A senior Russian commander for the first time Friday openly suggested the Kremlin’s territorial appetite extends beyond Ukraine as the invasion drags on into its third month.
Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia‘s Central Military District, told a meeting in the central Sverdlovsk region that Russian forces are not only seeking permanent control of eastern and southern Ukraine but also want to connect with a pro-Moscow separatist region inside neighboring Moldova.
“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transnistria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed,” Gen. Minnekayev said, the official Russian news service Tass reported.
Such a strike would fit in with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s larger grievance that the collapse of the Soviet Union left large pockets of ethnic Russian populations “trapped” in countries from the Baltics to the Balkans.
As in Ukraine, a Russian-speaking minority inside Moldova has declared itself an autonomous region free from rule by the pro-Western central government in Chisinau.
Should Russian forces succeed in capturing the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the Kremlin would have its “land bridge” not only to the Crimean peninsula but also to the breakaway Moldovan enclave that borders southern Ukraine.
But Russian forces face entrenched Ukrainian defensive lines in the divided Donbas region, and key southern ports, including Odesa and Mykolayiv, remain in Kyiv’s control. Russian forces this week abandoned efforts to drive out a stubborn remnant of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, another port city in the region they seek to dominate.
Moldova’s Transnistria region won de facto independence from Moldova after a war in the early 1990s, and today hosts a garrison of some 1,500 Russian troops. But virtually all of the world still recognizes the breakaway region as formally still part of Moldova.
Fueling Mr. Putin’s ire was the election last year of a pro-Western government in Chisinau. Moldovan Prime Minister Maia Sandu last month signed a formal application to join the European Union, with analysts saying the process has been spurred by the fighting in neighboring Ukraine.
Gen. Minnekayev brushed aside criticisms that the invasion has gone poorly for Russian forces, who have abandoned hopes of taking the capital of Kyiv and other major northern cities. He acknowledged that Russia had suffered losses when Ukrainian defenders lured them into “pre-prepared ambushes” early in the campaign.
“But the Russian armed forces very quickly adapted to this and changed tactics,” the commander said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.