Monday 30 November 2020

The Victory Day Parade That Everyone Forgot

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) as it is officially called, is a breakaway state situated between Moldova and Ukraine that has largely escaped the world's attention ever since its self-proclaimed independence as a Soviet republic in 1990 and subsequent violent secession from Moldova in 1992. Despite having ended armed conflict in 1992, the situation in Transnistria remains just as complicated as it was in the 1990s, with the ephemeral nation wishing to join the Russian Federation while continuing to remain heavily reliant on Moldova for exporting the limited produce its economy outputs.
Although currently only recognized by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and (what's left of) Artsakh, themselves also unrecognised republics, Transnistria functions as a de-facto state with its own army, air arm and even its own arms industry. Transnistria is in essence still a Soviet Socialist Republic, as such continuing to make use of the hammer and sickle in its flag – even retaining the KGB as its main security agency. Russia still maintains a limited military presence in Transnistria, its soldiers officially on a peacekeeping mission.
In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Victory Day celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War were postponed, with President Krasnoselsky officially cancelling the Victory Day parade on the 21th April. Then, on the 24th of June, the day of the Moscow Victory Day Parade, it was announced that the parade would be held on Republic Day, timed also with the country's 30th anniversary on the 2nd of September.

Though Transnistria's military parades are mostly repetitive in what type of equipment gets showcased, this is precisely what makes them so interesting. While most military parades are grand spectacles that more often than not include the latest type of weaponry developed or acquired by that country, the PMR, unable to replace its military inventory through conventional means, instead showcases a unique blend of elusive AFVs of Soviet manufacture mixed with a variety of DIY equipment.
How its exotic composition of equipment and vehicles came to be is the result of a long and complicated process, one dating back to just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union dissolved, much of the personnel and their associated weaponry which once made up its military became subordinate to the newly established states they were located in. While this process was often troubled by the departure of many ethnic Russians stationed outside of the former Russian Soviet Republic, this wasn't the only problem encountered by the Soviet 14th Army stationed in Transnistria.

The 14th Army was in fact located in Ukraine, Moldova and the breakaway state of Transnistria, with units of the 14th Army becoming subordinate to either Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, or to the newly formed Transnistrian republic. During Moldova's 1992 invasion into what according to the Moldovan government was and still is Moldovan territory, large quantities of weaponry and ammunition from the Soviet 14th Army were taken over by Transnistrian locals to repel Moldova's attempt at bringing back Trasnistria under its own control, leading to a brief but intense conflict until a ceasefire was declared four months later.
When Transnistria took control over most of the weapons storage depots located on its territory, it inherited large amounts of highly specialised vehicles while being left without any significant numbers of (self-propelled) artillery or infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). The limited amount of such equipment that was present in Transnistria was returned to Russia after the conclusion of hostilities, leaving the PMR with an extensive arsenal of engineering vehicles only in service with a few countries in the world, while being almost completely deprived of equipment such as artillery and IFVs. An unrecognised republic in Eastern Europe, rare engineering vehicles, a variety of DIY equipment; all the ingredients needed for a highly interesting parade!

This year's parade was opened by the Guard of Honor, which carried a copy of the flag of the 150th Idritsa-Berlin Order of Kutuzov 2nd Class Motor Rifle Division, whose soldiers rose the Soviet flag over the Reichstag during the Battle for Berlin on the 2nd of May, 1945. Also carried were the flags of Pridnestrovie and the Russian Federation, with whom the former still hopes to unify.
Looking over the more than 1200 army and law enforcement troops taking part in the parade was much of the PMR's leadership, including President Vadim Krasnoselsky, Minister of Defence Oleg Obruchkov and the first President of Transnistria Igor Smirnov (1991-2011). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to identify the Soviet origins of the republic in the photo below. It should thus come as a surprise that President Krasnoselsky's personal views contrast sharply with that of any person longing to 'the good old days of the Soviet Union', calling the Great October Socialist Revolution a "catastrophe", referring to Bolsheviks as "traitors" and proposing honouring Imperial Russian leaders rather than Soviet leaders. He has also come out as a monarchist, calling Soviet-era symbols irrelevant, and that Transnistria as a result should not be viewed as a fragment of the USSR. As you might imagine at this point, this nation is very interesting to analyse.

Left: Minister of Defence Major General Oleg Obruchkov, Middle: Current President Vadim Krasnoselsky, Right: First President of Transnistria Igor Smirnov

Addressing the participants and citizens watching the parade, President Krasnoselsky stated the following. 

''I would like to emphasize that it [COVID-19] slowed down, but did not stop the development of the republic. We continue to build and modernize social infrastructure, attract investors, and make our Transnistria modern. Time has shown that any difficulties can only be overcome together. The unity, solidarity, courage of our people helped to withstand and win the Great Patriotic War, and in the early 1990s - to create and defend the Transnistrian state, - said the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. - We, Pridnestrovians, are a wise people who knows how important and important memory is, the continuity of generations. Remembering the past, creating the present, we together build our future on our land and according to our laws. So it was, so it will be. On this day, I express the warmest words of gratitude to the Russian Federation. Thank you for fraternal friendship, support and peace."

Those present honoured the victims of the Second World War and the 1992 Transnistria War with a minute's silence.

Beginning in August this year, practice runs for the parade were held on the taxiways of Tiraspol airbase, which is also home to Transnistria's small army aviation unit (which will be covered in a future article on this blog). Footage of the soldiers and vehicles in training in preparation for the parade can be viewed here, here and here. The parade can be watched in its entirety here.

Minister of Defence Oleg Obruchkov salutes the parading troops from a UAZ-469. These off-road vehicles have been 'upgraded' with new hubcaps, which do not entirely fit the nostalgic looks of the UAZ-469.

As is the standard in military processions of many post-Soviet states, the infantry segment featured two columns of marching female troops as well.
Honourary units wielding Soviet SKS semi-automatic carbines and AK-74 assault rifles stand in attention as troops march on Suvorov Square. The Transnistrian military is almost entirely equipped with AK-74, AKS-74 and AK-74M assault rifles, and SKS carbines primarily serve in the hands of ceremonial guards.

An overview of the parading troops, including motostrelki (mechanised infantry), paratroopers belonging to Transnistria's Airborne Forces (VDV), special forces, Dniester rapid reaction forces, Border Guards and troops from the Ministry of Interior.

As you might already have noticed, the uniforms of the Transnistrian Army are indiscernible from those of the Russian Army. Both the digital flora and gorka uniform suits are currently in use. Also note the small Transnistrian velcro shoulder patches.

Like most other post-Soviet states, Transnistria still fields Airborne Forces (more commonly known as VDV), which can be seen wielding AKS-74 assault rifles in the below photo. Although trained to be deployed from the air arm's An-2 aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters, it is likely that most would be utilised as ground forces should any conflict arise between Transnistria and Moldova.

Troops belonging to the Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR), who act as an rapid-reaction military force available to the regular police in case of emergencies. These are another inheritance of the Soviet era.

Well-equipped peacekeeping forces (MC = миротворческих сил [peacekeeping forces]) march with AK-74Ms in their hands. As Transnistria remains an unrecognised state, the question of where these peacekeepers would deploy is perhaps left unanswered.

Officers of the Ministry of Defence and cadets of the Military and Tiraspol Law Institute show off their flashy uniforms and typical Soviet military caps.

A ceremonial T-34/85 leads the vehicle segment of the parade, rumbling past a Kebab shop in the background. Although the aim of displaying these tanks in parades is solely to pay tribute to Second World War veterans, it should be mentioned that the T-34/85 remains in active service with nations like Yemen and North Korea. More on the T-34's service and upgrades performed on them in North Korea can be read in our book!

The crew of the T-34/85 displays the flag of the 79th Guards Rifle Division, which took part in operations along the Dniester in Transnistria in 1943 and continued to serve postwar as part of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany until being disbanded in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 1992. Also note the five marks of excellence painted on the barrel of the tank.

The T-34/85 was followed by more ceremonial relics such as BM-13 'Katyusha' multiple rocket launchers fitted with 132mm rockets, YaG-6 trucks towing 76mm ZIS-3 field-guns and GAZ-67 off-road vehicles. Note that like so many Soviet vehicles supposed to be from World War II, these are actually more modern trucks modified to resemble their World War II ancestors. In the case of the BM-13, a post-war variant based on the ZIL-157 truck.

Sitting inside the trucks were units in World War II uniforms wielding PPSh-41s and what appears to be a single PPD-34/38 submachine gun. Closer inspection of the submachine guns actually reveal them to be fakes, but who really cares?

Also included in the parade was a U.S. 'Army' Willys MB 'jeep' and a motorcycle and sidecar combination resembling those used by Nazi Germany in World War II, equipped with a faux MG42 machine gun.

Although relegated to the annals of history by much of the world's militaries, motorcycle and sidecar combinations still play a role in the Transnistrian military, and occasionally feature in exercises as well, confirming their operational status. The gunner in the sidecar is armed with a 5.45mm RPK-74M light machine gun.

The next entry to the parade consisted of several indigenous buggies armed with a single 7.62mm PKT machine gun taken from an armoured vehicle. These unarmoured buggies rely on their small silhouette and speed to avoid being hit, and see service with Transnistria's special forces.

More variations of these buggies exist, most of them armed with a single light machine gun (usually a 7.62 PK(M) or in the case of the vehicle below, a 5.45mm RPK-74). Even an amphibious variant exists!

A more serious attempt at coming up with an indigenous solution for a light scout vehicle has been the Lada Niva 4x4, which is readily available on the commercial market and easy to convert to the role as a light scout vehicle akin to the Land Rover Defender. In Transnistrian service they're also used as towing vehicles for light mortars.

Back to the parade, where two types of BTRs had meanwhile rolled onto the parade ground. First off is the R-145BM, a turret-less command vehicle based on the chassis of the BTR-60. The R-145BM is fitted with a collapsible frame antenna, a high telescopic mast and five sets of radios among other specialised equipment.

Directly following these, the BTR-70 APC, which constitutes the main APC of the Transnistrian Army. Nonetheless, the older BTR-60 also continues to see active service.
Those with watchful eyes may have noticed that in one of the rows of BTRs there were six vehicles, while in the other one there were only five. Careful study of the footage shows that one of the BTR-70s left the formation just before reaching the main stage followed by a plume of smoke, luckily just out of view for most of the spectators.
The imposing looks of the T-64BV, which is the only tank to serve with the Transnistrian army. The T-64 saw use during the 1992 Transnistrian War, when several were taken out by Moldovan forces. As Moldova currently doesn't operate any tanks of its own, any tank battles in a future conflict are essentially ruled out.
These were followed by IRMs, UR-77s, BMP-2s, 9P148 Konkurs' arguably the most interesting segment of the parade.
With only a small number were ever produced, the IRM 'Zhuk' remains one of the most elusive armoured fighting vehicles to have served with the Soviet Army. Designed as a combat engineering vehicle for land and river reconnaissance, the IRM is equipped with a host of specialised equipment, including an echo depth finder with sonar transducers, mine detectors, an ice drill, two arms for detecting mines, two retractable propellers to propel and steer itself in the water and two cases with 16 9M39 rocket engines for getting out of mud. Armament consists of a 7.62 mm PKT machine gun fitted in a small turret for self-defence at close range. The irony of the IRM is that Transnistria, despite lacking in common equipment fielded by almost every country, possesses the most specialised vehicle for river-crossing in Europe. 
Directly behind, UR-77 mine-clearing vehicles followed. This vehicle uses a mine-clearing line charge to clear a safe path for friendly units to advance through, but is perhaps best known for its destructive role in the Syrian Civil War, where they were used to clear whole city blocks of buildings to flush out their defenders. In Transnistria, finding a modern day use for the UR-77 is harder than one might think.

Looming behind the UR-77s, the 9P148 'Konkurs' anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) carrier capable of using both the older 9M111 ATGM (seen carried) and the more capable 9M113 ATGM. These vehicles saw use on the side of Armenia as recently as 2020 during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and remain potent weapon systems when used under the right circumstances.

Next up was a newcomer to Transnistrian parades, though not an entirely unexpected one. Just a small number of BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) are believed to be in service with the Transnistrian military. Interestingly, the BMP-2s did not feature in the parade trainings, and appear to have been last minute additions to the actual parade.
The BTRG-127 'Bumblebee' has been a notable absentee from this year's military parade. First entering service in 2016, this unique armoured personnel carrier (APC) is based on the Soviet GMZ-3 minelayer, which was locally converted to house a a large infantry compartment in place of the minelaying equipment and a gunner position equipped with a single 12.7mm Afanasev A-12.7 machine gun. Our article on the BTRG-127 'Bumblebee' can be read here.

Another notable absentee that contrary to the BTRG-127 was present in earlier parades is the BMP-1KSh command and staff variant of the BMP-1. The 73mm 2A28 Grom was replaced with a 10m long telescopic mast and TNA-3 gyroscopic navigation device, additional radios as well as telegraph and telephone equipment, generators and antennas. As a result of this equipment, the turret was fixed in place.
Another rare type of vehicle: the GT-MU multi-purpose armoured vehicle. The GT-MU's appearance in the world today is so rare that only few know about its existence. It nonetheless served as the base platform for several types of highly specialised variants, including the SPR-1 mobile jammer. 
Designed as a versatile platform from the onset, Transnistria set on to convert several GT-MUs that were excess to requirements to the roles of command and observation, and even as improvised tank destroyers, more on which can be read here
GAZ-66 trucks and UAZ-452 off-road vans carry the same 120mm 120-PM-38/43 mortars.
Various types of towed anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns formed the tail end of the military part of the parade, like the 23mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft gun towed by a ZiL-131 truck below.  
Transistria might very well be the last European user of the 14.5mm ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun.

A 85mm D-44 divisional gun is being towed by a Ural-375D. The lackluster armour penetration capabilities of this system are mitigated by the fact that Moldova doesn't operate any armour to begin with.

A MT-LB auxiliary armored tracked vehicle carries a 100mm MT-12 'Rapira' anti-tank gun, which certainly is a step up in capabilities compared to the 85mm D-44 seen above. The HEAT rounds fired by the MT-12 can pentrate up to 400mm of armour. In comparison, the BMD-1's armour protection is only 33mm at its thickest point, with much of the hull covered by 15mm of armour plating or less.

A 57mm AZP S-60 anti-aircraft gun, which continues to see service in the militaries of both Transnistria and Moldova. In an effort to improve the mobility of the system in the ground-to-ground role, the latter has even mounted them on ZiL-135 trucks that once housed the (since dismantled) 220mm BM-27 MRL systems.

The 100mm KS-19 is the heaviest anti-aircraft gun in the inventory of Transnistrian military, but due to a lack of both towed and self-propelled artillery in its inventory, most are employed as conventional artillery since the 1992 war instead. Transnistria is certainly not the only country to have repurposed these ancient guns for this role, with countries Syria and Armenia following suit. Interestingly, Iran has instead focused on increasing their effectiveness in their original role by pairing them to radar and electro-optical devices, and by fitting them with an automated loading system.

The 'Pribor-1' multiple rocket launcher (MRL) closed off this year's vehicle section of the parade. This MRL (referred to as 'Pribor' for the plant which produced it but likely offically known as 'S1T' or '1ST') combines a ZiL-131 truck with an indigenous launching erector system for 122mm rockets similar in operation to that of the BM-21. However, the biggest difference is a 50% reduction in the total rockets the vehicle can fire in one salvo, from 40 on the BM-21 to just 20 on the Pribor-1.

The Pribor-1 is now to be superseded by the more capable Pribor-2 (offically known as 'S2T' or '2ST'), which was another notable absentee during the parade. As opposed to the Pribor-1's 20 launching tubes, the Pribor-2 can fire the impressive amount of 48 122mm rockets in one salvo. Based on a commercially available KAMAZ-4310, the Pribor-2 stands out compared to other MRL designs for its interesting arrangement of 4x12 122mm rockets and backwards installed launch tubes. Our article on the Pribor-2 can be read here.

The celebrations were concluded with ceremonial gunfire by eight 85mm D-44 anti-tank guns, blasting loud bangs and sparks throughout the sky over Tiraspol.

Transistria's Victory Day parade is certainly a little less glamorous than contemporary parades elsewhere, but what it lacks in glamour it all the more makes up for in the colourful composition of the military hardware it parades. Whether Moldova and Transnistria will ever be able to move beyond the status quo is unknown, but in the writer's opinion, this tradition should certainly survive.

[1]  В столице состоялся парад в честь 30-летия республики и 75-летия Победы
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