Ukraine-Russia: How a breakaway state in Moldova on the border of Ukraine is a store for Soviet weapons
On the horizon you can make out Odessa and the Black Sea, where Russian forces are closing in.
Battles are raging just over the Moldovan border, across the river Dniester, and here in Tiraspol it feels like a Cold War film. Every street is shadowed by Soviet apartment blocks; every restaurant serves borsch and sour cream, and wherever you look in the city, Russian soldiers are milling about smoking, kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.
Transnistria is a small unrecognised state in Eastern Moldova, a 250-mile long strip of land that lies on Ukraine’s south-west border.
Its borders have been guarded by Russian troops since 1991, when the country won its independence in a short civil war against the government in Chisinau. Right now it’s not a war zone, but that seems likely to change. A few kilometres away, bombs are falling in Ukraine.
To enter Transnistria, journalists have to disguise themselves as tourists. At the border, two Russian troops see my British passport and lead me out of the bus to a customs building.
"What’s in your bag? Is there any photo equipment?,” they ask.
“No,” I tell them. “I’m just a visitor – I only have my phone.”
If they looked inside the rucksack I would be turned away, maybe arrested. A few weeks ago some American correspondents attempted to enter Transnistria, and as soon as the authorities realised they were journalists, they were sent back West.
"We already live under Russian occupation,” my host Victor Pleshkanov, 58, explains. “Not many people in the West know about this place, but [Russian president Vladimir] Putin has already taken Tiraspol, and he might use it to attack Odessa.”
Victor looks out from his balcony. Here on the ninth floor you can see the Dniester flow from North to South, a wide grey ribbon splitting the landscape in two.
"The bridges across the river were blown up – the Ukrainians think Russia will attack from here,” he says.
“It would be a good move – they could use Transnistria to take the Black Sea ports.”
Victor tells me about a village not far from Tiraspol, a place called Kalbasi. He says the Russian army has a huge store of Soviet weapons there, enough to blow up half of Moldova if it was hit.
Most sources estimate there are around 20,000 tonnes of high explosive and small arms. That would make it the biggest single military hardware deposit in Eastern Europe.
These weapons are already in Mr Putin’s hands, he suggests, sitting right under Nato’s nose, ready for use against Ukraine – or even Moldova.
“Fifty-fifty – the odds that war is coming to my city,” Victor says. “But it’s very hard to tell. What matters is that the Russians are already ruling us, and we’re not free. We’re slaves, we’re puppets of Putin.”
He lights another cigarette.
“We can’t speak freely here,” he says.
"We can’t say what we think. If we even call the situation in Ukraine a ‘war’, we can be arrested. This is what it’s like to live under our Russian occupiers.”
Victor wants to organise an anti-government protest, despite knowing this might land him in prison for up to 15 years.
His wife Oxana, 45, tells me that he’s starting to care less and less about what other Transnistrians think. She says Victor wants to head over the border, to fight for the Ukrainian army.
“He would be the first to die,” she insists.
"My husband has terrible eyesight, he can barely see a few feet in front of him.”
Oxana works in a local hotel, the Lenin Street Hostel.
We pass the building as darkness falls on Tiraspol. It’s plastered in hammers and sickles, and a plastic bust of the USSR’s founder stands on a pillar outside reception.
“They’ve bugged all the rooms, you know, so that you can’t say anything against Russia or the leaders here in Tiraspol,” she says. “If you do, you’ll be out of the job very soon.”
Towards the end of our evening stroll, Oxana points at the bank of the Dniester.
In the half-light we can see the silhouette of a fortified wall. Oxana tells me it’s the wall of a Russian barracks, and above there are two flags flying side by side – the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union.
She says Transnistria was all a big joke until now – the old canteens, the policemen with oversized hats, the nostalgia for a life pre-1989. It was all a tourist trap.
But these days war is visible, you can see it smouldering across the water.
The Communist time capsule appears to be taking on a new purpose, a purpose that’s anything but funny.
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