As the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, citizens of Moldova face an increased state of anxiety, as they wonder whether the small, eastern European country of about 2.6 million is the next to come into Moscow’s crosshairs.
At the same time, Europe’s poorest state is host to the largest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita, with more than 300,000 people having crossed over the border into Moldova since the war broke out on 24 February.
The fears are tied to possible troop movements in the Transnistrian separatist region on the left bank of the Dniester River, and Russia’s attack against the city of Odesa in southern Ukraine — just 60 kilometres from the nearest Moldovan border town, Palanca.
For Vlad, 31, a researcher at the Moldovan Academy of Sciences, the main concern is whether the Kremlin will limit its attacks on Ukraine or expand further into other former territories of the Soviet Union.
“The Russians may not stop in Odesa, but come to Transnistria and Moldova. I hope this does not happen, but the possibility is always there,” he says.
However, older people like Gheorghe, 63, who works as a night watchman, believe the war might stop at the border.
“I do not think that the Russians will reach Moldova. What do they want from here, maybe our wines? No, I think they will stop at the Dniester,” Gheorghe concluded.
Transnistrian troubles resurface
For more than 30 years, Moldova has had about 1,500 to 2,000 Russian soldiers on its territory following a war in the breakaway region of Transnistria, which proclaimed itself a separate Soviet republic amid expectations that Chisinau might declare its independence in 1990.
Amid the 1991 coup d’état attempt in Moscow and Moldova’s split from the remnants of the USSR, Transnistrian separatists backed by Russia waged an insurrection turned full-fledged war until a ceasefire was struck in 1992, which has held until this day.
The cessation of hostilities came with an arrangement to host Russian “peacekeepers” in the strip of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine.
However, in Transnistria, Russia also maintains the Task Force of Russian Troops, or GOTR, which reports directly to the Western Military District of the Russian Army based in St. Petersburg.
This military group has no legal mandate to be on the territory of Moldova, where it guards the old Soviet-style ammunition depot in Cobasna village near the border with Ukraine.
The troops are essentially the same, rotating between the peacekeeping mission and guarding the depot.
About 20,000 tonnes of decaying Soviet-era ammunition are stored in Cobasna, posing a danger to the entire region in case of an accident.
To make matters even more complicated, World War II-era Soviet explosive materials brought to Moldova from Germany and former Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 are also kept there.
The former defence minister Vitalie Marinuta told Euronews that given Russia’s intentions to take over the whole of Ukraine and their views on the immediate neighbourhood, Moldova should be more concerned than ever.
“The tensions are intensifying. So, I think we have reason to worry these days,” Marinuta said.
Loyalty to Russia and business interests clash
The Russian armed forces have not made any significant attempts to seize Odesa until Tuesday when they used missiles and artillery rounds launched from ships in the Black Sea to incessantly and indiscriminately fire at the region for 14 hours.
The head of the Odesa military administration, Maksim Marchenko, reported that the Russians fired nearly 90 projectiles.
Russian ships opened fire on the village of Mirne near the border with Moldova on Tuesday evening, according to Ukrayinska Pravda.
The strategists at the Moldovan Defence Ministry have to consider the possible scenario of military action involving the Russian troops attacking Odesa and the Russian forces stationed in Moldova, Marinuta emphasised.
“In this case, we could see two scenarios. The first is that [Transnistria] could be utterly loyal to Russia, forced by the approximately 1,500 Russian soldiers in [capital] Tiraspol.”
“The second scenario is that the economic interests of the Sheriff Holding Company which de facto runs Transnistria could prevail” and keep the region out of the war, Marinuta added.
Sheriff, a Tiraspol-based conglomerate that includes a chain of supermarkets and petrol stations, but also a number of factories and a football club, has a monopoly in the Transnistrian market and contributes to about one-third of the breakaway territory’s budget.
One of its founders, Viktor Gușan – a former member of the Soviet special service – is widely considered to be the most influential person in the region.
Military analyst and university professor Natalia Albu told Euronews that another red flag for Moldova lies in the fact that the Russian troops approaching Odesa intend to create a military corridor with the Transnistrian region.
“Although we have a latent situation in the Transnistrian separatist region, this cannot be an indicator that there is peace and quiet at the moment. It depends on how the situation in Ukraine will evolve. If Russians get to Odesa, this junction is hazardous.”
“Russia’s goal is to make a corridor to a region that Moscow controls and is friendly to,” she said.
Albu added that it is vital that Chisinau does not allow itself to become intimidated by the separatist regime in Tiraspol.
“When we are fearful about provoking Tiraspol, we allow the secessionist regime the possibility of manipulating things as long as we stay silent. This is the long-standing security dilemma of Moldova,” Albu concluded.
EU membership hopes: a pipe dream?
Meanwhile, Europe seems to be taking notice, as the Parliamentary Assembly in the Council of Europe, PACE, officially recognised Transnistria as a zone of Russian occupation for the first time on Wednesday.
The European Union is expected to move next, as Moldova officially applied for European Union membership on 3 March in a bid to seek the bloc’s protection amid attempts by the pro-Russian political forces to stir dissent against its pro-European government and disseminate panic and division.
Announcing the decision to push for membership in the bloc, President Maia Sandu said that the move was an expression of the country’s desire to “live in peace, prosperity, [and] be part of the free world.”
“While some decisions take time, others must be made quickly and decisively, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come with a changing world.”
Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița told Euronews on 7 March that the country has also asked for “financial and humanitarian assistance” to help it handle the influx of refugees, most of which come from the poorer communities in the Odesa region.
The Moldovan application came about at roughly the same time as similar requests were made from Ukraine and Georgia – another country that was invaded by Russia in 2008.
But although the European Commission has set out to issue its opinion on the applications, it is widely believed that the Council of the EU – made up of the leaders of the 27 member countries – will not be keen on approving a separate, express path to membership for any of the three.
“The EU does not like things to happen to it in such unpredictable fashion. It’s a slow-moving animal, so this is exceptional for everyone,” Oana Popescu-Zamfir, director of Romania’s GlobalFocus international studies centre and think tank told Euronews.
“The European Commission will hopefully remember that it started its term by stating that it was going to be a geopolitical commission before anything else,” she said, “And now it’s got more geopolitics than it can handle.”
“I think the right thing to do is actually look at the whole enlargement process and rethink it in a way that acknowledges first and foremost the Europeanness of those countries that have not just expressed the interest to join, but also behaved in a way that’s coherent with the EU world view,” Popescu-Zamfir concluded.
Meanwhile, some are still retaining hope that the war would not reach Moldova, as Russian forces’ advance reportedly stalls and the Ukrainian army keeps up its pushback across the country.
Oxana, a 41-year-old make-up artist from Ukraine who lived in Chisinau her entire life, said she was less stunned than she was when she first heard the news of Russia invading Ukraine.
“I’m not as scared as I was weeks ago. I understand more of what is happening, and I see how Ukraine heroically resists Russia’s offensive, even though no one believed it,” she said.