Moldovans Fear They’ll Be Putin’s Next Target. Their Prime Minister Is Preparing for the Worst

Natalia Gavrilița knows she is in a tight spot. It is, after all, the job of Moldova’s Prime Minister to project control, an easy calm, the sense that everything will work out fine. But Gavrilița also knows that the humanitarian fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fraying the seams of her nation, which by some metrics is Europe’s poorest. So as we wrap up our interview in the capital, Chișinău, chatting before her nation’s tricolor flag with its embossed eagle motif, she double-checks herself.

“Perhaps I should have been stronger on the need for help,” she muses aloud. “Because we need green corridors [taking refugees to third countries]Our economic worries are complex and we require assistance. We are small, and so panic can quickly unbalance the economy.”

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has done many things: sent 2 million refugees hurrying to neighboring countries, upended Europe’s security architecture, severed global supply chains, and revived fears of nuclear war. But as with any rowdy neighborhood, the smallest suffer most, and they don’t come smaller than landlocked Moldova, whose population of 2.6 million is less than Chicago’s.

Still, the plucky nation had already welcomed at least 270,000 refugees from besieged Ukraine—which envelops Moldova across three compass points, with Romania to the west—when TIME sat down with Gavrilița in her office March 8. And despite a GDP per capita PPP of $13,000 last year—ranking somewhere between Paraguay and Egypt—the warmth of that welcome has been stunning. Regular Moldovans were open to welcoming the migrants, bringing food, medical supplies, and even a smile to their faces.

Arrivals with disposable income have crowded into hotels and apartments, children running feral in marble lobbies, and business centers have been transformed into makeshift crèches. At Chișinău Arena, hundreds of cots are filed with Ukrainian families with nowhere else to go. “It has been a mobilization of the entire society,” Gavrilița says proudly. “But we are very rapidly reaching our capacities.”

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To that end, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrived in Moldova March 6 to show support and promise $18 million over the next few years to “strengthen and diversify” Moldova’s energy sector. “Energy security is actually critical to maintaining one’s sovereignty and independence,” Blinken said.

So is keeping Russian tanks and soldiers’ forces outside one’s borders, but on that point Washington is more reticent. President Joe Biden used his first State of the Union address to vow to defend “every inch” of NATO territory, but added that “our forces are not going to Europe to fight [for] Ukraine.” Neither Ukraine nor Moldova are members of NATO.

“Moldovans must be very nervous,” says Daniel Fried, a former assistant Secretary of State and U.S. ambassador to Poland. “Biden drew a hard security line and Moldova is on the wrong side of it.”

It is palpable. On the foggy first morning day of Russia’s invasion, Feb. 24, locals in Moldova’s low-slung capital could hear artillery fire from the street. As soon as the invasion began, Moldova’s airspace was closed. On March 1, a strong Putin ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, gave an extraordinary televised address to his security council detailing the Kremlin’s invasion plan on a huge map that appeared to include Moldova for occupation. Upon summoning the Belarus Ambassador for an explanation, Gavrilița was told “the map was a misunderstanding,” she says. “Of course, we do not believe this is a satisfactory answer.”

All levels of social and political life in Moldova are asking themselves if the conflict is coming to an end. Ukraine’s besieged Black Sea city of Odessa lies just 35 mi. The border is shared. For Igor Munteanu, a former Moldovan MP and Ambassador to the U.S., Biden’s remarks describing the limits of the U.S. response were “almost an invitation for Putin to expand,” he says. “If Russia feels there is a weakness, they will exploit it. Moldova is on the front line to be the next victim of this war.”

A group of refugees at the border of Palanca between Ukraine and Moldova, on March 6, 2022.
Sidney Lea Le Bour—Hans Lucas/Reuters An assortment of refugees at Palanca’s border with Moldova and Ukraine, March 6, 2022

One Country at the Precipice

Staving off conquest would make a vivid, albeit vaguely medieval, addition to Gavrilița’s résumé. After graduating in law at Moldova State University, she went on to collect a master’s in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School before taking various development posts across Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. She served as executive director of the World Bank’s Education Reform Project before entering politics in her homeland, where she served as Finance Minister.

She has emphasized development over survival. Moldova’s problems have been dominated by a torpid economy. Around 246,000 Moldovan immigrants were either working abroad or ready to do so in 2019, which is 27% of total labor force. This rate makes it one of the most high-income countries. That same year, $1.9Billion was spent on remittances, which is 16% of the GDP.

In the past, domestic industry favored agriculture and wine exports of $80 million. The nation’s transformation into an automotive-manufacturing and IT center is partly due to the 2014 Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. Soaring energy prices and widespread corruption are all significant headwinds. The future looked brighter, however; the GDP grew 21.5% during the second quarter last year.

Today, Chișinău is a mix of crumbling Soviet apartment blocks with the odd glass office tower sprouting through cracked streets. The day before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Gavrilița wrapped up an international conference on national development strategy, including long-term plans for strategic infrastructure and investment projects to boost living standards. But with events moving beyond Moldova’s control, her government can no longer “concentrate on improving the lives of [our] citizens.”

Putin’s adventurism has cast a pall of uncertainty across the whole of Eastern Europe. Nearly all that Russian oil and gas passes through Ukraine, and fighting at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants has raised sharp concern. The dual citizenship option allows Moldovans to apply for dual nationality. It makes them eligible for the Romanian E.U. You can work anywhere in the bloc using your passport. (The Prime Minister numbers among them, for which she’s received criticism domestically.) Gavrilița’s economic plans now face the twin pressures of absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees while—if instability persists—the prospect of a domestic workforce seeking jobs elsewhere looms.

As war was raging nearby, Moldova applied for membership to the E.U. on March 3. It’s a risky move, given that Ukraine’s flirting with the bloc was perhaps a trigger for Putin’s invasion. Gavrilita says E.U. ascension was “a logical next step,” but admits the desire was “hastened” by the crisis: “I think this is particularly important during this time.”

Fleeing Ukrainians arrive in Moldova, Palanca Village - 07 Mar 2022
Dumitru Doru—EPA-EFE/ShutterstockA refugee camp is located near Palanca Village for people fleeing Ukraine. It’s three kilometers away from the Moldovan-Ukraine border. This camp opened its doors on March 7, 2022.

You have to walk a tightrope

Moldova’s E.U. These aspirations weren’t hidden. Every government building displays the blue and national E.U. flags since 2014. Side by side, the flags. But gauging Putin’s reaction in light of recent events is tricky. Moldova spends just 0.4% of GDP on defense, and its “Lilliputian” security forces, as Mutaneau puts it, consist of just 8,000 soldiers and 18,000 police.

As Switzerland, Moldova too has its security anchored in constitutionally protected neutrality. But like Ukraine, it spent half a century as part of the Soviet Union, the breakup of which Putin calls “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of our time. In fact, Russian troops are already in Moldova—an estimated 1,700 of them in an unrecognized breakaway province loyal to the Kremlin called Transnistria.

This breakaway’s history is fascinating. The 20th Century was started by Romania after Moldova had been independent for centuries. Then, in 1940, Josef Stalin—in his Machiavellian thinking—annexed Moldova to the USSR, while adding a slither of territory tracing its border with Ukraine, thus weakening his western neighbor while injecting an ethnically Russian minority into the new state that, he hoped, would guard against any potential reunification. TransNistria made up that small fraction.

Transnistria declared independence in 1990 after the Soviet Union collapsed. A short, but violent conflict followed. The ceasefire in Transnistria has been maintained since July 21, 1992. However, the state continues to be unrecognized by U.N. members. The imposing statue of Lenin looming above the Brutalist parliament building serves as a clear indicator of loyalty. Russia continues to support it with a constant supply of gas, which funds its energy production and smelting operations. Transnistria had a debt of $8 billion to Russian state energy company Gazprom, but Gazprom is not pressing for collection.

It’s lost on few in Moldova that Russian control of southern Ukraine would provide a land bridge to Transnistria, where there’s reported to be Eastern Europe’s largest munitions dump at Cobasna, containing 20,000 tons of Soviet-era weapons. Gavrilița is first to admit that Moldova would be powerless to prevent Transnistria from breaking away to join Russia should it, or the Kremlin, wish. “As a neutral country, we have not been building any military capacity for war,” she says.

So narrow is the tightrope Gavrilița must walk that, while condemning Putin’s invasion and offering humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians, Moldova has stopped short of joining sanctions on Russia. “Our economic, energy, and social resilience does not allow us to undertake such steps, particularly with this war currently going on in our vicinity,” the Prime Minister says. (The E.U., bowing to its own hard realities, continues to replenish Putin’s war chest with $1 billion of oil and gas purchases every day.)

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On another front, however, Gavrilița is battling an “intensification of disinformation and fake news,” she says. Moscow is filling local media with false reports of Ukrainian refugee misdeeds and offering specious justification for Putin’s invasion. This propaganda is easily spread by the Russian media, even though the Free Press tries to stop it.

Words are, however, what the Moldovan government has right now. “We expect everybody to respect our neutral status, and for the international community to support this,” Gavrilița says. “And to help Moldova in this request to remain neutral.”


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