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Ukraine war: Next stop Moldova?

Though still struggling to conquer eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, Russia has indicated it wants to invade yet another former Soviet territory, this time to the west: Moldova.

The landlocked country had not been much in the news since 1990s when the then-Soviet republic declared independence from the collapsing USSR. No one paid much attention to it, least of all the newly minted Russian government headed by Boris Yeltsin. However, Soviet troops remained, under the Russian banner. 

About 1,500 Russian soldiers are still there, in a region called Transnistria, and Russia wants to link up with them by land. Last week, a Russian news outlet quoted Major General Rustam Minnekaev, who commands troops in central Russia, as declaring that a goal of the “special operation” in Ukraine is to open “another way out to Transnistria, where there are also facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population.

As if on cue, someone shortly blew up a pair of antennas that broadcast Russian-language radio. Then a blast damaged a building that houses pro-Russian security services in eastern Moldova. The security services blamed Moldovans while Russia’s Sputnik news service said Ukrainians who “aim to drag Moldova and unrecognized Transnistria into a conflict” did it.

A supposedly oppressed Russian-ethnic minority was one of Russia’s President Putin’s declared justifications to attack Ukraine.

“I believe that the provocations … are a challenge from the Russian Federation,” former Moldovan Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuta said. “I see them building more and more facts that will give them the right to intervene in the Transnistria region. I think we have reason to worry these days.”

In Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, the government, was quick to blame Russian provocateurs. The attacks were “pretexts” meant to raise tempers, declared Moldova’s Bureau of Reintegration Policies.

On Tuesday, Moldova’s President, Maia Sandu, convened a meeting of security officials to discuss the threat and said the country was being kept in “constant turmoil.

Moldovans had hoped the Ukraine crisis would not upset their own tense pseudo-tranquility. Nonetheless, the war has had a pair of negative effects on Moldova. The Ukrainian port of Odessa – which also serves landlocked Moldova – has been mined and is closed to sea traffic. In addition, about 400,000 refugees have flooded the country.

“We are by far the most fragile neighbor of Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolae Popescu said.

Russian troops in eastern Moldova have long unsettled the country. Back in the 1990s, they sided with rebellious Russian residents who mostly lived on the eastern bank of the Dniester River. The Russians wanted to remain in Moscow’s embrace. A civil war ensued. 

Ever since, despite off and on peace talks, the country has been split between about three million Rumanian-speaking Moldovans on the west side of the river and 350,000 ethnic Russians along the east bank.

Like Ukraine, Moldova has set its sights on joining the European Union, a further irritation to Putin. The Russian president would like both Ukraine and Moldova to join his alternative Eurasian Economic Market, which currently includes two Central Asian states plus Belarus, Armenia and Russia. Although Moldova relies on Russia for supplies of natural gas and petroleum, it looks West for future prosperity.

In March, Moldova joined Ukraine and Georgia to ask for expedited membership in the EU. The EU is in no hurry. Back in 2014, Moldova signed an association agreement in hopes of aligning itself with EU policies, but association included no guarantee of membership.

Moldova has long lived under implicit threats from Russia. The Russian military cohort supplements a 5,000-member Transnistria militia and about 1,000 armed Cossacks.

Two theories vie to explain Moldova’s possible value to Russian military aims. One centers on the use of Russian troops stationed in Transnistria to invade Ukraine and approach Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port, from the west.

The other centers on a possible total conquest of both Ukraine and Moldova, thus reviving the Soviet-era frontline with NATO at the borders of Romania and Poland.

The Moldovan army’s ability to defend itself is limited. Its troop strength us about 5,700; the country’s air force consists of six old MiG 29 fighter jets.

Without much muscle to back her up, President Sandu called on Russia last week to remove its troops from Moldova. Putin ignored the demand.

Even before the war got underway, the US State Department urged Americans visiting Transnistria “to depart immediately via commercial or private means.”

Ukraine rang its own alarms by banning vehicles with Transnistria license plates from entering the country. In February, the Ukrainians warned that Russia would create some sort of pretext to justify an invasion from Moldovan territory. Kyiv’s fears increased when Russia and its Transnistria allies held joint military drills in March.

Late Tuesday, Russian allies in Moldova raised tensions by directly blaming Ukraine for the attacks in Transnistria. “The traces of these attacks lead to Ukraine,” Vadim Krasnoselsky, the self-styled president of Transnistria, told Russian news agency TASS. “I assume that those who organized this attack have the purpose of dragging Transnistria into the conflict.”

In 2016, two years after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, a Swedish government research team visited Moldova and suggested that formal peace remained out of reach. “Though struggling to conquer eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, Russia has set its sights on invading yet another former Soviet territory, this time to the west: Moldova.”

The report explained, “The main goal in this area has been gradually reduced to one of just avoiding a new armed conflict, rather than solving the conflict and reintegrating the country,” the Swedish report said. “This approach and practice lead to the preservation of the current defective status quo and moved it even further away from a conflict settlement.”

It turns out the status quo was not just defective but also untenable.

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