Russia’s Next Target?

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S1: Hey, everyone just wanted to give a special welcome to all of our new listeners from over at Spotify. Yeah, we see you guys. Welcome. And just make sure you go and click that follow button. It’ll make sure I am sitting in your feed day in, day out. You won’t miss a thing. All right. On with the show. I want you to close your eyes and imagine a place caught between two worlds. It’s known as Transnistria. Technically, this is part of Moldova, but in reality, Transnistria has got its own currency, the ruble. It’s even got its own flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.

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S2: Well, Transnistria is this odd place that kind of, in a way, feels probably like an enclave of Soviet Union.

S1: Monika Pronczuk has been reporting about Moldova and Transnistria. The New York Times. Transnistria runs along the edge of Moldova. It’s strategically important right now because it is pressed up next to Ukraine on a map. Moldova sort of looks like Ukraine’s missing puzzle piece sitting snugly inside its larger neighbor.

S2: Moldova has free borders with Ukraine. And one of those borders.

S1: So it’s like it really is tucked.

S2: It’s really it’s talked. And and sort of one of those borders is this thin sliver of land that’s called Transnistria. So we have Moldova, which is a former Soviet republic. And you have you had this region where you had a lot of retired Soviet generals that were come in, because Moldova is also a country with very nice, mild weather, with good foods. They produce wine, it’s quite sunny. So a lot of those retired Russian generals would, like, come there to live. And so after the breakup of the Soviet Union, they sort of rebelled. And with military backup of Russia, they just created their own country. And theoretically it is under the administration of Moldova, but effectively Moldova exercises no control over it.

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S1: I love that the Russian generals just created their own country.

S2: Right? I mean, that’s what you do. Our country no longer exists. So let’s create a new one.

S1: Decades later, Transnistria gets Russian language TV. People here speak Russian and it’s so close to Ukraine’s western edge that it makes a grim kind of sense that if Russia’s war was going to creep further into Europe, it would start here. Some are starting to fear it already has.

S3: As Ukraine fiercely fights back in the east, a new front may be appearing to the country’s west with.

S2: Well, so this is where we get to the most recent events, right?

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S3: For two days, mysterious explosions in Transnistria where Russian troops are based.

S2: There was a series of mysterious explosions.

S3: Moldova, without naming names, says the blasts were aimed at creating pretexts for straining the security situation.

S4: If Putin’s troops are somehow successful in taking control of southern Ukraine, they could create a land corridor stretching to Transnistria. And some here fear eventually into Moldova and deeper into Eastern Europe.

S2: Russian authorities issued a statement blaming the Ukrainians. Ukrainian authorities issued a statement blaming the Russians. And Moldovans didn’t blame anyone because they are trying to walk this like very delicate line. Right. They don’t want to provoke Russia. They don’t want to get dragged into the war. So, you know, they’ve been like very careful in what they were saying.

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S1: It’s funny. It reminds me of the days ahead of the Ukrainian invasion, a few months back when Ukraine was saying, oh, we don’t think there’s going to be an invasion.

S2: Right. This is why it’s I think it’s a very, very accurate comparison. And I mean, is probably what people are feeling, right, like attacks.

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S1: Looking at what’s happening in this region. I wonder if you think we should still be talking about war just in Ukraine? Like, do you think there’s a chance the conflict is deepening and spreading?

S2: I mean, that is a good question that everyone is trying to answer right now. It’s so close that when the war broke out in Ukraine, people in the capital of Moldova woke up thinking war broke out in Moldova. Like, this is how close it is. Who knows what is in the head of Vladimir Putin, right.

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S1: Today on the show in this Ukrainian war. Is Moldova next? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around. The root of Moldova’s fragile situation at the moment is simple. This country is deeply intertwined with Russia. There’s that breakaway region of Transnistria, a kind of Russian backed island inside Moldova’s own borders. And then there’s the simple fact that everyday life in Moldova is reliant on Mother Russia. Even though Moldova declared its independence years ago.

S2: It’s a tiny country. I mean, it has like 2.6 million residents, and it’s very dependent on Russia. It gets 100% of its gas from Russia. So, you know, if Russia wants to, they can just cut them off from gas completely.

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S1: That seems like a real liability.

S2: It’s an enormous liability that has already been used in the past by Russia. So, you know, Russia wanted to blackmail Moldova into getting concessions of the status of Transnistria just just in October last year in exchange for lower gas prices. And when Moldova refused, Russia, you know, increased the prices that Moldova is paying for gas. And once again, we’re speaking about one of Europe’s poorest countries. So they used to get older electricity, fruit, Transnistria as well. Now, one of the rare upsides of the war in Ukraine is that the European Union has sped up Moldova’s attempts to join the European Union’s electricity grid, which means some of electricity is now flowing for Romania because before that, you know, Russia for transmissions could also just turn off Moldova’s lights just like this if they wanted to.

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S1: Huh?

S2: Russia exercises enormous leverage over Moldova, but Moldova has really been trying to make it on their own. They have a pro-European and pro-Western government.

S1: Yeah, this is a really interesting point of similarity with Ukraine, because, of course, before the war in Ukraine, politically, you could see in that country people being elected who really wanted to break with Russia and chart a new path for themselves. But it strikes me that it was a little less complicated to do in a country like Ukraine that so large, first of all. And second of all, the reliance on Russia is cultural, more than like 100% of the electricity sort of thing. And so it’s just a more complicated project maybe in Moldova.

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S2: Yes, I think it’s much more complicated. You know, Ukraine wants to join NATO. Moldova cannot even say that it wants to join NATO. Right. I mean, it’s just.

S1: Why is it different? Why can’t Moldova say that?

S2: So Moldova cannot say that because just after Soviet Union broke up, Moldovan authorities adopted this new constitution. They enshrined this principle of military neutrality. And this means that basically Moldova is constitutionally forbidden from joining military alliances or increasing the number of their troops or strengthening their army. So this was actually adopted, you know, in with hoping that this would protect them from getting dragged into conflicts, kind of saying like we’re this neutral country, right? We’re not we’re not involved. But as recent history shows, this you know, this is no guarantee of not getting dragged into the conflict. So it is part of this pattern, you know, of Russia’s behavior where Russia just doesn’t want to let go some of its former Soviet republics. And this is this whole philosophy of Vladimir Putin. Right. Which is like this is our sphere of influence, is our sphere of the world. And, you know, don’t you dare take it away from us, which also takes away agents from those countries. Right. Because, you know, Moldova has their own government and that’s elected democratically by Moldovan people. So they choose they want to choose the direction in which the country would be going and they chose this government. Right. On naked, pro-European, pro-Western platform.

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S1: Tell me a little bit about the government, because my understanding is the president and the prime minister, they’re both Harvard educated. Like one of them was going to speak, I think, at the commencement coming up. You know, it seems like they’re quite western.

S2: It is quite different from previous Moldovan governments. Moldova for years has been ruled by sort of pro-Russian elites and this government really is, as you mentioned, run by two women, both of them Harvard educated and both of them very pro-Western and pro-European in their policies. Moldova’s president is the first female president of the country. She’s 49. She is this petite woman, but with like a very fierce presence. And you can feel she has a very strong personality.

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S4: But Moldova is an independent country and we have the right to choose what we want for our country.

S2: You know, she just like kind of charted this very strong pro-Western course, embracing Moldova’s European identity and really, really striving hard to to step out of Russia’s long shadow. And so Moldova started to strike it out on their own. They applied for a membership of the European Union. They have been tightening their relations economic, political, social with the European Union, which, by the way, also is not a surprise because around half of Moldova’s residents actually have European Union passports because they also have Romanian passports.

S1: How has war in Ukraine shifted things politically in Moldova? Because I imagine there might be differences both in how people in Transnistria and in the rest of Moldova have responded. And it just brings to the forefront all of these complicated conflicts of interest that we’ve just talked about.

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S2: So the Ukraine war is very, very tangible in Moldova. You know, it has turned the Moldovan economy upside down. A disrupted supply chains. People are freaking out. There is also the biggest number of Ukrainian refugees that came into the country. So is a big the highest number per capita of Ukrainian refugees that was taken in by any other nation. And this is a country where annual income is around $6,000.

S1: Does that create pressure to end the war with people saying just please make it end? Or do people feel energized somehow because they see themselves at risk?

S2: I think it’s both. Probably people are energized because it really could have been them. But at the same time, people are obviously growing tired. And, you know, it’s also an immense economic burden to suddenly have 100,000 people more to take care of. And there were other 200,000 that passed through. They also needed, like a place to stay, something to eat. You need all this logistical support. So this has created this kind of war jitters in Moldova. People are very afraid. And when we talk to business owners, for example, they said that 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 left.

S1: Well, I guess they all have those Romanian passports, so.

S2: Exactly. They just packed up and left. And now, actually, since last week, since the explosions in Transnistria, there are also Transnistria is leaving Transnistria to go into Moldova. So, you know, it’s just like this never ending, like refugee waves, like this, internal displacement. It creates a lot of instability and insecurity.

S1: It just sounds like so much pressure. And you have the pressure of these people coming and then the pressure of what you’re hearing from Russia. You alluded to the fact that a Russian general said just the other day that his country’s military wants to seize this southern coast of Ukraine.

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S3: A senior Russian general told state media that Moscow seeks full control over Donbass and southern Ukraine. He went on. Control over the south of Ukraine is another passage to the Transnistria region.

S2: But when this happened, when the general spoke those words, I reached out to two people that I spoke to to Moldova, and I asked how they were feeling, and 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, right? Because people need to get on with their lives and they’re under this immense pressure. But, you know, you need to go and do your job and take care of your family, etc.. And when the generals said those things, it was as if like the war broke out all over again. Like people again were thinking, what are they believing? They were in sort of this total frenzy about what to do and what to think. And then on top of that, the general also mentioned the, quote unquote, oppressed minority of Russian speakers in Transnistria, which is exactly the same argument that Russia has used in Ukraine, right. In Donbass and in Crimea for their military intervention was that they’re protecting the oppressed minority of Russian speakers. And this really made the Moldovans panic.

S1: More after a quick break. Would Moldovans be able to defend themselves against some kind of incursion?

S2: Well, it is hard to say, but looking at the at the current state of the army. Probably not. The army is small, you know, around 6000 troops.

S1: And that’s like baked into the law.

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S2: Yeah. It would be very hard to to kind of strengthen the army. I mean, unless Moldova would change its constitution and they have no sophisticated equipment. According to research published by the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, they have six helicopters, the whole Army.

S1: Just six.

S2: So this is this does not put you in a strong position to fight a theoretical Russian invasion. And the president of the European Council, that’s a body of the European Union that puts together leaders of all countries. He was in Moldova to show his support, and he promised more military support from the European Union for Moldova.

S5: We will help Moldova to strengthen your resilience and to cope with the consequences of the spillover from the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

S2: The fact that he made the statement and he made the statement publicly says something about the security situation in the region.

S1: Yeah. I mean, what what’s interesting to me about Moldova right now, at least in part, is that. The U.S. and NAITO. They just might face different kinds of choices when it comes to Moldova than they did with Ukraine. And I say that because I think part of the reason the U.S. has maintained its moral authority and Naito, too, in the fight in Ukraine is because Ukraine is so strong about how much they want us to be there. And they have their own military that we are supporting. 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?

S2: Well, what I see for sure is the different position that the U.S. and NATO’s in the West would be in if Russia attacked Moldova. Also, because, you know, this would mean that this war is sort of swelling into a wider conflict like and I think the fact that half of Moldovan residents have EU passports, you know, Romania is part of Natal. Right. So what does that mean? You know, if you attack a country where half of the population has the citizenship of a country that that’s a member of NATO, like what does that mean?

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S1: That’s such an interesting point, because the leaders talk all the time about not one inch into NATO’s territory, but if half of the population is a NATO’s citizen, what is Neto territory?

S2: Exactly. And you know, and that would be the same for the European Union. It’s a country where half of half of the population has EU citizenship. So I think that would definitely put NATO and the European Union and the West, you know, faced with completely different challenges. And also it would bring the war so close to Europe, right? I mean, it would literally bring it to the NATO’s doorstep. So, I mean, let’s just hope it doesn’t happen.

S1: If you look at the public comments of American leaders, you can see the way they’re thinking ahead to wider conflict, trying to prevent it. Like Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Ukraine and afterwards he said the U.S. mission had shifted a bit.

S5: As you know, I came here after traveling to Kiev. We had a warm and candid and productive discussion with President Zelensky and his team about the support that we’re providing and Ukraine’s changing requirements as the battle shifts to the Donbas into the south.

S1: He got some pushback for those words that it seemed like that was enlarging the war. I wonder if Moldovans heard those kinds of words and found them to be a comfort like, Oh, you see us without using the word Moldova. You see us?

S2: Hmm. It’s an it’s an interesting point, but I think Moldovans are so kind of if they heard those words, they’re still scrambling for more support and more aid, basically. You know, every public statement that they make is sort of like a plea for more aid and support. Like they completely do realize how vulnerable they are.

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S1: Vladimir Putin is also 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, basically because what’s happening in Ukraine is being directed by Ukrainians. So it’s not it’s not like the U.S. is coming in and making the decisions on behalf of Ukraine. But do you think if we got more involved in Moldova, it becomes harder to make that argument because we would need to be more involved or NATO’s would need to be more involved there because the military presence is so slim.

S2: Well, unless we just let Moldova go. Right. And kind of sacrifice Moldova. But that also sends a very bad message. And then I mean, then the question is, where does Putin stop? Right. Because, you know, next in line is Romania is Poland. It’s a very big question. Would NATO’s get more involved in Moldova? I just feel like, you know, this would break the the main narrative, which is like we are not getting involved in the non-NATO country. Right. So. Would the fact that like that so many Moldovans have Romanian citizenship, would that be enough to to justify a bigger involvement? In the eyes of the American public and in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, who knows?

S1: Yeah, it’s interesting because in some ways what you’ve explained about Moldovan law and the Moldovan constitution and and how Moldova has positioned itself internationally. It’s positioned itself to make itself smaller, like, okay, we’re cool with everyone, don’t you know, don’t worry about us, we’re neutral. And you can begin to see the limitations of that approach right now. And so when you talk about, you know, would naito just let Moldova go, it can’t help but think about that. Doesn’t seem like making yourself smaller has paid off for Moldova at least.

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S2: Well, yes, I agree with you. And I would even risk the statement that the Moldovan current Moldovan government agrees with you. And when I asked the country’s president about that, she was like, you know, I don’t know if it’s a useful concept. It has not helped us in the last years. We already have Russian troops in their territory, even though we did declare itself as neutral. So, you know, it seems that maybe they’re not big fans of this neutrality concept either. And so now I feel that maybe the government is embracing a different strategy, which is kind of highlighting their vulnerability in order to get more aid and more support from the West. So this was a conversation basically. You know, the president admitted that their situation is just extremely, extremely difficult. They’re so vulnerable on every front. And her government didn’t make very decisive steps to so in a way, allegiance to the West. Right. They they condemned the war. They lodged an official application for European Union membership. They keep on walking this like very sort of dangerous path of trying to balance between the West and Russia. They have been dealing sort of in a way with this ongoing problem of Transnistria, which was just like slowly boiling and simmering, but it never disappeared. I mean, they had this presence of Russian troops on their territory for 30 years. So this was sort of like a constant threat. And it’s just so close to exploding right now.

S1: Monica, I’m so grateful for your reporting. Thanks for coming on the show.

S2: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

S1: Monika Pronczuk reports for The New York Times. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Elaina Schwartz and Mary Wilson. We are getting a ton of support right now from Sam Kim and Anna Rubanova. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. In the meantime, I will catch you back in this feed. Thanks for listening.