Moldova has the Fort Knox of red wine. At Milestii Mici, the world’s largest wine cellar, 120 miles of underground passages connect limestone galleries where 2 million bottles age in silence. But with war raging above ground, Ukrainian and Russian military commanders are more interested in Moldova’s role as home to the largest Soviet-era ammunition stockpile in Europe — about 20,000 tons.
In the late 1940s, Stalin prepared for a confrontation with the West by forward-positioning massive amounts of ammunition and weapons in Cobasna, a Moldovan village on an east-west rail line. Not trusting his Warsaw Pact allies, Stalin also stored military materiel for East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Today, these two states no longer exist. But two successor states, Russia and Ukraine are waging such a fierce war that both face ammunition shortages. Last Sunday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, wrote the Russian commander of the Ukraine campaign “about the urgent need to allocate ammunition.” Without more ammo, he warned, Russia’s offensive to take Bakhmut could fail. Now, Russians and Ukrainians eye Cobasna, located in a land pocket bordered by Ukraine on two sides.
But this vast ammo dump is marooned, cut off from the war raging 500 miles to the east.
Russia controls Cobasna, a village on the northern tip of Transnistria. This 200-mile-long breakaway republic is populated by 360,000 Russian-speakers and protected by about 100 Russian officers and 1,500 Russian Army soldiers recruited from local residents. Russia controls Transnistria, but it cannot move ammunition east through Ukraine or west through neutral Moldova.
After Russia attacked Ukraine one year ago, Ukraine closed all border crossing with Transnistria. Historically, Transnistria’s exports flowed south to Odesa, a major Ukrainian Black Sea port. In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union was awash with weapons, supplies from Cobasna reportedly were trafficked through Odesa. Hollywood captured this trade in the 2005 Nicholas Cage film “Lord of War.”
Last April, when the war was going well for Russia, top Russian commander Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev said: “Russian control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are cases of Russian-speaking people being oppressed.” He said a Russian military takeover of Odesa city and region would restore Transnistria’s access to Odesa port.
At the time, Transnistrian officials protested that Ukraine sent reconnaissance drones over the Cobasna ammunition depot and fired shots into the village. Ukraine dismissed the reports as part of a false flag operation designed to justify a Russian takeover of Moldova.
More recently, U.S. and Ukrainian officials warn that Russia is taking a political tack. It seeks to fuel a popular uprising or coup d’etat in Moldova. Early last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine intercepted “a detailed Russian plan to destroy the political situation in Moldova.”
Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russia is trying to seize power in Moldova, just as it did a year ago in Ukraine. He told Moldova’s TV8: “But in Moldova, Russia wants to do things differently — not by tanks, but by bandits.”
Russia denies those claims. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the allegations were “absolutely unfounded and unsubstantiated.” Her boss, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, warned the West wants Moldova “to play the role of the next Ukraine.”
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Munich with Moldova’s pro-Western president, Maia Sandu. Later, Blinken said the U.S. is alarmed by “some of the plotting that we’ve seen coming from Russia to try to destabilize the government.” Blinken said the U.S. would continue to “stand strongly with Moldova in support of its security, its independence, its territorial integrity.”
The next week, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Sandhu in Warsaw. The White House reported: “President Biden reaffirmed strong U.S. support for Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
But there might be more to the political moves than shadowboxing. After Ukraine moved soldiers to the Moldovan border, Russia’s Defense Ministry charged that Ukraine wants to take over Transnistria to grab the arms. The Moldovan government quickly said that it “does not confirm the information disseminated this morning by the Russian Ministry of Defense.” Ukraine did not comment.
Long ago, Cobasna was closed to civilian visitors. Aerial photos show cement berms separating stocks. Closeup ground photos show outdoor pyramids of rusting, Soviet-era torpedoes. Other photos seem to show fortified casements with wooden crates of well-oiled Kalashnikovs.
According to a group called OSINTdefender, Russian officers have wired the depot to blow up in the event of a Ukrainian attack. In 2015, Academy of Sciences of Moldova calculated that mass of aging ammunition could explode with a force comparable to “the size of the atomic bombs dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
In Transnistria, uneasiness is spreading. According to Ukrainian military intelligence, more and more Transnistrian men refuse to sign enlistment contracts with the Russian Army. According to Zona de Securitate, a Transnistrian-focused research center in Moldova, the number of Transnistrians requesting Moldovan identity documents has doubled. Since 2014, Moldovans have enjoyed visa-free entry to the European Union. About half of the populations of Moldova and Transnistria are believed to work in Europe or Russia.