The danger of escalation in Transnistria: weapons warehouse in Cobasna

Transnistria status for the moment

Cobasna, a village in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, is home to what is thought to be the largest munitions storage facility in Eastern Europe. This Cold War relic is guarded by over 1,500 Russian troops. The depot’s location, barely two kilometers from the border with Ukraine and 200 kilometers from the border with Romania, a NATO member, has ensured that governments and spies will pay attention to it. The audience, in this case the locals, have been mostly unaffected by its existence in the meantime.

Yet, this is altering as the war in Ukraine fuels political unrest in Moldova. The leaders of Moldova and Transnistria have both claimed that their respective governments have been plotting their overthrow over the past six weeks. Claims of geopolitical scheming and intrigue have included Cobasna. This article, produced in Moldova and Ukraine, investigates the veracity and setting of those assertions.

20 kilotons: more than Hiroshima near NATO border

Ukrainian and Russian forces heavily rely on weapons from the Soviet era after a year of attrition warfare. Both sides have also mentioned a scarcity of ammunition. An estimated 20,000 tonnes of outdated Soviet munitions are stored at Cobasna. Due to the “shell hunger” complaints, it has been assumed that both sides are considering using the depot to resupply their men during combat. After decades of storage, it is unknown if the ammunition at Cobasna is still usable. International observers haven’t checked out the facility in more than 15 years. Only the Russian military and its Transnistrian allies know the stockpile’s present contents, including its size and condition.

Comparing explosions

According to experts from Moldova, which sees the Russian facility in Cobasna as an invasion of its sovereignty, the explosion might have the same force as the atomic bomb unleashed on Hiroshima (15 Kilotons). According to other experts, the explosion may be equal to the 2020 disaster that destroyed Beirut’s harbor (1.3-2 Kilotons) and central business district. Although it is impossible to predict an explosion’s exact effects, most predictions indicate that a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe will spread far beyond Transnistrian borders.

Possible Cobasna explosion consequences

Peacekeepers or a decoy

The position of Transnistria in Moldova is comparable to that of South Ossetia in Georgia and the Donbas in Ukraine. All of these are breakaway states that provide Russia clout over nations that seek to enter its area of influence. The fulcrum for the lever is Cobasna. Since 2004, when Transnistria withdrew its cooperation, the international attempt to eliminate the depot’s hazardous stockpile—supervised by the OSCE—has been at a standstill. While Moldova claims that Russia needs the depot to justify maintaining its military presence in the area, Moscow maintains that it is unnecessary. As “peacekeepers,” Russia characterizes its soldiers in Moldova.

Transnistria has rightfully turned into a bastion of Russian power, with its politics and economy solidifying under the control of an oppressive, Kremlin-supporting elite. International travel writers and journalists frequently compare it to a theme park version of the Soviet Union that has been frozen in time, with statues of Marx and Lenin dominating its public squares. The monuments to Moscow’s ongoing impact on the region that are still standing from the Soviet era are maybe more appropriate. The communists aggressively industrialized Transnistria, and manufacturing accounts for most of the country’s GDP today. Its factories receive substantial subsidies, paying almost nothing for the Russian gas that meets their energy requirements.

Threat to Ukraine

Kyiv has long been concerned about the Russian military presence in Transnistria. Ukraine constructed a trench along the border with Crimea after it was taken in 2014. Since Russia’s full-scale incursion last year, Ukraine’s border crossings with the region have been sealed. According to Palamarchuk, Transnistrians are complicit in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Locals in border communities recognize that Russian troops’ occupation of Transnistria has worsened the situation.

It is difficult for the 20,000 tons of ammunition those forces are guarding to escape Transnistria. The region has relied on an unofficial arrangement with Moldova for its air links because it lacks an active runway. Previously, a sizable portion of the Cobasna stockpile was transferred to Russia using Transnistria’s rail connection with Ukraine as part of the disarmament operation managed by the OSCE. Moscow can only get the munitions today if its forces in Ukraine join those in Transnistria because the disarmament drive has long since halted, and the border with Ukraine is closed.

The troops in Transnistria serve a specific purpose for Russia but are no match for the Ukrainians in combat. The force may be utilized for “espionage and sabotage measures” in southern Ukraine, according to Artem Fylypenko, a specialist at the National Institute for Security Studies, a think tank from Kyiv.

He claimed that to prevent attacks from Transnistria, Ukraine must consider this detachment’s existence and maintain its military in the Odesa region.

Could Ukraine use the ammunition?

Moldova was more severely impacted by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine than its neighbors. The poorest nation in Europe depends on remittances for its economy. Its political landscape is torn between politicians who want to join the EU and others who wish to have closer connections to Russia. About 84,000 Ukrainian migrants arrived in Moldova last year, adding to the country’s population of just under three million, making it the most significant per capita concentration of Ukrainian refugees in Europe.

There is a significant issue with suggestions that Russia or Ukraine could use the store to replenish their army’s depleting supply of shells. The most current ammunition produced at Cobasna is “likely at least 40 years old already,” according to William Hill, a former OSCE ambassador to Moldova, a member of the international team that inspected the depot during the brief disarmament attempt in the early 2000s. For military applications, it is not very useful. According to Hill, most of the ammunition would no longer be secure or dependable enough for use in combat due to its advancing age.

A Moldovan official confirmed that most ammo was considerably over its expiration date. “Much of this ammunition had already reached the end of its shelf life between 2004 and 2007,” claimed Valeriu Mija, a secretary of state in the Moldovan defense ministry.

Twenty thousand tons of deteriorated Soviet munitions may be of little use on the front lines, but may they still contribute to the overall conflict? Russia or Ukraine might blow up the Cobasna facility. However, it is unlikely that either country would do so for political reasons.


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