosts a small number of Russian troops. The attacks targeted a military base, two Soviet-era radio towers and the headquarters of the Transnistrian government’s state security service.
Ukrainian officials and Western analysts quickly accused Russia of carrying out false-flag attacks, provocations that would ultimately be used to justify Russian intervention in the region. (For what it’s worth, the Ukrainians had been warning about precisely this scenario in Transnistria since January — weeks before the invasion of Ukraine.) Authorities in Transnistria, meanwhile, said that Ukrainian “nationalists” had crossed the border to carry out the attacks. The government of Moldova said they were the result of infighting between rival political factions in Transnistria. In any event, the attacks have heightened alarm in a place where tensions were already running high.
So, what is Transnistria? The territory, formally known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), is a thin strip of land separated from the rest of Moldova, a former Soviet state, by the Dniester River with a population of roughly 400,000. Generally speaking, during the Soviet era, Transnistria was more heavily industrialized and closer politically and culturally to Moscow, while “right-bank” Moldova was more rural and culturally influenced by neighboring Romania. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Moldova became independent, the two sides fought a short war, in which the Transnistrians were backed by Russia. A ceasefire signed in 1992 established the region’s de facto independence, though it is not formally recognized by any other country, including Russia.
Transnistria is often thought of as a kind of post-Soviet time capsule, where busts of Lenin still adorn town squares. And the breakaway state remains heavily dependent on Russia, which provides it with free gas and pays its elderly citizens their “Putin pension” in exchange for hosting Russian troops.
But Transnistria is actually far less isolated than other post-Soviet breakaway regions and has been drawing closer to Europe in recent years. About 70 percent of the region’s trade is now with the EU, and many Transnistrians have acquired Moldovan passports since the country’s citizens got the right to travel to the EU without a visa. The last time Transnistria made global headlines was in 2021, when local soccer team FC Sheriff Tiraspol beat global powerhouse Real Madrid in the Champions League.
There’s been speculation since the beginning of the conflict as to what role Transnistria might play in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans. Infamously, at the beginning of March, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko was photographed briefing his security council in front of a (mostly accurate, as it turned out) map of Russia’s military offensive, which included an arrow that appeared to show troops moving into Transnistria. Even as it has scaled back its war aims elsewhere, Russia does not appear to have given up on the Transnistrian dream entirely: Just before last week’s explosions, a senior Russian general, Rustam Minnekayev, was quoted saying that the goals of the new stage of Russia’s special operation included taking full control of southern Ukraine which would “give the Russian army access to Transnistria where facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population have also been observed.”
Oleksandr Gorgan, a deputy commander in the Ukrainian army, told Grid it is “a big priority for us to make sure that Russians cannot use Transnistria for their invasion of Ukraine.” And the U.S. Institute for the Study of War has speculated that “Putin might recognize the self-styled Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in Transnistria as he recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The PMR could then ask for additional Russian protection, and Putin could attempt to send some additional forces or capabilities to Transnistria.”
There are a couple of problems with this scenario. First, just as was the case with eastern Ukraine, it’s far from clear that Transnistrians want to be “liberated.” There has reportedly been an uptick in applications for Moldovan passports since the war started. Keith Harrington, a Ph.D. student and analyst who writes on Transnistrian affairs, told Grid that the enclave’s de facto authorities have been treading carefully during the conflict, torn between their dependence on Moscow and growing ties to Europe. “It’s quite surprising to see how neutral they’ve been,” Harrington said. He notes that officials have purposely avoided using Russia’s preferred term “special military operation,” but also avoided calling it a war. “They call it a ‘situation,’” he said.
Second, it’s far from clear how Russian troops would even get there. Lukashenko’s map seemed to envision a march to Transnistria from Odessa on Ukraine’s southern coast. In the early days of the war, it looked very possible that city would fall to the Russians. Now, when Russia’s depleted forces have their hands full in the eastern Donbas region, it seems highly unlikely they’ll make a serious move on the cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv — which stand between the bulk of Russian forces and the Moldovan border — any time soon, much less build any sort of “land bridge” to Transnistria. “They’d probably all die if they tried,” Sam Cranny-Evans, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Moscow Times.
Could Russia launch an offensive from Transnistria to threaten Western Ukraine? There have been reports of Transnistria putting together around 10,000 soldiers from its local militia, but Harrington said, “They’re not very well trained. They’re in terrible physical shape. They don’t want to fight and probably aren’t interested in going to die for Ukraine.” The three Russian battalions left over from the 1990s probably won’t be much help either: They number only about 1,500 troops, only a few hundred of whom are actually Russians. “They’re not a viable fighting force that’s going to change the course of the war in Western Ukraine at all,” said Harrington. Since there’s no way to reach Transnistria from Russia without crossing Ukrainian territory or airspace, it wouldn’t be easy to reinforce them.
All this makes Russia’s intentions pretty baffling. “If the purpose is just to annoy the West and frighten Moldova, well, the West is already pretty annoyed and the Moldovans are already pretty frightened,” said International Crisis Group’s Oliker, who added that among analysts, “there is a general consistency of people not knowing what it is going on.”
Then again, just because Russia has no real ability to make a move toward Transnistria and has no good reason for doing so, that doesn’t mean it’s not still part of the Kremlin’s long-term plans. This isn’t a war that’s been distinguished by rational thinking.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.