After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Moldova worries it might be next

“You never know what is in the mind of a crazy person,” said Evgheni Liuft, 32, who lives in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau.

Ten days into a conflict that is shifting alliances and upending the world order, the repercussions are hitting most directly in countries such as Moldova — post-Soviet nations that balanced for years between East and West, and are now realizing the middle ground is untenable. War in Moldova has intensified the push to fully align with Europe. On Thursday, the country signed an application to join the European Union, in what its prime minister described as a vote for “freedom.” Moldova has also strained to accommodate more than 250,000 Ukrainian refugees who have crossed its borders, the prime minister noted. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken visited the capital of Moldova and called it a “powerful example” of democracy that is moving forward.

Unfortunately, Moldova is not closer to Europe than it was in the past. However, Moldova also has been less vulnerable to Russia. Russian troops are pushing toward port cities along Ukraine’s southern coast, including Odessa, 30 miles from Moldova’s border. Several days ago, addressing his security council, Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, displayed a battle map that showed an arrow pointing toward Moldova.

Security analysts say Russia’s sluggish progress so far in Ukraine could reduce the chances that Putin seeks to enlarge the scale of the invasion. In an interview, Mihai Popsoi (vice president of Moldova’s Parliament) stated that no intelligence officers see any indications of a threat. “But [Lukashenko’s] map might make you doubt my words.” He said that every ex-Soviet nation was antsy. Moldova is still outside NATO’s security guarantee and has closed its airspace. It also declared an emergency.

” Things can go south at any time,” Popsoi stated.

There is one more reason Moldova is exposed: It already has an estimated 1,500 Russian troops within its internationally recognized borders. These troops, which Russia calls peacekeepers, are located in Transnistria. This area is a separatist enclave, and Moldovan authorities acknowledge that they do not have control over it.

On a Moldovan Telegram channel set up to provide information on the conflict in Ukraine, Moldovan authorities have found themselves racing to debunk one rumor after the next. Authorities said that troops from Transnistria are not launching missiles at Ukraine. They said that the Transnistria troops have not been involved in the conflict.

Yet, there was one sign that tension could be a possibility. The E.U. was requested by Moldova on the day following its application. Transnistrian leaders made it clear that they did not want to join the E.U. They reiterated a demand to create “two independent states.”

Transnistria is a tiny strip of land, with a population of about 500,000, that on a map looks like a ridge of scales running along Moldova’s back. This place also speaks to Russia’s strategy of creating pro-Kremlin influence areas in ex-Soviet countries.

Transnistria was born out of a brief early 1990s war amid the Soviet collapse — Moldova wanted independence and to outlaw Russian as an official language; Transnistria wanted to maintain Soviet ties. In the end, however, Russian leaders including Putin saw it as in their best interests to provide subsidies for the Transnistrian government.

Transnistria is a time capsule of the U.S.S.R. that many Moldovans love to despise. Transnistria is a land of Lenin statues. It has hammer and sickle flags. And it’s an area with once-grand Soviet architecture that is in decline. Transnistria also has paid the price for being isolated. It is not recognized by the United Nations and has a currency called the ruble that is practically worthless beyond its borders. Transnistrian ATMs don’t accept international bank cards. The salaries are very low. The biggest influence in Transnistria, despite Russia’s power, is Sheriff. Sheriff operates without oversight and has full control over everything, from gas stations to supermarkets to soccer clubs.

Those complexities make it harder to pinpoint Transnistria’s role in a potential conflict. For example, some Transnistrians hold Russian passports; others are Moldovan. Transnistria exports most of its goods to the E.U. Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselsky said Sunday that Transnistria “does not pose a military threat, and does not hold plans of an aggressive nature.”

But it’s also clear that Transnistria is following Russia in downplaying the war, which Putin has referred to only as a “special military operation.”

Transnistrian newspapers and television channels scarcely mention the conflict — and people who live there have gotten the signal that the topic is off-limits. Three friends, all musicians from Transnistrian villages, gathered this weekend to share kielbasa with vodka and to discuss their families. Or Soviet times. Or the music they played: Ukrainian, Russian and Moldovan tunes from the 1970s and 1980s. But they resisted any questions about their feelings on the war or Russia.

“I just want peace,” said the bass guitarist.

” I am neutral,” stated the pianist. They drank more.

“No politics.” The guitarist said, but did not wish to be identified.

In the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol, an artist, Andrei Platonov, 29, said he is in the minority: He vehemently opposes the war. According to him, he hates Putin and gets most of his information from YouTube. Not Transnistrian TV. He said that he is wary about sharing his opinions publicly. Platonov said that he doesn’t have the funds to move even though he would like to. Platonov started to speak in English and explained the fear he had. But he needed to be sure that he understood the meaning. Platonov typed in Russian to Google Translate, and then showed his phone.

“They imprison people for rallying,” it stated.

The peace deal signed in 1992 between Transnistria and Moldova came after a war that left some 1,000 people dead. There are still markers showing buildings that were damaged during battle or wall containing ammunition on each side. The war, said Iuri Sclifos, 57, who fought for the Moldovan side, was a “huge mistake.”

“Nobody wanted it and nothing good has come of it,” he said.

Moldova’s aim to join the E.U. This adds urgency to the need for a solution in settlement negotiations that have been stuck for many years. Despite Cyprus’s territorial dispute, it was able to join the E.U. Experts believe that Moldova, despite its territorial dispute would be able to give legitimacy to the E.U. By settling a conflict that has been frozen and includes Russian troops, the bid will be successful. Iulian Groza is an expert in foreign policy, European affairs, good governance, and member of Moldova’s security council.

But the road to membership is long. The E.U. was applied for by Moldova in the same week. membership, so did Georgia — both prompted by a dramatic plea from Ukraine for “immediate membership.” They join a list of countries, including Albania and North Macedonia, that have been trying to join the bloc for years, while encountering resistance from Brussels over the idea that the 27-nation club has already admitted too many members with corruption and weak rule of law.

More than half of Moldovans are in favor of the E.U. membership. Many young people who were raised after the Soviet collapse believe their country is facing serious vulnerabilities. This makes it difficult for them to resolve. The employees of an American cryptocurrency company were seated around tables in Chisinau last week as they discussed the possibility of war. They said that Russian troops could be easily drafted into the conflict in such an event. According to them, the military of Moldova is small and weak. Their fear is that Moldova will fall to Russia at an alarming rate.

“I am going to London next week,” said Tudor Cotruta, 33, the founder of the company, who said he wanted to leave before being conscripted into a losing war.

Two other employees, Olga Cebotari, 24, and her boyfriend, Liuft, said they were also packing their bags.

So many people had plans to leave that the company, in the coming days, would no longer occupy its work-share space. You can’t cut through the sadness, it is so thick,” Cotruta stated.

They said that a war in Moldova is still very unlikely. However, considering what happened in Ukraine it was now worth taking a risk on low-probability outcomes.

” “It’s not the idea of living in a place where you are unable to express yourself anymore,” Cebotari stated. “That is what scares me the most.”

Viorel Barbanoua contributed to this report.

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