The Battle for Odessa and its Railways: Could Transnistria Assist?

Saluting the motherland: troops of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria pictured on Victory Day in Tiraspol in 2017. Image: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Should Russia make attempts to push further into Ukraine and capture the port city of Odessa, it may look to access logistical support from the breakaway territory of Transnistria.

As the Russian military reframes its war strategy to focus on the eastern Donbas region, as well as the strategic port city of Odessa, the nearby breakaway republic of Transnistria may have a role to play. There has been growing speculation that should Russia’s armed forces manage to take Odessa, they may push on to Transnistria, forming a land corridor along the Black Sea coast and linking up with the (small) contingent of Russian armed forces there. While this scenario is unlikely for a range of practical reasons, Russia’s motivations for doing so would be driven by logistical considerations.

Russia’s Logistical Problems

A tightly controlled media space in Russia and a comparatively vocal PR push from the Ukrainian side has made it a challenge to determine the true extent of the Russian army’s logistical problems. But it is clear that Russia’s inability to control Ukraine’s railways has stalled attempts to push its offensive deeper into Ukrainian territory, particularly in the north. Railways naturally link up urban areas, but Russia’s failure to take and hold large cities such as Kharkiv – and their important logistical hubs – has frustrated its efforts to move troops, hardware and supplies to the frontline.

More so than any other standing army, and due to Russia’s geographic vastness, the Russian military relies on railways to transport its troops, food and fuel during war and peacetime. Its army is well-versed in gathering military districts from across Russia, routinely travelling thousands of kilometres by rail for exercises. Although its tanks can operate off-road, moving too far from the railhead increases the army’s dependence on trucks to deliver vital supplies, with their frequent breakdowns in the war well-publicised.

Russia’s reliance on the Belarusian rail network as a launchpad for the offensive on Kyiv has been hampered by Belarusian civilian rail operators, who have disrupted key supply routes into Ukraine. Their efforts have affected train signalling and reduced network traffic, forcing trains to run slowly. With Russia unable to control the railway network in the north of Ukraine, its forces have had to move slowly on roads. This, alongside pushback from locals against Russian occupation in key cities such as Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Kherson, has prevented the Russian army from controlling rail hubs, and it has been forced to bypass major cities altogether.

However, some logistical problems could be ameliorated as Russia scales down its military goals to focus on the eastern Donbas region, and territories such as Transnistria may be able to assist.

Transnistria’s Lack of Agency

Sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova, Transnistria has been engaged in a frozen conflict with Moldova since 1992, after which Russia retained a small troop presence known as the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF), which Moscow refers to as a ‘peacekeeping’ force.

Russian troops could use the civilian railways leading from Ukraine into Transnistria to resupply and regroup, buying themselves more time

Since it broke away from Moldova in the 1990s, Transnistria has remained economically dependent on Russia, including free gas from the Russian state-controlled entity Gazprom. Sheriff, the powerful and shadowy conglomerate that manages most business and political dealings in Transnistria, has links to political figures in Moscow. Notwithstanding this, in 2014 Moldova quietly signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU that Transnistria has benefited from, with reduced tariffs on Moldovan goods, reducing some of its dependence on Russia and granting Transnistria access to most EU member states.

Amid the war in Ukraine, on 16 March the Council of Europe officially recognised Transnistria as a ‘breakaway republic’ for the first time. This designates Transnistria as an occupied territory, shifting the status to Russia as an occupier, rather than the territory being ‘under Russia’s effective control’. A display of European solidarity against Russia, this also highlights Transnistria’s lack of political agency. Should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to involve Transnistria in the war in some capacity, it has little leverage to refuse.

Resupplying and Restoring the Front

Transnistria’s most useful role for Russia would be providing medical aid and food, guarding convoys and securing the railway network. Russia could use the civilian railways leading from Ukraine into Transnistria to resupply its troops, repair equipment and allow them to regroup in a territory that is less hostile than Ukraine, buying themselves more time.

Militarily, Transnistria is of limited use. While accounts vary, the peacekeeping force numbers around 1,000–1,500 troops, who are not combat ready. Very few are Russian soldiers; they are mostly locals who have been given Russian passports, casting doubt on their willingness to fight for the Russian army. This small contingent lacks missile or air defence capabilities or communication centres, and so its military function is limited. Technically, the Tiraspol airfield could be a base for the transfer of additional Russian forces, if required. The airfield could handle an influx of Russian soldiers, but the Ukrainian armed forces are likely to repel attempts by Russian aircraft to access the airspace, and Russia has already withdrawn most of its helicopters from the nearby Chornobayivka airport in Ukraine’s Kherson region. Although Moldova’s government in Chisinau has for years permitted Russia to use its main airport to transfer troops on to nearby Tiraspol, it would be unlikely to do so in this case, risking significant political sanctions from the West.

There is a large arms depot at Kolbasna on the Ukrainian border, but it mostly holds Soviet-era weapons that are out of date, and ammunition that is dangerous to handle. However, reports in the pro-Kremlin press appear to be setting up this arms depot’s vulnerability as a possible justification for Russia to protect it from attacks by the Ukrainian military, which would be a pretext for Transnistria’s involvement in the war.

Should the offensive to the southern port city of Odessa, Russia may need to bring in additional reinforcements to help secure the rail network in or around the city

Transnistria could play a useful logistical role, particularly in treating wounded soldiers from the front. On 10 March, the OGRF in Transnistria held field exercises for its medical units in scenarios providing first aid to soldiers injured in combat, a potential signal that it is preparing for involvement. Transnistria itself has a small army estimated at around 7–8,000 troops, although they only operate part-time and are not in a state of combat readiness. At the end of March, Putin announced the rotation of battle-weary soldiers with fresh troops from across Russia. But should the offensive move to the southern port city of Odessa, Russia may need to bring in additional reinforcements to help secure the rail network in or around the city.

While the network is sparse, Transnistria’s railway system uses the same Soviet broad-gauge system as Ukraine and Russia – 1520mm. The advantage of using the same system is that trains need not wait for hours at borders to change gauges, which can significantly delay journey times. There are rail connections from Transnistria to Ukraine but, in a likely recognition of its importance, the railway bridge across the Kuchurhan River close to Odessa was targeted and destroyed on 4 March, possibly by the Ukrainian military. Should Russia control territory around Odessa, the Transnistrian forces could be deployed to repair and guard this bridge, opening up a land transit route to Tiraspol.

But if the new focus of Russia’s operation is controlling large swathes of eastern Donbas, then pushing further into Ukraine to Odessa risks overstretching its already taut battle lines. Capturing Odessa and its rail network would establish a land corridor along the Black Sea coast that could ease some of Russia’s supply issues, but thus far the Russian army has failed to take large cities, and it would be met with fierce resistance – since mid-March, the Ukrainian armed forces have fended off Russian advances on the city of Voznesensk, 180 km from Odessa. Involving Transnistria was not part of Russia’s initial strategy, but as its war aims have evolved and it has come under increasing pressure to resupply its forces, the additional logistical support may be welcomed.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Emily Ferris

Senior Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security

International Security

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