Rattled by Ukraine War, Moldova Strives to Dodge Russia’s Long Shadow

Rattled by Ukraine War, Moldova Strives to Dodge Russia’s Long Shadow

CHISINAU, Moldova — Before war erupted next door, 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, threatening its economic development, straining its society with waves of refugees and evoking existential fears of yet another Russian occupation.

The war jitters are also adding another chapter to Moldova’s long and increasingly desperate effort to untangle itself from Moscow’s clutches. In pursuit of that, it recently applied to join the European Union, but the prospect of gaining admission anytime soon is remote.

“We are a fragile country in a fragile region,” said Maia Sandu, Moldova’s president, in an interview.

Moldovans’ fears swelled anew on Friday, when a Russian general said his country’s military now plans to seize the entire southern coast of Ukraine. That would establish a land bridge from Russia in the east to Transnistria, a heavily armed, breakaway region in Moldova’s east — bordering Ukraine — that is controlled by Russia.

Whether Russia has the wherewithal to swallow up such a large stretch of Ukrainian territory is debatable, especially in view of the enormous losses its military suffered in the battle for Kyiv. But whether real or just an effort to stir up trouble in the region, the Moldovans are taking the general’s threat seriously.

The Moldovan government has long been nervous about Transnistria, a thin sliver of territory that is controlled by at least 12,000 separatists and Russian troops. Since the war erupted, the Moldovan and Ukrainian militaries have faced the extra concern of whether the Transnistrians were going to jump into the battle and start attacking Ukraine from the west. So far, that has not happened.

Tucked between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is tiny — with less than three million people — and for centuries has been torn between greater powers: first the Ottomans and Russia, and now Europe and Russia. The theme, clearly, is Russia, and Russia does not want to let it go.

Moscow exerts a stranglehold over nearly 100 percent of Moldova’s energy supply. And the Kremlin is constantly trying to stir up Moldova’s many Russian speakers who are susceptible to its propaganda, especially in Transnistria.

That is what seemed to have happened on Friday, when, according to the Russian news media, Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev said, “Russian control over the south of 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, it was another hurdle along a dangerous pathway she has been trying to navigate since the crisis began.

Moldova has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and barred Moldovans from sticking pro-Russia symbols on their cars. At the same time, the country did not fully join the European Union’s sanctions on Russia, for fear of being cut off from Russian gas.

“No one said it was going to be easy,” Ms. Sandu, 49, said from her office on Stefan cel Mare, the grand boulevard in the capital, Chisinau, that cuts past a patchwork of hulking, Soviet-style office buildings. “But no one said it was going to be this hard.”

The war has been hard not only on her but on most everyone here. Before the hostilities started, Adrian Trofim, whose family owns a 19th-century countryside winery and resort, thought that he was finally catching a break after two years of struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. He was adding a wing to the hotel, setting up a spa focused on wine-based treatments and gearing up to produce a sparkling wine.

But now his operations have fallen into peril. Brandy worth a quarter of a million dollars that he needs to ship to Belarus has been blocked in his warehouses. His regular Ukrainian customers have no way of paying him, costing him several more hundreds of thousands of dollars. And he cannot ship his chardonnays to China, one of his new markets, because the port in Odesa, Ukraine, that he uses for exports shut down as soon as the first bombs fell in February.

“I don’t 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 could be a while. When the war began in Ukraine, residents of Chisinau said they were awakened by the sounds of not-so-far-off explosions. Then Ukrainian refugees started streaming in — more than 400,000 have arrived, Moldovan officials have said — putting a severe strain on public services in a country where the average annual income is less than $6,000.

Prices for basic goods then shot up as supply chains were disrupted. And business owners had to persuade their employees, terrified that the war might cross into Moldova, not to flee the country, following the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who moved abroad in the past decade.

“We were already considered a high risk,” said Carmina Vicol, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moldova. “We had just started convincing investors to take a shot on us. Now everyone has backed out.”

It is not all bad news. Some Ukrainian companies are considering moving to Moldova, in search of a safer environment. And with all of the foreign dignitaries (and news crews) swooping in, its international profile has received a lift, leading the government last month to rebrand Moldova as “a small country with a big heart.”

Many Russians discovered that big heart long ago. During Soviet times, retired officers flocked to Moldova, drawn by the scenery, good food and sunshine. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the country was run by pro-Russian elites, who kept strong links with Moscow, especially regarding energy.

Moldova receives all its gas from companies controlled by Russia. And even though Moldovan leaders have talked a big game about weaning the country off Russian gas and getting energy from other countries like Azerbaijan, Turkey and Romania, none of those, at the moment, could come close to what Russia provides.

And so Russia continues to use its sway over gas prices to push Moldova around. Russia has intimated, for instance, that it would lower prices if Moldova agreed to make concessions on Transnistria, which Moldova has refused.

Moldova’s twin problems, of energy and Transnistria, are interconnected. In the Soviet era, Moldova’s biggest power plant, and its two biggest gas-pumping stations, were built in Transnistria.

“If you look at the map, it doesn’t make sense,” said Victor Parlicov, an energy analyst and a former government official. “It was built this way in case Moldova would try to pursue its own path.”

Transnistria has its own flag, complete with a Soviet-style hammer and sickle, 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 Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic during World War II.” Mr. Parlicov said that this fit a pattern of the Soviet authorities reshaping the borders of republics against historical realities, which created the potential for conflict.

Transnistria’s situation mirrors that of Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists rebelled after the anti-Russian 2014 rebellion, setting off a chain of events that led to war. Transnistria also complicates Moldova’s aspirations to join the European Union.

“We’d be happy to be part of the E.U.,” said Serghei Diaconu, the deputy interior minister. But, he added, half-jokingly, Transnistria was “a big pain” that could discourage the E.U. from accepting Moldova.

Joining NATO would be an even taller order. Neutrality is enshrined in Moldova’s constitution, a holdover from the early 1990s, when it tried to stand on its own without antagonizing Russia. Now, Moldova’s leaders are questioning the wisdom of that approach.

“If you ask me whether neutrality is going to keep us safe, I don’t know,” said Ms. Sandu, the president. “It did not help over the last three decades to convince Russia to take its troops out of the country.”

The geopolitical tightrope the country is forced to walk, in the eyes of many Moldovans, means its future is intertwined with Russia’s. Mr. Trofim, the winemaker, for one, said that almost half of his business depended on Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

As he looked at the winery’s vast, neat gardens, empty but for a few visitors, he said that he was appalled by what Russia had done in Ukraine, but that he could not condemn anyone forever.

“I cannot say I will never do business with Russia,” Mr. Trofim said. “It is a matter of the well-being of my company.”

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