CHISINAU, Moldova – Before the war broke out next door, the Moldovans had big plans for their country.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine put Moldova, a former Soviet republic and one of Europe’s poorest nations, in an extremely vulnerable situation that threatened the country’s economic development, burdened its society with refugee waves and provoked existential fears of yet another Russian occupation.
The war unrest also adds another chapter to Moldova’s long and increasingly desperate efforts to free itself from Moscow’s clutches. To pursue it, it recently applied to join the European Union, but the prospect of being admitted at any time is soon gone.
“We are a fragile country in a fragile region,” Maia Sandu, President of Moldova, said in an interview.
Moldovan fears grew again on Friday when a Russian general said his country’s military was now planning to conquer the entire southern coast of Ukraine. It would establish a land bridge from Russia in the east to Transnistria, a heavily armed breakaway region in the east of Moldova – bordering Ukraine – controlled by Russia.
Whether Russia has the means to engulf such a large stretch of Ukrainian territory can be discussed, especially in light of the huge losses its military suffered in the battle for Kiev. But whether it is real or just an attempt to create problems in the region, the Moldovans take the general’s threat seriously.
The Moldovan government has long been nervous about Transnistria, a thin piece of territory controlled by at least 12,000 separatists and Russian troops. Since the outbreak of the war, the Moldovan and Ukrainian militaries have faced the added concern that the Transnistria would jump into the fray and begin attacking Ukraine from the west. So far this has not happened.
Hidden between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is small – with less than three million people – and has for centuries been divided between major powers: first the Ottomans and Russia, and now Europe and Russia. The theme is clearly Russia, and Russia does not want to let go of it.
Moscow suffocates over almost 100 percent of Moldova’s energy supply. And the Kremlin is constantly trying to excite Moldova’s many Russian speakers, who are receptive to its propaganda, especially in Transnistria.
That is what happened on Friday when Major General Rustam Minnekayev, according to Russian news media, said: “Russian control of southern Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are cases of Russian-speaking people being oppressed. . “
The Moldovan government immediately summoned the Russian ambassador to complain about the general’s statement, saying it was “not only unacceptable but also unfounded” and led to “increased tension.”
For Ms. Sandu, 49, the country’s first female president, was yet another obstacle along a dangerous path she has been trying to navigate since the crisis began.
Moldova has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and prevented Moldovans from sticking pro-Russian symbols on their cars. At the same time, the country did not fully join the EU’s sanctions against Russia, for fear of being cut off from Russian gas.
“No one said it would be easy,” Ms. Sandu, 49, from his office on Stefan cel Mare, the large boulevard in the capital Chisinau that cuts past a patchwork of large Soviet office buildings. “But no one said it would be that difficult.”
The war has been fierce not only for her, but for almost everyone here. Before the hostilities started, Adrian Trofim, whose family owns a 19th-century winery and resort, thought he was finally given a break after two years of fighting the coronavirus pandemic. He added a wing to the hotel, set up a spa focusing on wine-based treatments and got ready to produce a sparkling wine.
But now his operations have fallen into danger. A quarter of a million dollars worth of brandy that he is to send to Belarus has been blocked in his department stores. His regular Ukrainian customers have no option but to pay him, which costs him hundreds of thousands of dollars. And he can not send his chardonnays to China, one of his new markets, because the port of Odesa, Ukraine, which he uses for export, closed down as soon as the first bombs fell in February.
“I do not know what to do,” said Mr Trofim, who may soon have to lay off almost half of his staff. “Everything is frozen until we understand how to live with this situation.”
It may be a while. When the war began in Ukraine, the people of Chisinau said they were awakened by the sound of not-so-distant explosions. Then Ukrainian refugees began to pour in – more than 400,000 have arrived, Moldovan officials have said – putting a heavy strain on public services in a country where the average annual income is less than $ 6,000.
The prices of basic goods then rose when the supply chains were disrupted. And business owners had to persuade their employees, terrified that the war could cross into Moldova, so as not to flee the country, after the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who moved abroad in the last decade.
“We were already considered a high risk,” said Carmina Vicol, head of the US Chamber of Commerce in Moldova. “We were just starting to convince investors to take a shot at us. Now everyone is withdrawn.”
That’s not all bad news. Some Ukrainian companies are considering moving to Moldova in their search for a safer environment. And with all the foreign dignitaries (and news teams) toppled in, its international profile has been boosted, leading the government last month to rebrand Brandova as “a small country with a big heart.”
Many Russians discovered the big heart a long time ago. During the Soviet era, retired officers flocked to Moldova, attracted by the landscape, good food and sunshine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was run by pro-Russian elites, who maintained strong ties with Moscow, especially in terms of energy.
Moldova receives all its gas from companies controlled by Russia. And although Moldovan leaders have spoken out in favor of weaning the country from Russian gas and getting energy from other countries such as Azerbaijan, Turkey and Romania, none of them could currently come close to what Russia supplies.
And then Russia continues to use its influence over gas prices to push Moldova around. Russia, for example, has suggested that it would lower prices if Moldova agreed to make concessions to Transnistria, which Moldova has denied.
Moldova’s twin problems, energy and Transnistria, are linked. During the Soviet era, Moldova’s largest power plant and its two largest gas pumping stations were built in Transnistria.
“If you look at the map, it does not make sense,” said Victor Parlicov, an energy analyst and former official. “It was built this way if Moldova wanted to try to pursue its own path.”
Transnistria has its own flag, complete with a Soviet hammer and seal and a separate identity from the rest of Moldova. Its roots go back to the 1920s, when the Soviet Union carved out a small republic in the same area, before incorporating parts of it into the Moldovan Socialist Soviet Republic during World War II. Sir. Parlicov said this suited a pattern in which the Soviet authorities reshaped the republics’ borders towards historical realities, creating the potential for conflict.
Transnistria’s situation reflects the situation in Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists revolted after the anti-Russian uprising in 2014, setting in motion a chain of events leading to war. Transnistria also complicates Moldova’s hopes of joining the European Union.
“We would be happy to be part of the EU,” said Serghei Diaconu, Deputy Interior Minister. But, he added, half jokingly, Transnistria was “a great pain” that could deter the EU from accepting Moldova.
Becoming a member of NATO would be an even bigger order. Neutrality is enshrined in Moldova’s constitution, a detention from the early 1990s in which the country sought to stand on its own two feet without antagonizing Russia. Now Moldova’s leaders are questioning the wisdom of this approach.
“If you ask me if neutrality will protect us, I do not know,” said Ms. Sandu, the President. “It has not helped in the last three decades to convince Russia to take its troops out of the country.”
The geopolitical cord that the country is forced to walk on means, in the eyes of many Moldovans, that its future is intertwined with that of Russia. Sir. Trofim, the wine producer, for example, said that almost half of his business was dependent on Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
When he looked at the vineyard’s large, neat gardens, empty but for a few visitors, he said he was appalled at what Russia had done in Ukraine, but that he could not condemn anyone forever.
“I can not say that I will never do business with Russia,” Mr Trofim said. “It’s a question of my company’s well-being.”