(CNN) — Tensions are high in Moldova, a small country on Ukraine’s southwestern border, where Russia has been accused of laying the groundwork for a plot that could drag the Kremlin into war.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu accused Russia of using “saboteurs” posing as civilians to foment unrest amid political instability, extending similar warnings from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unfoundedly accused Kyiv of plotting its own attack on the pro-Russian territory of Moldova, where Moscow has a military base, raising fears that it is creating a pretext for annexation into the Russian Federation.
US President Joe Biden met with President Sandu during his visit to Warsaw last week to mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion.
Although there were no signs that she had accepted their invitation to visit her, the White House reaffirmed its support for Moldova’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Here’s what you need to know:
What is happening in Moldova?
Earlier this month, Zelensky warned that Ukrainian intelligence had intercepted a Russian plan to destabilize the already volatile political situation in Moldova.
The recent resignation of the country’s prime minister follows a period of continuous crisis, led by soaring petrol prices and sky-high inflation. Moldova’s new prime minister continued the government’s pro-EU campaign, but pro-Russian protests took place in the capital Chisinau, backed by a pro-Moscow political party.
Amid the tensions, Moldovan President Sandu launched a blunt accusation that Russia was trying to take advantage of the situation.
Chandu said last fall the government “planned a series of operations involving military-trained saboteurs, masquerading as civilians, carrying out violent activities, attacks on government buildings and hostage taking.”
Sandu also said that those disguised as “so-called opposition” would try to force a change of power in Chisinau through “violent measures”. CNN could not independently verify those claims.
“It’s clear that these threats from Russia and the desire to escalate the war against us are very high,” Lulian Krosa, Moldova’s former deputy foreign minister and now director of the Chisinau-based Institute for European Policy and Reform, told CNN.
“Moldova is the most affected country after the war in Ukraine,” he said. “We’re still a small country, it still has an underdeveloped economy, and that creates a lot of pressure.”
What is Russia planning?
Despite Moscow’s plea of innocence, its actions toward Moldova bear a striking resemblance to moves it made before its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Putin on Tuesday rescinded a 2012 foreign policy decree that partially recognized Moldova’s independence. According to Reuters.
Later, on Thursday, Russia’s Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of “preparing armed provocation” against Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria “in the near future,” state media TASS reported.
No evidence or additional details were provided to support the ministry’s allegation, and Moldova has rejected it.
But the claim put Western leaders on high alert exactly a year after Putin made similar and unsubstantiated claims that Russians were on the offensive in Donbass, Ukraine’s eastern region where Moscow has backed separatist fighters since 2014. As a matter of legitimate national security.
“It’s been there before: we’ve seen repeated actions by Russia to explore and exploit information space using propaganda in Moldova,” Groza said.
“With the war, all these tools that Russia used before have multiplied and intensified,” he said. “We are witnessing a revival of Russian political representation in Moldova.”
“I see a lot of fingerprints from Russian forces, Russian services in Moldova,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told CBS last Sunday. “This is a very fragile country and we all need to help them.”
Why is Russia gaining a foothold in Moldova?
At the heart of Russia’s interests in Moldova is Transnistria, which straddles the country’s eastern flank and has hosted Russian troops for decades.
The territory — a 3,366-square-kilometer strip of land on the east bank of the Dniester River — was the base of a Russian military base in the waning years of the Cold War. Declaring itself a Soviet republic in 1990, Moldova resisted any attempt to become an independent state or to join Romania after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
When Moldova gained independence the following year, Russia quickly deployed what it called a “peacekeeping force” in Transnistria, sending troops to support pro-Moscow separatists.
War broke out with Moldovan forces and the conflict ended in a stalemate in 1992. Transnistria is not recognized internationally, not even by Russia, but Moldovan forces have made it a de facto breakaway state. The impasse left the territory and its estimated 500,000 people in limbo, with Chisinau still holding no control over it.
Why is Moldova important?
Moldova is a country at the crossroads between East and West. Its government and most of its citizens want closer ties with the EU, and the country reached the bidding stage last year. But it is also home to a breakaway faction whose sentiments Moscow is keen to stir.
It has been a hotspot on the periphery of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on several occasions, including earlier this month, when Russian missiles crossed Moldovan airspace in Ukraine last year.
A series of bombings in Transnistria last April raised concerns that Putin was seeking to draw the region into his invasion.
Russia’s military progress, which has been stuttering since then, has temporarily allayed those fears. But Moldovan officials have warned the West that their country could be next on Putin’s list.
Last month, the head of Moldova’s security service warned of a “very high” risk of Russia launching a new offensive in the country’s east in 2023. Moldova is not a NATO member, making it highly vulnerable to Putin’s agenda. .
If Russia launches a spring offensive centered on southern Ukraine, it could push back toward Odessa and then link up with Transnistria, essentially building a land bridge through southern Ukraine and moving ever closer to NATO’s border.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Hannah Ritchie and Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting.