Moldovans worry they may be next Putin target

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/File
People walk past a billboard depicting the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway region of Transnistria, a disputed territory unrecognized by the international community, in Moldova, Nov. 1, 2021. Moldovans fear they may be next on President Vladimir Putin's menu.
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Moldova, a small pro-Western nation of just 2.5 million people, is worried. That’s because the country stretches along Ukraine’s western flank, and the fear is that Russian President Vladimir Putin might decide to capture it, if he can.

If he did so decide, there would not be much Moldova could do about it. “We are not a very big country, and we do not have a very well endowed army,” Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu acknowledged the other day.

Why We Wrote This

Does Vladimir Putin have Moldova in his sights? The tiny pro-Western country bordering Ukraine is afraid so, and has no way of defending itself.

Just like Ukraine, Moldova is not a member of either the European Union or NATO, so could not expect much help from those directions. Adding to its vulnerability is the fact that pro-Moscow separatists, supported by Russian troops, have long controlled a strip of Moldovan territory along the Ukrainian border that they call Transnistria, though no country in the world has recognized it.

A stream of Western leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has visited Moldova in recent weeks to show support and try to ward off any Russian attack. Can cash and kind words stop the Russian army?

The foreign minister of Moldova, a country of 2.5 million people on the western flank of Ukraine, does not mince his words. The Moldovan army, he admits, is small and ill-equipped.

“We are not a very big country and we do not have a very well-endowed army with sophisticated equipment,” Nicu Popescu said in a recent briefing in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, a city of hulking Soviet-era government buildings, broad boulevards, and snow.

He was responding to questions about whether this small nation, which is squeezed between Ukraine and Romania, might be the next target after Ukraine on Vladimir Putin’s menu.

Why We Wrote This

Does Vladimir Putin have Moldova in his sights? The tiny pro-Western country bordering Ukraine is afraid so, and has no way of defending itself.

There is intense speculation that if Russian forces are able to take the port city of Odessa, in southern Ukraine, they might push westward and cross the border into Moldova.

In the early hours of Wednesday, Russian warships fired missiles at Tuzly, southwest of Odessa on the Black Sea coast, 50 miles from the Moldovan border.

For Moldovans, there are alarming parallels between their country and Ukraine.

Like Ukraine, Moldova was once part of the Soviet Union, gaining its independence in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated.

Like Ukraine, it is not a member of either NATO or the European Union – meaning it could not expect the protection of either bloc in the event of a Russian invasion.

Sergei Grits/AP
Women and children in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, carry banners and Ukrainian flags showing support for neighboring Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion on International Women's Day, March 8.

And as with the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, Moldova has a pro-Moscow, breakaway region within its borders that is occupied by Russian troops.

The region, called Transnistria, runs in a strip down eastern Moldova, along the frontier with Ukraine. When the region announced that it was splitting from the rest of Moldova in 1991, a brief war broke out in which hundreds of people died. No country recognizes tiny Transnistria as an independent state – not even Russia.

In a throwback to Soviet times, it has a hammer and sickle on its flag, statues of Lenin still standing in its squares, and streets named after Marx and Engels.

The territory, which lies on either side of the Dniester River, hosts a garrison of around 1,300 Russian and local troops, as well as a huge stockpile of 20,000 tons of weapons.

Karen Norris/Staff

If the Russians did swallow up Transnistria – or indeed the whole of Moldova – they could use the territory as a springboard from which to open a new front in Ukraine.

Moldovans were deeply alarmed two weeks ago when Russia’s apparent battle plan for the region was revealed by Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus.

A close ally of President Putin, the dictator was seen standing in front of a map with arrows that represented Russian lines of attack pointing from southern Ukraine into Moldova.

“I was afraid when I saw Lukashenko and the map with the arrow pointing toward Moldova,” says Aline Frunza, while taking refuge in a cafe in Chisinau from a snow storm outside as the temperature plunged to 23 degrees.

“If Russia invades, we can do nothing,” says the lawyer, as waitresses serve up plates of pancakes and pizza in the brightly lit restaurant. “A lot of Moldovans are leaving the country because of the situation,” she adds. “Others are packing their bags in case there is an emergency.”

Sergei Grits/AP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Moldovan President Maia Sandu greet each other as they attend a joint news conference following their talks in Chisinau, Moldova, March 6, 2022. Mr. Blinken pledged America’s support to the small Western-leaning former Soviet republic that is coping with an influx of refugees from Ukraine and warily watching Russia’s intensifying war with its neighbor.

While some Moldovans flee west, more than 300,000 refugees have crossed the eastern border with Ukraine. The streets of Chisinau are clogged with cars bearing Ukrainian number plates and miniature blue and yellow Ukrainian symbols.

“A lot of people are in transit. They’re moving through Moldova to places like Romania,” says Andre, a businessman who fled Odessa a few days after the war started.

A country that is normally given scant attention on the international stage has now been pitched into the front line of the biggest conflict in Europe since the World War II.

“Get familiar with Transnistria. You’ll soon be hearing a lot more about it,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote in a recent tweet.

Nicholas Myers, a senior fellow at Strategy and Future, a think tank in Warsaw, Poland, thinks it is likely that Russia will move on Transnistria, but less probable that Moscow would try to seize the whole of Moldova.

If Russia were able to occupy the Odessa region in southern Ukraine, a linkup with Transnistria might be irresistible, he predicts. “I think that is quite likely. If the Russians take Odessa, that puts them right next to Transnistria,” he says.

One Western diplomat in Chisinau agrees. “I think there’s a very good chance that he would” seek to capture Transnistria “even though it is still a de jure part of Moldova,” he says. “I don’t think Putin would be able to resist the temptation. It would be very provocative.”

He also believes that the likelihood of Russia invading the whole of Moldova is a more distant prospect, but that if it came to pass, “Moldova couldn’t really put up much resistance.”

“Its military has very little kit, there’s no air force, and it has missiles so old that when you fire them in one direction they go off in another because the guidance systems are degraded,” he says.

Sergei Grits/AP
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (left) and Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu attend a news conference during their meeting in Chisinau, Moldova, March 12, 2022.

The Russian objective would be to unseat Moldova’s current pro-Western government and replace it with a pro-Russia administration. To thwart any such plans, Moldova has been lavished with an unusual level of attention by a stream of Western leaders in the past two weeks.

They included Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief; Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister; and Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, who said, “We stand with Moldova and any other country that may be threatened in the same way.”

What that means in practice is hard to say. NATO has refused to fight to defend Ukraine, so would not be expected to commit troops to save Moldova.

Western countries are pledging money and humanitarian supplies, but cash and kind words go only so far. If Mr. Putin does decide to invade, “the fate of Moldova is whatever Putin’s whim happens to be,” forecasts Mr. Myers. “If he decides, ‘what the hell,’ then there’s really nothing to stop the Russians.”

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