Russia just held a military exercise in a 'breakaway republic' in eastern Europe

Ukrainian border guards TransnistriaREUTERS/Yevgeny VolokinUkrainian border guards stand at a checkpoint at the border with Moldova breakaway Transnistria region, near Odessa March 13, 2014.

Russia held a military exercise in an internationally unrecognised pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova on April 9, the Wall Street Journal reports citing Russian news agencies.

The exercise was hosted in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, which the international community overwhelming considers to be part of Moldova. The exercise featured an estimated 400 Russian troops, who fired over 100,000 rounds of ammunition.

The troops were transported in armoured personnel carriers and practiced using grenade launchers, The Daily Telegraph notes.

The exercise in Transnistria raises fears that Russia may be planning to deepen its presence in a strategic foothold right at central Europe’s doorstep. In a worst-case scenario, Moscow could move to annex Moldova’s breakaway territory and fold it into the Russian state. Like Ukraine, Moldova is not a part of NATO and has no guarantees of mutual defence from other European countries in the event of an attack.

Also like Ukraine, Moldova never fully pried itself away from Moscow’s orbit following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Transnistria is a big part of the reason why, even though the country has a population of only a half-million people. Yet, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova, which was a Soviet republic until it gained independence in 1990, was unable to bring the Russian-speaking section of its territory under the state’s control.

A series of battles in the early 1990s led to the stationing of Russia’s 14th Army in Transnistria, a deployment that continues into the present. Although the troops were meant to be withdrawn by 2002, the 2,500-strong Russian force never left, effectively freezing the conflict and leaving Transnistria as an autonomous territory and a self-declared independent republic.

In April 2014, the breakaway government of Transnistriaannouncedthat it hoped Russia would annex the territory and fold the pseudo-country into Russia following the Crimean referendum.

Moscow largely ignored the proposal at the time, but the idea could gain steam: Russia recently integrated the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia into Russia as of March 2015, despite international condemnation. An increased Russian presence in Transnistria, even short of annexation, would pose an increased security risk to Europe as a whole and Ukraine in particular.

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark said that a Russian invasion of Ukraine aimed at creating a land bridge to Crimea was “imminent.” The threat of a Russian incursion into Ukraine from the west via Transnistria could weaken Kiev’s resolve or serve as a hypothetical staging area for a second front in the country’s conflict.

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