Does Transnistria mark limits of Russian power in Ukraine war?

Transnistria has an ammunition dump in a place called Cobasna — arguably one of the largest ammo dumps in Europe.

| Updated: 12 March, 2023 11:37 am IST
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Each time there is a flurry of activities centring on Moscow on the part of the different emerging powers and soft blocs, there is, at the same time an uneasy reminder about a reality difficult to escape: it has been one year, and the Russian SMO team has not still managed to reach Kiev.

Russian Army is no Red Army

It is important to remember that the Russian offensive, when it began around the end of February last year, had its sights set on Kiev. The opening attack targeted the Kiev Oblast. The primary artillery strike, the Russian airborne assault, and the Chechen ground forces had all hit Kiev with as much power as they could muster under the legal cover titled Special Military Operations (SMO).

Today after one year of Ukraine, the near-absolute dependence of Moscow on their ground forces to inch ahead or hold on the lines point towards the fact that the Russian Air Force (VKS) has been an elaborate failure. Though the Ukraine war has seen a more complex network of airpower engagement, one is still reminded of Afghanistan: back in the 80s, Stinger-armed mujahideen in rubber slippers had thrown a spanner in the mighty Soviet Air Force (VVS) machine.

This time, Russia had 772 fighter jets and 544 attack helicopters. During the first 10 days of the war, Russia fired 1100 missiles targeting Ukrainian runways and military installations. Though nowhere close in proportion or intensity as compared to the US attack on Iraq, it was formidable as far as airpower went. And even that apparently couldn’t do much, since Ukraine responded to the Russian attack with Russian machines: long-range S-300, medium-range SA-11, and short-range SA-8. Add to that the ‘Afghan tactic’ of shoulder-fired missiles that the Ukrainians used to deal with the low attacks, and one can safely say that the conventional Western/Russian motto of air superiority was brought to a halt through the act of air denial.

One year into the war, while Russia enjoys the advantage of having annexed about a fourth of Ukraine’s territory, Kiev still stands and so does Zelensky. A section of Western analysts think that ‘a diplomatic deal to end the conflict looks like a non-starter. Putin… cannot afford to be seen as backing out of a fight that he started and by his own estimates should have been able to easily win.’

So how is the Russian Army engaging these days?

The core of Russian offense now depends on high-intensity combat along the crucial sectors around the east. The idea is to keep drawing Ukrainian forces into areas that have a robust Russian supply framework, to inflict maximum weapon and personnel casualties. This apparently is to go on till such time the present army structure of Russia – which was trimmed down post-USSR into small, weapon-heavy and manpower-light Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) following the Western models – is changed back to the old Soviet manpower-heavy Divisions. This decision could well be the result of the success that was Russia’s partial mobilization. Russian lines – quite vast and fairly stretched along eastern Ukraine by now – are now heavily guarded with adequate man and firepower, and Ukraine has not had any major breakthrough in the last 4-5 months.

Apparently, VKS doesn’t have a role in all this.

The dilemma about Transnistria

This very lack of airpower support throws a question mark on the Transnistria region. For those who haven’t heard much about this region, this is a thin stretch of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. Geographically this land is an extension of Moldova (though they seceded from Moldova back in 1990), and borders the southwest of Ukraine. Moldova, and indeed Transnistria used to be the limits of the Old Russian Empire when it bordered the Ottomans. While there used to be a constant contest for this territory between the two, this settled down post the two world wars. The Ottoman Empire disappeared, and the Soviet Union later claimed Moldova (Transnistria included). When the Berlin Wall fell, Moldova wanted out of the Union. But Transnistria did not. That resulted in a fallout between the two. Today, the Moldovans consider the Transnistrians as separatists, and Russia considers them loyalists.

Why is Ukraine interested in Transnistria?

It gets interesting here. Transnistria has an ammunition dump in a place called Cobasna, which was once the logistical support for the Soviet 14th Guards stationed there. Cobasna is arguably one of the largest ammo dumps in Europe, estimated to hold about 20,000 tons of Soviet wares. Ukraine exhausted its arms a long time ago – the heavy Russian front that keeps drawing them has now depleted their received stock rapidly as well; the fresh lot of NATO weapons to them are also stalling for a number of reasons. Under such conditions, a quick raid to Cobasna might yield the kind of results that Zelensky is in desperate need of.

Whether that would be as easy as it sounds is a different point. The Transnistrians are a bunch of guys that come from the old stock of the Soviet Red Army and are known to be heavy hitters. To remain separated from Moldova since the 90s has not been a cakewalk. And the worst-case scenario on the occasion that they fail to defend: they will blow up the dump.

Would Ukraine attack? If they do, would they go for a straight unilateral hit, or would they get Moldova to formally invite them for some ‘help’ in handling the separatists? In a strange turn of events, these are not Russian concerns now.

Their concern is that Transnistria does not have Black Sea access for the Russian army to move, and Russia cannot use its air force over Ukraine. Their concern is that Ukraine – desperate to escalate the war into territories to lure NATO in – would next try to needle some other sector towards the West/NATO borders if they are successful in opening up a front in Transnistria.

[Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.]

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