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After Ukraine, Does Putin Have His Eyes on Another Country?

Moldova looks like “the next Ukraine.” So said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov the other day. Obviously, that should worry us. 

Lavrov, like others in the small and shrinking circle around Russia’s president, is increasingly reduced to parroting whatever propaganda lies or feverish hallucinations spill out of Vladimir Putin’s mind. So it’s a concern that he’s once again picking on Moldova. 

Here’s what Lavrov meant. Viewed from Moscow, Moldova resembles Ukraine before Putin attacked it a year ago. Both countries used to be parts of the Soviet Union, and before that of the Russian and other empires. Both regained independence after the Cold War. And both have in recent decades oriented themselves westward, with aspirations to join the European Union one day. Last year, the EU in fact fast-tracked both Chisinau and Kyiv into the official status of candidates. 

Moscow claims to see even more parallels. Both Kyiv and Chisinau, in the Kremlin’s narrative, also want to join NATO and align with the US-led — and therefore basically Satanic — “West” against Russia. In Moldova’s case, that’s simply false — neutrality is written into its constitution. 

Putin and Lavrov also note that Moldova, like Ukraine since 2014, has an eastern region — called Transnistria because it’s “across” the Dniester River when viewed from Chisinau — that’s home to ethnically Russian separatists running a pro-Kremlin breakaway republic. Transnistria also hosts more than a thousand Russian soldiers, as well as a huge ammunition depot. 

This presence of Russians in Moldova, as in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries, allows Putin to spread the fiction that his ethnic kindred are being oppressed and need his protection and intervention. He then uses these lies — which can include “false-flag operations” — as pretexts for more Russian aggression.

When Lavrov muses that Moldova looks like the next Ukraine, he’s implying that it’s the next country in Russia’s sphere of influence trying to defect to the evil West, requiring Russia to infiltrate or occupy or otherwise attack it — in pre-emptive “self-defense,” it goes without saying. 

Ukraine and the West have therefore been expecting some sort of assault on Moldova. If Putin had succeeded in his original plan to swiftly subjugate Ukraine — or even in his subsequent fallback scheme to capture Odesa and Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast — it would have made military sense for the Russians in Transnistria to sweep into Ukraine from the west and close the chokehold. The rest of Moldova would have been left over as an afterthought for Putin to deal with later.

If the Kremlin hasn’t yet meddled in Moldova more openly, it’s probably only because the Russians have failed so spectacularly in achieving any of their military goals in Ukraine. Even the Russians in Transnistria don’t exactly appear eager to be drawn into a mess resembling that in Donbas, say. 

But that doesn’t mean that Moldova is safe. This month, Kyiv said it had intelligence that Moscow was planning a coup to topple the government of Moldovan President Maia Sandu and install a puppet regime picked by the Kremlin. Sandu confirmed the plot a few days later, adding that it involved Russians, Belarusians, Montenegrins and Serbians. She’s now replaced her prime minister and tightened security. And she entreated US President Joe Biden during his visit to Europe to increase American support. 

Sandu in a sense embodies the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of her country, as well as its Western outlook today. Formerly called Bessarabia, the region passed for centuries between Ottomans, Tsars, Romanians and Soviets. But most Moldovans, like Sandu, are ethnically Romanian and many, also like Sandu, even have dual citizenship in Romania, a member of NATO and the EU. For the Kremlin, that’s enough to brand Sandu the spawn of the Western devil. 

In fact, Sandu — again, like most of her compatriots west of the Dniester — genuinely appreciates “Western” (that is, non-Russian) ideals of democracy and rule of law. She studied at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and did a stint at the World Bank in Washington, DC. Today, Moldova may be one of Europe’s poorest and most corrupt countries; tomorrow, Moldovans hope, it may be a prosperous and free member of the EU.

In that aspiration, too, Moldova is indeed like Ukraine. And that’s what so threatens Putin. He’d rather turn all former Soviet republics into vassals and failed states than see them prosper like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Heaven forbid, even Russians might then get “Western” ideas. 

That’s why it seems certain that Putin will indeed treat Moldova as the next Ukraine. That could mean subverting it, attacking it, or — if the military situation in Ukraine allows it — even swallowing it. 

Europe and the West must prepare now. Sending Moldova a few dollops of cash and offering it the distant prospect of EU membership are a start. But the EU should also help wean the country from its reliance on Russian gas and give it the means to house the many Ukrainian refugees Moldova has welcomed. And it must send weapons to Chisinau’s army. 

If Lavrov and Putin indeed consider Moldova the next Ukraine, let the West leave them in no doubt that in both countries Russia will lose.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

The Geopolitical Multiverse Is Back to Two Superpowers: Andreas Kluth

What Was Putin Thinking?: Hal Brands

• Putin Has Decided to Normalize His War: Leonid Bershidsky

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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