Lingering Soviet Weapons Depot Raises Ukrainian Fears Of Russian Encirclement

With the world’s gaze fixed on Russian troops to the east of Ukraine, or perhaps to its north in Belarus or south in Crimea, the United Kingdom has raised awareness of their presence to the west. Due to an obscurity of post-Soviet geopolitics, 1,500 soldiers of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria (OGRF) are based at the decommissioned Soviet-era ammunition depot at Cobasna, in the unrecognised breakaway state of Transnistria. Located just 2km from the Ukrainian border, this depot is the largest in Eastern Europe with around 22,000 tons of military equipment guarded by the Russian troops. Russophile Transnistria had long been a point of cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, who serve as two of the mediators in the international effort to find a peaceful resolution to its separatism. Now, however, it has the potential to open a fourth front in the looming conflict feared by many observers and civilians.

Neil Bush, Head of the U.K. Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – the third mediator in the Transnistrian conflict – called on Russia to “urgently formulate a proposal for resumption of the process of removal and destruction of ammunition from the Cobasna site.” Russia has previously stated that it will recommence the withdrawal when the conditions are right, but given the sensitive regional situation, the timescales are suddenly altered.

Transnistria declared its independence from Moldova upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a five-month conflict erupted in March 1992. The conclusion of a ceasefire in July that year heralded a freezing of the situation, whereby a Russian peacekeeper presence was established in the breakaway state. Although this force has slowly shrunk over time, alongside the monumental stockpiles of military equipment, they remain an unwanted thorn in the side of Chisinau and Kyiv.

Chisinau has argued that because Transnistria is internationally recognised as Moldovan territory, the presence of Russian troops there against its political will undermines Moldovan territorial sovereignty. Russia contends that the remaining OGRF troops serve as peacekeepers, authorized by the 1992 ceasefire and will remain until the conflict is resolved. This does not assuage Ukrainian fears that they could be wielded by Moscow, however, and a map released by Ukrainian military intelligence last month suggested the OGRF troops may combine with Belarussian ones to launch an amphibious assault on Odessa.

The need for Soviet munitions in modern-day Transnistria is unclear, especially since they are under the auspices of a force ostensibly seeking peace in the region. Still, the very situation which necessitates their urgent removal also precludes it. Previous withdrawals of military equipment and ammunition were conducted by rail, which travelled through Ukraine since to avoid it would mean traversing Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. Today, the idea of transporting 22,000 tons of Russian military equipment through the heart of Ukraine is laughable, and Poland at least may also object. Unless Russia were inclined to destroy it, therefore, it seems set to remain another explosive piece in the high-stakes game playing out across the region.

Cobasna is one of the more militarized reminders of the interconnectedness of southeast Europe in the post-Soviet space. Alongside complex ethnic and linguistic identities and fluctuating geopolitical orientations, the weapons depot is a lingering conundrum from the early 1990s which casts its long shadow over the conflicts of today. It is a lesson that the pursuit of peace is intergenerational in its effects. Failure to make progress when the situation is propitious will have amplified echoes when it is not.

Isaac Evans