Is Moscow Making Eyes for Moldova? 101st Airborne Could Block the View

The Screaming Eagles suddenly find themselves in a strategic position.

Mikhail Metzel/pool via AP
President Putin speaks during a video address at Moscow December 20, 2022. Mikhail Metzel/pool via AP

Fresh worries are coming from Moldova, just as President Putin’s botched land grab in Ukraine should be serving as a wake-up call to Moscow that its belligerence is a bust.

Moldova borders Ukraine’s eastern flank. The head of its national intelligence agency, Alexandru Musteata, tells a local television channel this week that “the question is not whether the Russian Federation will launch a new offensive in the direction of Moldovan territory, but when it will happen.”

Mr. Musteata is reminding his interlocutors that the largest ammunition depot in Europe is situated in Transnistria, which has been guarded by a small contingent of the approximately 1,500 Russian forces present in the pro-Russian breakaway state since a 1992 ceasefire agreement.  He hinted that those weapons could be used in a hypothetical Russian invasion of Moldova.

A former “Soviet” “socialist” “republic,” Moldova is today the poorest country in Europe but was nonetheless granted EU candidate status last June. The tiny landlocked country has already found itself in harm’s way in respect of the war in neighboring Ukraine.

In April, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was still relatively young, twin explosions of dubious provenance rocked Transnistria, raising concerns even then about the Kremlin’s wider aims. Then, in October, an errant Russian missile landed at Naslavcea, a Moldovan town near the Ukrainian border. The country has also endured power outages due to Russian strikes in Ukraine.  

Russians have made scant secret of a general aspiration to seize enough land near Ukraine’s Black Sea coast to create a land bridge to Transnistria, in which Crimea also figures prominently. Yet just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaches the 10-month mark, it is still something of a fool’s errand to try to ascertain Vladimir Putin’s overall intentions.

In a new video message to Russia’s security services, Mr. Putin acknowledges the “extreme” difficulties in the four regions of Ukraine he recently tried to annex, and more cryptically allows as to how the “special military operation” could become a “long-term process.” In light of the retreat from Kherson and a winter lull in fighting in much of central and western Ukraine, what the Russian leader means by “long-term” is anybody’s guess. 

About 5,000 American soldiers are lurking due south of Moldova, in neighboring Romania. As the GI daily, Stars and Stripes, first reported, these 101st Airborne Division soldiers are part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team and are deployed on the division’s first operational mission in Europe since World War II.

The team along NATO’s southeastern flank “functions as the most forward-based American unit in proximity to the fighting in Ukraine,” according to Stripes. Ordered overseas in June, the unit is part of a push by the Yanks to reinforce NATO terrain and be prepared to respond if the war spills over into allied territory, the paper reports.

While the team is not on a combat deployment, its proximity to the hostilities in nearby Ukraine is a potent source of information gathering. Major General J.P. McGee, commander of the Screaming Eagles, as the 101st is known, tells Stripes that “in terms of force protection … we are very vigilant about keeping an eye on anything that would cause us concern.”

The general adds he is confident that his team has “the appropriate indications and warnings” in order to assess if circumstances change. Any Russian moves on Transnistria from Ukrainian territory would see a change in those circumstances and any incursion by the Kremlin into Moldova itself could trigger a crisis in NATO member Romania with far-reaching implications.

Antagonizing Moldova — if Moscow chooses that path — would make Russia’s entanglements only costlier, and Mr. Putin’s baleful evocation of a “long-term process” in Ukraine could turn into the rendezvous with destiny the Ravenous Russ didn’t see coming.

The New York Sun

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