On the same day that the first in a series of explosions rocked Transnistria, a thin sliver of land in Moldova hugging the border of Ukraine that has been illegally occupied by Russian soldiers, three Russian cruise missiles were directed at a bridge not far from the Black Sea port city of Odesa.
One hit its target on Monday, according to Ukrainian military officials, but the bridge was still standing. The next day, the bridge was hit again.
The strikes on the bridge, which connects southwestern Ukraine to Romania across the Dniester estuary, have raised alarm that Moscow is trying to cut off part of the region in advance of more aggressive military moves. They have also fed growing concerns that Russia is looking to establish a pretext to use the Transnistria region as a springboard for attacks on Odesa and southern Ukraine.
Russia has also placed warships near the coast of Odesa to keep Ukrainian forces pinned down, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said on Thursday.
In response to growing tensions in Transnistria, the Ukrainian military announced on Thursday that it was moving more troops to the border, according to Serhii Bratchuk, a spokesman for the Odesa regional military administration.
“We have strengthened the protection of the state border with the so-called Transnistria, where Russian provocations continue in order to create certain centers of tension for the Odesa region,” he said on Telegram.
At the very least, turmoil in Transnistria — which the Ukrainian army general staff called a “red level” threat — is forcing the Ukrainians to deploy resources hundreds of miles from the eastern front.
And while Russia failed in its bid to march on Odesa during the first phase of its invasion, the Ukrainian military has said in recent days that Russia is regrouping for a renewed assault. However, military analysts have said that aggressive Ukrainian counterattacks in the southern territory controlled by Russian forces are undermining those efforts, and there is little indication that Russia currently has enough forces in place to mount a successful campaign.
Despite the renewed Russian offensive in Ukraine, focusing mainly on the eastern front, a Russian commander, Gen. Rustam Minnekayev, recently said that Moscow wanted complete control of southern Ukraine and intends to cut the country off from the Black Sea.
“Transnistria’s most useful role for Russia would be providing medical aid and food, guarding convoys and securing the railway network,” the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based group, wrote in a recent report. “Russia could use the civilian railways leading from Ukraine into Transnistria to resupply its troops, repair equipment and allow them to regroup in a territory that is less hostile than Ukraine, buying themselves more time.”
Moldova’s foreign minister, Nicu Popescu, said that this was “a very dangerous new moment in the history of our region.”
“We’re increasing the intensity of patrolling and checks on the territory of the Republic of Moldova and at the border,” he told reporters on Wednesday. He said there were “certainly forces around Moldova and in Moldova that are interested in continuing deterioration of the situation and deterioration of the security situation at the same time.”
Mr. Popescu’s government is paying close attention to activities around a Russian ammunition depot in the village of Kolbasna, where there were unconfirmed reports of shootings in recent days.
While the depot is believed to hold mostly out-of-date, Soviet-era weapons, the report by RUSI, the London institute, said that the pro-Kremlin press appears to be setting up the “vulnerability” of the arms depot as possible pretext for Russian military action.
The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of plotting “false flag” attacks in the region and seeking to destabilize the government of Moldova.
Russia has already called the explosions in Transnistria “acts of terrorism, aimed at destabilization.”
Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said during a briefing on Thursday that Moscow “condemns the attempts to drag Transnistria into what is happening in Ukraine.” Her comments were echoed by Vadim Krasnoselsky, the president of Transnistria’s separatist government.
But it was the strike on the bridge more than any comments from the Kremlin or its proxies that triggered Ukrainian alarm.
On the day the first missile struck the bridge, Oleksiy Arestovych, an aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, said that “the military-political situation around Ukraine has changed.”
He said the attack on the bridge was designed to prevent Ukraine from moving troops into the region. “So we can assume that they can organize a landing operation there,” Mr. Arestovych said, referring to the Russian troops. “The main thing is that we understand that they have added a new operating direction.”
This knowledge, he said, would allow the Ukrainians to once again stop any new Russian lines of advance.