The World

The Tiny Country That Could Be Russia’s Next Target

And why the prospect is so worrisome.

Natalia Gavrilita speaks at a lectern in front of three Moldovan flags.
Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita attends a joint press conference with the United Nations secretary-general in Chisinau on Monday. Bogdan Tudor/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a European state known as Transnistria, which is technically part of the country of Moldova. But Transnistria gets Russian-language TV, the people there speak Russian, its currency is the ruble, and it’s even got its own flag, emblazoned with a hammer and a sickle. Transnistria runs along the edge of Moldova—and is strategically important because it’s pressed up next to Ukraine. It’s very close to Ukraine’s western edge, so observers think that if Russia’s war is going to creep further into Europe, it would start in Transnistria. In fact, some are beginning to fear it already has. “Last week, there was a series of mysterious explosions,” said Monika Pronczuk, who’s been reporting about Moldova and Transnistria for the New York Times. “Russian authorities issued a statement blaming the Ukrainians. Ukrainian authorities issued a statement blaming the Russians. Moldovans did not blame anyone—because they are trying to walk this very delicate line.” On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Pronczuk about whether Moldova could be the next frontier in Russia’s war. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: The root of Moldova’s fragile situation at the moment is simple—the country is deeply intertwined with Russia. The breakaway region of Transnistria acts as kind of Russian-backed island within Moldova’s own borders. And there’s the simple fact that everyday life in Moldova is reliant on “Mother Russia,” even though Moldova declared its independence years ago.

Monika Pronczuk: Moldova has three borders with Ukraine, and one of those borders is this thin sliver of land called Transnistria. Moldova is a former Soviet republic, and you have this region where a lot of retired Soviet generals came to live at, because Moldova has very nice, mild weather and good food. It also produces wine.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, these Russian soldiers rebelled. And with the military backup of Russia, they just created their own country. Theoretically it is under the administration of Moldova, but effectively Moldova exercises no control over it.

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When the war broke out in Ukraine, people in the capital of Moldova woke up thinking war broke out in their country—that’s how close it is to Ukraine. It’s a tiny country, with about 2.6 million residents. And it’s very dependent on Russia, from where it gets 100 percent of its gas from Russia. So if Russia wants to, it can just cut Moldova off from gas completely.

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That seems like a real liability.

It’s an enormous liability that has already been used in the past by Russia. Russia wanted to blackmail Moldova into getting concession of the status of Transnistria just in October of last year in exchange for lower gas prices. When Moldova refused, Russia increased the prices that Moldova’s paying for gas. We’re speaking about one of Europe’s poorest countries.

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Because of the war in Ukraine, the European Union has sped up Moldova’s attempts to join the EU’s electricity grid, which means that some of this electricity is now flowing through Romania because before that, you know, Russia could just turn off Moldova’s lights if it wanted to.

Russia exercises enormous leverage over Moldova, but Moldova has been trying to make it on its own. It has a pro-European and pro-Western government. But Moldova cannot even say that it wants to join NATO, like Ukraine can.

Why can’t Moldova say that?

Just after the Soviet Union broke up, Moldovan authorities adopted a new constitution and enshrined a principle of military neutrality. This means basically that Moldova is constitutionally forbidden from joining military alliances or increasing the number of its troops or strengthening its army. This was actually adopted with the hope that this would protect them from getting dragged into conflicts—like, we’re this neutral country. But Russia just doesn’t want to let go of some of its former Soviet republics. This is the whole philosophy of Vladimir Putin: that this is our sphere of influence, our sphere of the world, and don’t you dare take it away from us. But Moldova has its own government that’s elected democratically by Moldovan people.

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Tell me a little bit about the government, because my understanding is the president and prime minister are both Harvard-educated—it seems like they’re quite Western.

It is quite different from previous Moldovan governments. Moldova for years had been ruled by pro-Russian elites, but the current president is the first female president of the country. She’s 49, and you can feel she has a strong personality. She charted course of embracing Moldova’s European identity and striving hard to step out of Russia’s long shadow.

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So Moldova started to strike it out on its own. It applied for membership with the EU and has been tightening economic, political, and social relations with the bloc. That’s not a surprise because about half of Moldova’s residents actually have European Union passports—because they also have Romanian passports.

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How has war in Ukraine shifted things politically in Moldova? I imagine there might be differences in how people in Transnistria have responded versus people in the rest of Moldova.

The Ukraine war is very, very tangible in Moldova. It has turned the Moldovan economy upside down and disrupted supply chains. People are freaking out. The country also has the highest number per capita of Ukrainian refugees it’s taken in compared with any other nation.

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People are obviously growing tired, and it’s an immense economic burden to suddenly have 100,000 more people to take care of. Another 200,000 refugees just passed through, but they also needed a place to stay, something to eat, all this logistical support. So this has created war jitters in Moldova. People are very afraid. When we talked to business owners, they said they needed to convince their employees in the first days of the war not to leave, because people really wanted to leave and some people did.

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I guess they have those Romanian passports.

Exactly. They just packed up and left. And since last week, since the explosions in Transnistria, there are also Transnistrians leaving to go further into Moldova. So it’s like this never-ending internal displacement, which creates a lot of instability and insecurity.

It all sounds like so much pressure, on top of what people are hearing from Russia. A Russian general said just the other day that his country’s military wants to seize the southern coast of Ukraine.

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When the general spoke those words, I reached out to people I’d spoken to in Moldova and asked how they were feeling. They all said, It’s a complete repetition of the first days of the war. When the war broke out in Ukraine, the first couple of days there was complete panic in Moldova. Then the situation calmed down a little bit. But now, people are wondering whether they should be leaving, and are in a total frenzy about what to do and what to think. On top of that, the general also mentioned the “oppressed” minority of Russian speakers in Transnistria, which is exactly the same argument that Russia has used in Ukraine, in Donbass and in Crimea, for its military intervention. So that really made Moldovans panic.

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Would Moldovans be able to defend themselves against some kind of incursion?

It’s hard to say, but looking at the current state of its army, probably not. The army is small: about 6,000 troops.

And that’s baked into the law.

Yeah, it would be very hard to strengthen the army, unless Moldova would change its constitution. But the army has no sophisticated equipment. According to research published by the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the whole army has six helicopters. This does not put you in a strong position to fight a theoretical Russian invasion.

The president of the European Council recently was in Moldova to show his support and promised more military support from the EU for Moldova. The fact that he made this statement publicly says something about the security situation in the region.

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What’s interesting to me is that the U.S. and NATO might face different kinds of choices when it comes to Moldova than with Ukraine, which has stated strongly that it wants the U.S. to be there, and it has its own military that we are supporting even though we’re not sending in our own troops. Moldova doesn’t have that, and its relationship with Russia seems way more intertwined than Ukraine’s. Do you see that, too?

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What I see for sure is the different position that the U.S. and NATO would be in if Russia attacked Moldova. This would mean that the war swelling into a wider conflict like. And the fact that half of Moldovan residents have EU passports—Romania is part of NATO. So what does that mean, if you attack a country where half of the population has the citizenship of a country that’s a member of NATO?

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Leaders talk all the time about not one inch into NATO territory, but if half of the population consists of NATO citizens, what is NATO’s territory?

Exactly, and that would be the same for the European Union: Moldova is a country where half of the population has EU citizenship. It would bring the war so close to Europe, would literally bring it to NATO’s doorstep.

Putin is sending out his own messaging about what the next stage of this war is going to look like. He’s talking a lot about proxy war between the West and Russia, and a number of American experts have pushed back on that characterization because the resistance in Ukraine is being directed by Ukrainians. But do you think that if we got more involved in Moldova, it would become harder to make that argument because we’d be more involved—or NATO would need to be more involved there—because the military presence is so slim?

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Unless we just let Moldova go, right? And kind of But that sends a very bad message. And then the question is, where does Putin stop? Next in line is Romania, Poland … it’s a very big question. Would NATO get more involved in Moldova? This would, break the main narrative, which is that the West is not getting involved in a non-NATO country.

I feel the government is highlighting its vulnerability in order to get more aid and more support from the West. So this was a conversation, basically. The president admitted that the situation is extremely difficult, with so much vulnerability on every front, and her government made decisive steps to show, in a way, allegiance to the West. It condemned the war, it lodged an official application for EU membership, it keeps on walking this dangerous path of trying to balance between the West and Russia. It’s been dealing with this ongoing problem of Transnistria, which was slowly boiling and simmering but never disappeared. Moldova had this presence of Russian troops on its territory for 30 years. So this was like a constant threat, and it’s so close to exploding right now.

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