After Ukraine, Moldova fears being Putin’s next target
Neighbor’s invasion brings back painful memories of its own conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in Transnistria, where Kremlin still keeps a military presence
CHISINAU, Moldova (AFP) — For Moldovans, watching Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine brings back painful memories of the country’s own conflict involving Moscow-backed separatists 30 years ago — and is stirring fears that the country might become Russia’s next target.
In the town of Palanca, “everyone is scared,” 23-year-old Alexio Mateev told AFP.
He is volunteering to provide tea and coffee to the stream of Ukrainian refugees who have been pouring across the border since Russia’s attack on their country began.
In a sign of the heightened tensions, Western diplomats have been showering Moldova with an unusual amount of attention.
The country of 2.6 million people, one of Europe’s poorest, played host to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday and Thursday and this weekend will welcome US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Borrell told reporters on Wednesday of his concern at the “instability at the border” that the conflict could generate.
Alongside him was Moldovan President Maia Sandu, elected in 2020 on a pro-Western program.
“The security risks for Moldova are serious,” she said, stressing that from the capital Chisinau “you can hear the noise of the bombs across the border.”
Frozen conflict, vivid memories
Around 80 kilometers (80 miles) to the east of Chisinau is the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, which seceded in 1990.
Not recognized by the international community, Moscow still has a military base there as well as a stockpile of some 20,000 tons of munitions.
Chisinau’s longstanding demand for the troops to leave has been in vain.
While the conflict over Transnistria has been frozen since 1992, the Russian aggression in Ukraine has revived painful memories of the fighting which claimed hundreds of lives.
On the 30th anniversary of the official start of the conflict on Wednesday, the Moldovan government and media paid tribute to the war’s fallen “heroes.”
And while French President Emmanuel Macron declared his support for the “sovereignty and security” of Moldova and fellow ex-Soviet republic Georgia last week, there is still widespread concern about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions.
“If Ukraine falls, Russia will make short work of Moldova,” former Constitutional Court president Alexandru Tanase said in a Facebook post.
He added that he was convinced that “there is a list for a puppet government in the Kremlin.”
According to analyst Valeriu Pasa from the WatchDog think tank, “the Moldovans know that they don’t have the security guarantee that NATO membership offers,” in contrast to neighboring Romania.
“Everything depends on the situation on the ground: particularly if Russia occupies the region around Odesa, Moldova will be exposed,” he told AFP.
He added that the country had already been targeted by “hybrid aggression” from Moscow, in part in the form of reduced gas deliveries, as punishment for Moldova’s move closer towards the EU.
But the crisis could present an opportunity for Moldova if it leads to the EU opening its doors to Ukraine.
Earlier this week the European Parliament overwhelmingly backed a resolution condemning Russia’s “aggression” and calling on other EU institutions to back Ukraine becoming a candidate for membership.
Moldova also formally submitted a request to join the bloc on Thursday, along with Georgia.
Sandu commented on the decision to apply by saying “certain decisions have to be taken in a prompt and firm manner.”