Moldova is asking, ever so delicately, for Russia to withdraw its 1,500 troops and a massive Cold War weapons stockpile from Transnistria, a long sliver of land that ostensibly belongs to Moldova, but has been functionally independent for more than two decades. The fact that it’s just 1,500 soldiers understates the reality of the situation: the far more important part is the weapons stockpile. Transnistria is essentially a massive prepositioned Russian army waiting to be reanimated — presuming, of course, that the Russians can actually find Transnistria.
At the end of the Cold War, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the 14th Guards Army found itself at loose ends, and like a lot of large Soviet formations, became a significant local political player, helping the pro-Moscow Transnistrian separatists make good on their secessionist plans. While the vast majority of the Russian troops there have left, the hardware has not, leaving Transnistria sitting on what’s reputed to be the largest weapons stockpile in Europe.
On one hand, it’s not completely clear who has control of and responsibility for the stockpile. On the other hand, even if it’s under the physical control of Transnistria, if Moscow asked very sweetly, the weapons would very quickly become a Russian arsenal.
Flying troops in to equip from pre-positioned stockpiles, rather than sending all the tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment is a tactic much beloved by the US, which generally would rather avoid the prospect of shipping an army across an ocean in wartime and exposing it to attack by submarines and cruise missiles. Although the Russian stockpile is largely unintentional, rather than planned, it still means that the most potent weapon in Transnistria is the airport arrivals terminal. If your travel plans to Transnistria get gummed up because the Russian military has bought all the available seats for the next month, it might not hurt to find out if your trip insurance covers wars.
Even assuming that the stockpile has been properly maintained, stocked with consumables, and is regularly checked out, it would still take quite a while to inflate that stockpile into an army. Which is arguably the biggest potential impact of a hypothetical Russian withdrawal from Transnistria. Should Moscow opt to pull troops back but leave the arms, then the thing to watch closely will be who retains control of the equipment stashed there, and whether or not they’re serious about keeping it ready and available for use.
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