As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its one-year mark, residents in neighboring Moldova feel anxious over even more than the errant missiles that have entered their territory from the nearby battlefield.
Alarm bells are ringing in the capital of Chișinău and across the West that Russian President Vladimir Putin could seek to destabilize the Moldovan government.
Last month, the head of Moldova’s security service warned there is a “very high” risk that Russia will launch a new offensive in the eastern part of the country in 2023.
On Monday, Moldovan President Maia Sandu warned of an alleged Russian plot to destabilize her government. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced “deep concern” Friday about the prospect of Moscow meddling with the tiny country.
And on Sunday, Poland’s prime minister became the latest prominent leader to stress the need to protect Moldovans, saying Russia’s “fingerprints” can be found all over the small nation, and that NATO allies “all need to help them” for the sake of stability in Europe.
Russia’s foreign ministry has rejected the accusations as “unfounded and unsubstantiated.”
Why Moldova is important: Moldova sits to the south of Ukraine, relatively close to Russia’s front lines along the Black Sea coast. Importantly, it separates southern Ukraine from NATO and European Union member Romania to the west.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a handful of “frozen conflict” zones in eastern Europe emerged, including a sliver of land along Moldova’s border with Ukraine known as Transnistria.
The territory declared itself a Soviet republic in 1990, opposing any attempt by Moldova to become an independent state or to merge with Romania. When Moldova became independent the following year, Russia quickly inserted a so-called “peacekeeping force” in Transnistria, sending troops to back pro-Moscow separatists there.
This supposed “peacekeeping” presence has mirrored Moscow’s pretext for invasions in Georgia and Ukraine.
And concerns have only grown since the Kremlin began to claim the rights of ethnic Russians are being violated in Transnistria – another argument used by Putin to justify his February 2022 invasion of Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine, which contained two breakaway Russian-backed statelets.
CNN’s Elise Hammond, Uliana Pavlova and Michael Conte contributed to this report.