The self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria — which has its own constitution, military, currency and flag but has never been recognized by the international community — could be pulled into Russia's war in Ukraine.
A top Russian general said last week that the military is aiming for "full control" over the eastern Donbas region and southern Ukraine -- and to gain access to Transnistria, the breakaway territory in the neighboring country of Moldova.
TASS quoted the acting commander of Russia's Central Military District Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekaev as saying the goal was to create a land corridor between Donbas and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
On Monday, there were explosions in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, which Ukraine's Defense Ministry called a "planned provocation" by the Russian secret services.
Here's what you need to know about Transnistria, and why it's important to Russia.
A separatist statelet: Transnistria is a narrow sliver of land about 1,350 square miles in size, sandwiched between Ukraine and the rest of Moldova -- only a little larger than Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US.
It is home to about half a million people, most of whom are Russian-speaking.
Some history: Transnistria declared independence from the former Soviet republic of Moldova following a two-year war (1990-1992) that erupted during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Russians stepped in to back Transnistria but never recognized it as an independent state. The conflict between the Moldovan government and the separatists ended in a ceasefire in 1992 -- but about 1,500 Russian troops have remained in Transnistria since then.
Russia eyeing Transnistria: The statement by Maj. Gen. Minnekaev, laying out Russia's strategy for the "second phase" of the war, prompted immediate alarm from Moldovan authorities, who summoned the Russian ambassador.
The statements about Transnistria are “unfounded and contradict the position of the Russian Federation supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova, within its internationally recognized borders," said the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration.
It added that during the meeting with the Russian ambassador, Moldovan officials reiterated that the country was a "neutral state and this principle must be respected by all international actors, including the Russian Federation."
Role in the war: Some military analysts suspect Russia plans to lean on Transnistria for logistical support -- and to take advantage of its strategic position, to establish a land corridor along the Black Sea to capture the port city of Odesa.
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