On the border with Ukraine, Moldovans wonder: where will Putin stop?
On the Dniester River—just eight miles from the Ukrainian border—the mayor of a village in Moldova next door watched television coverage of the Russian invasion. He fiddled with the pen, removed and turned its lid, staring at the screen as he showed the Russian advance toward Odessa, the largest city on the Ukrainian side.
“I can’t stop watching,” said Mayor Alexander Nikitenko. “If they take Odessa, it is clear that they will come forward here.”
And if the Russians go so far, Mr. Nikitenko wondered, will they inevitably stop?
Such questions are being asked throughout Eastern Europe, in former communist republics such as Moldova. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered assumptions about the post-Cold War order, providing clear evidence that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is open to redrawing Europe’s borders by force. lets see.
A poor country of 2.6 million between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is perhaps the most vulnerable. Unlike Poland and the Baltic states, Moldova is not a member of NATO. It is also not a member of the European Union, but last week submitted a hasty, long-winded application that sparked something like a flurry of action.
The worst part is that two decades ago, Russian-speaking separatists who carved a part out of Ukraine did the same thing in Moldova.
In 1992, Moscow-backed separatists took control of a thin 250-mile stretch of land known as Transnistria, which runs along the east bank of the Dniester River as well as parts of the west bank.
They also claim that Mr Nikitenko’s villages, including Varnita, are pockets of land still controlled by Moldova.
Transnistria has never been recognized internationally – not even by Russia. But Russia keeps 1,500 troops there, nominally to keep the peace and guard a vast Soviet-era weapons cache.
If Russian forces advance to the Moldovan border, some Moldovans fear that Russia will soon recognize Transnistria, as it did with the self-proclaimed separatist republics of Ukraine – a move to officially capture Moscow. was giving the same excuse – and probably absorbed it later either. A pro-Russian Ukraine or Russia itself.
Arrows on the map of Ukraine Last Tuesday the Belarusian President, Alexander G. Lukashenko, suggested that Russian troops in Ukraine planned to enter Transnistria after the capture of Odessa. The Belarusian ambassador to Moldova later apologized for Mr Lukashenko’s map, claiming it was a mistake.
Within the Moldovan government, senior officials have discussed concerns that Russia could completely take over Moldova, two Moldovan officials said on condition of anonymity.
“People are scared, really scared,” said Alexandru Flenchia, an analyst and former deputy prime minister in Moldova who oversaw efforts to reunify Transnistria. “Many are considering emigration before they can become refugees themselves.”
No European can feel safe today, especially after Mr. Putin instructed his military to prepare Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Mr. Flanchia said.
“But of all countries, except for the aggressors themselves, Moldova is the country closest to military action,” Mr. Flanchia said.
Although small and poor, Moldova has historically been a troublemaker for power dynamics in Eastern Europe. In less than two centuries, the country has formed part of the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Romania, and the Soviet Union.
On the banks of the Dniester River, that complex history, combined with the fiery nature of the present moment, has inspired hopes of a transition of power.
Sergei Shirokov, a Transnistria-based political analyst and former Transnistrian official, said Dniester could now become the border between Russia and the West. “Will that border be the Iron Curtain?” Mr. Shirokov asked. “Or will it be a flexible limit?”
European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell Fonteles visited Moldova last Wednesday in a show of support, while United States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited on Sunday.
“We strongly support the territorial integrity of Moldova,” Mr Blinken said in a joint press briefing with the Moldovan President, Maia Sandu.
In the short term, some have speculated that the Transnistrian forces or Russian troops in Transnistria may have been sucked into fighting themselves to aid Russia’s campaign in southwest Ukraine. On Friday evening, a news agency run by Transnistrian authorities said a missile had hit a Ukrainian rail line near Transnistria, highlighting the risk of military spillover. On Sunday, a television channel run by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry claimed that recent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s airports were fired from Transnistria. Both the Moldovan government and Transnistrian authorities denied the report.
As recently as Sunday morning, Moldovan officials and foreign diplomats said there was no evidence the Transnistrian leadership was seeking to engage itself in fighting. Moldova’s President Ms Sandu said on Sunday that the Russian aggression made the country feel unsafe. But he and other Moldovan officials have tried to avoid fueling tensions. In parliamentary elections last year, nearly a third of Moldovans voted for parties supporting Russia.
In an interview, Moldovan’s prime minister, Natalia Gavrilita, said that her government faced more pressing challenges – such as a sudden influx of more than 230,000 refugees. There are almost no free hotel beds in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, and many refugees are living in temporary camps and ordinary Moldovan houses.
“We are a neutral country, we have always acted through the prism of neutrality, and we fully expect others to do the same,” Ms Gavrilita said. “We do not see any imminent threat of Transnistria joining the war”, he said. “That is, for now, a hypothetical question.”
The Transnistrian leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky, declined an interview request; The head of Transnistria’s foreign affairs department, Vitaly Ignatiev, declined to comment when reached by phone; And the Transnistrian authorities even denied entry permits to The New York Times.
In recent public statements, however, the Transnistrian leadership has sought to defuse any tensions.
Any report of Transnistrian aggression was a “shameless lie”. Mr Krasnoselsky said in a statement on Sunday afternoon. Transnistria “does not pose a military threat, does not plan an offensive nature,” he said. “We are focused on ensuring peace.”
Recent military exercises by Transnistrian security forces have been defensive, also suggesting they are not training for an operation in Ukraine, Mr. Flanchia said, citing recent statements by Transnistrian officials.
While Transnistria seeks independence from Moldova, the two have established a functional if uneasy relationship.
Transnistria has its own flag, complete with a Soviet-style hammer and sickle, and its own floating currency consisting of partially plastic coins reminiscent of a board game. At the local level, Moldovan and Transnistrian communities are often interdependent, and Transnistrians often use banks and medical centers in Moldovan-controlled cities.
In the village school of Mr. Nikitenko, about a third of the students are from the nearby Transnistrian municipality. During the recent snowfall, Mr. Nikitenko shared snow plows with that neighboring municipality, and firefighters from both cities joined forces to put out a recent dumpster fire, Mr. Nikitenko said.
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Any disruption to the status quo would risk upsetting Transnistrian trade and food supplies, much of which depends on Moldova, Ukraine and the European Union. It could also jeopardize one of Transnistria’s main revenue streams – the fees it collects from Moldova for the electricity that Transnistria supplies to Chisinau.
The Transnistrians, who lined up to withdraw cash in Cirtina, expressed little enthusiasm for a new armed struggle.
“I want Transnistria to be free,” said 31-year-old housewife Anastasia Secretariova standing in line. “But what Putin did spoiled everything.”
Ms Secretariova’s heart sank at the thought that her 3-year-old twins were growing up to fight in a “war without a purpose”, she said. Ms. Secretariova said her friends in the local Russian-led army also have little appetite for more fighting. “They just want to be in peace.”
Ultimately, however, Transnistria residents will have little say on what happens here, said Mr Shirokov, a Transnistrian analyst and former official.
“The Eurasian continent is being reshaped,” said Mr. Shirokov. “Whether it is Russia alone that reshapes our future, or both Russia and America, we do not know. But what is clear is that it will not be our own hands that will affect things.”
A Moldovan official said that no matter what happens in Ukraine, Russia may still try to maintain the status quo in Transnistria. A Transnistria that remains part of Moldova could be more useful to Russia, as it would continue to complicate any Moldovan aspirations for integration with the West, the official said.
And whatever happens with Transnistria, the war in Ukraine will present many challenges for Moldova, said Niku Popescu, Moldovan’s foreign minister.
Mr Popescu said the conflict had already devastated Moldova’s eastern trade routes and presented it as a refugee crisis that would decimate far more developed countries.
In the long term, this will lead to the proliferation of weapons across Eastern Europe, aiding organized crime networks and undermining investor confidence, while the cost of reconstruction will also sap international funding.
“The war will be a loss of at least a decade,” Mr Popescu said. “Not only in Moldova, but throughout the region.”
But in the office of Mr. Nikitenko, the mayor of the village, even the idea of an independent Moldova seemed too optimistic.
Mr. Nikitenko still hoped that the Russians would stay at the Dniester.
But they feared that they would push west towards the Prut River, on Moldova’s western border with Romania.
“You can’t dismiss it,” said Mr. Nikitenko, still working with his pen. “If Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union, he will go all the way.”
Reporting was contributed by Irina Persyuen In Varnita, Moldova, Benjamin Nowaki in Budapest and Lara Jake in Chisinau, Moldova.
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