Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Moldovans Worry Putin Could Come for Them Next

The small country is welcoming refugees—and watching Russia.

By , an Australian journalist.
Ukrainian children who fled the Russian invasion look at a phone in a shelter organized in an exhibition center in Chisinau, Moldova.
Ukrainian children who fled the Russian invasion look at a phone in a shelter organized in an exhibition center in Chisinau, Moldova.
Ukrainian children who fled the Russian invasion look at a phone in a shelter organized in an exhibition center in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 13. Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images

CHISINAU, Moldova—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprecedented attack on Ukraine has stoked unease within many European countries, particularly those with former Soviet ties. In Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, locals are especially uneasy. Part of their country is already under Moscow’s control.

The breakaway region of Transnistria, a sliver of territory that runs along Ukraine’s border, is internationally recognized as part of Moldova but effectively controlled by Russia.

Once a part of Romania, the territory of today’s Moldova was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. Shortly after the USSR’s collapse, a war broke out between Russia-backed separatists in Transnistria and Moldovan forces, who had been seeking independence from the Soviet Union. A cease-fire agreement was reached in 1992, but the conflict has never been resolved.

CHISINAU, Moldova—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprecedented attack on Ukraine has stoked unease within many European countries, particularly those with former Soviet ties. In Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, locals are especially uneasy. Part of their country is already under Moscow’s control.

The breakaway region of Transnistria, a sliver of territory that runs along Ukraine’s border, is internationally recognized as part of Moldova but effectively controlled by Russia.

Once a part of Romania, the territory of today’s Moldova was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. Shortly after the USSR’s collapse, a war broke out between Russia-backed separatists in Transnistria and Moldovan forces, who had been seeking independence from the Soviet Union. A cease-fire agreement was reached in 1992, but the conflict has never been resolved.

Today, Moscow not only provides subsidies to Transnistria but hands out Russian passports to residents there. At present, however, there are heightened worries over the estimated 1,300 Russian troops stationed within the small enclave.

There are fears those troops could now be given marching orders in either direction: into Ukraine as part of an offensive against the strategic port city of Odesa or into the Moldovan capital of Chisinau.

“These soldiers plus Transnistria’s army could end up in Chisinau within an hour,” said Alexei Tulbure, a political analyst and former Moldovan ambassador to the United Nations.

Locals fear that if that happens, there’s little Moldova could do. The landlocked nation of 2.6 million is not part of NATO and only has a small army with a few thousand active personnel.

Since its independence, Moldova has been led by both pro-Russian and pro-European officials, but this month the country sought to accelerate its European ambitions by joining Ukraine and Georgia in applying for fast-track European Union membership.

Unlike Ukraine and Georgia, however, the republic is not seeking NATO membership. In an interview with Euronews, Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita confirmed as such, stating that a “neutrality principle is enshrined in the constitution.”

Tulbure said there are many reasons why an attack on Moldova is not in Russia’s interest—but if Putin is seeking to restore former Soviet borders, the possibility is there.

“It’s hard for us to predict the actions of the Kremlin and the Russian Federation because in our analyses we have always leaned on rational considerations,” he said.

“What Russia did in relation to Ukraine cannot be explained with rational arguments.”

Adding to Moldova’s concerns, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko earlier presented a map to his security council suggesting that Transnistria factored into Russia’s invasion plans. Gavrilita told Time that after a meeting with the Belarusian ambassador, she was told it was a “misunderstanding.”

At a briefing for foreign press this month, Nicu Popescu, the Moldavan minister of foreign affairs and European integration, said there was no reason why Moldova would become a direct target.

“At the same time, given what happened in the last few months, of course, Moldova needs to prepare for the full spectrum of threats,” he said.

Popescu added that the government also hadn’t seen any signs that forces in Transnistria were planning military action in Ukraine.

“Of course, having said that, we can’t predict what will happen tomorrow or in two weeks from now or in two months from now,” Popescu said.

“For now, the situation around Transnistria is calm.”

Despite these reassurances, the war is inescapable in Moldova in part due to the presence of more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees—and another quarter million or more have passed through the country on their way to refuge elsewhere.

Many Moldovans have friends and family in Ukraine, whom they have watched suffer as a result of Russian aggression in recent weeks. More than 3.7 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 in what has been described as the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.

Moldovans have stepped up by opening their homes to Ukrainians seeking to escape the violence unleashed by Russia in their home country.

Moldovan actor and television host Emilian Cretu said he discussed the prospect of a full-scale war breaking out in Ukraine with friends but they were adamant nothing would happen.

Now, his apartment is filled with extended family who fled their homes in southern Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

Cretu has not only provided refuge to his extended family but has also opened up his home to other Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.

“I think everyone … should somehow help,” he said. “Because we can end up in this situation, too, someday.”

He worries he may soon find himself in their place and has started making contingency plans in case Russia sets its sights on Moldova.

“If I’m being honest, I’m scared, too,” he said.

“I have a bag ready to go. I also have bags ready for my sister and my mom. … If what’s happening in Ukraine happens here, I’ll take my family straight away.”

Many are watching the course of the war closely.

Vlad Braila works as an interpreter and has built a comfortable life for himself in Chisinau. He owns a flat in the city and has recently rented out an office space to develop his real estate business.

Now, fears of Russian troops marching into the small republic have left him questioning whether to stay or go.

“It’s not easy to work because I have to pretend that everything is alright,” he said.

“But I feel this threat near the border. And in this condition, I think Moldova is very vulnerable.”

Braila said he doesn’t have much faith in the government’s defense strategy. He’s looking to see what happens in Ukraine before making a decision.

“[If half of] Odesa and Kyiv … fall,” he said, “this would be a sign for me to go.”

Braila said one friend has already left the country and other friends abroad have been encouraging him to go, too. Like many in Moldova, the 41-year-old has Romanian citizenship—granted to Moldovans with Romanian ancestry—which entitles him to live and work anywhere in the EU. But he hopes he won’t have to resort to that.

Since Ukrainian forces have pushed back Russian troops in areas including around Kyiv, he said the situation was looking more promising.

For some Ukrainian refugees, fears of Russian forces invading Moldova are also contributing to their decision on whether to stay or continue moving. Luidmilla, who gave only her first name, fled Ukraine with her children and other families nearly two weeks after Russia launched a full-scale war on her country. But they have yet to decide on their next move.

She said concerns that Russia could target Moldova next will likely factor into that decision.

“When you’ve already had that experience,” she said, “it’s very hard.”

At Chisinau’s International Exhibition Center, which city authorities have turned into temporary accommodations for refugees like Luidmilla, volunteer Lilia believes Moldova and Ukraine are aiding each other.

“If they hold up the Russians, then the Russians won’t come. But if they take Ukraine, I think they will come here, too,” said Lilia, who gave only her first name.

“They’re [fighting] there. And we’re helping here.”

Natalie Vikhrov is an Australian journalist.

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