The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russian aggression may have a new target

A soldier holds the Moldovan flag during a ceremony in Chisinau, Moldova, on Tuesday. (Vladislav Culiomza/Reuters)

Even casual observers of Russia’s aggressive moves leading up to its invasion of Ukraine cannot fail to recognize the eerie — and alarming — parallels with what has been happening over the past few days in the Eastern European nation of Moldova.

Situated between Romania and Ukraine, this poor, militarily weak former Soviet republic has been partially occupied since 1992 by Russian troops. They intervened during a brief civil war, purportedly to “protect” ethnic Russians in a territorial sliver next to Ukraine, and, like the forces President Vladimir Putin sent into the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine in 2014, never left. In recent days, Russian state media have trumpeted several bombings and shootings aimed at key targets in the breakaway region, known as Transnistria, including an immense Soviet-era weapons depot just a mile and a half from the Ukrainian border. The “attacks” purportedly emanate from Ukraine, but it’s far likelier Russia engineered them itself as a pretext for widening its war. The violence, which fortunately left no fatalities, was in fact preceded by a Russian army general’s public claim, on April 22, that his country intended not only to seize southern Ukraine but also to link it up territorially with Transnistria, so as to stop “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.”

It’s far from clear that Russia actually has the military capability to make good on such a threat, though an attempt certainly can’t be ruled out. Two Russian objectives are likely, though: first, to justify wider attacks on Ukraine’s so-far mostly unscathed western region, including Odessa, a port city near Moldova; and, second, to pressurize and destabilize Moldova, which — like Ukraine before it — has signaled its desire to escape Moscow’s orbit definitively in favor of a more Western orientation. In July 2021, a pro-Western party swept into office, backed by 52 percent of Moldovan voters, on a promise to pursue European Union membership and a strategic partnership with the United States.

Russia has no legitimate reason to fear any of this, of course. NATO membership, the Kremlin’s bugaboo, couldn’t happen for Moldova in part because Moscow’s troops are still on Moldovan territory. Moldova has dealt gingerly with Moscow, which also controls its energy supply, since the war in Ukraine began, declining to join sanctions or to permit weapons to transit its territory. What the government of President Maia Sandu admirably has done is take in some 100,000 Ukrainians, making this nation of 4 million the world’s largest haven for the war’s refugees on a per capita basis.

For that reason alone, Ms. Sandu’s government deserves American and European gratitude, sympathy and support. Evidently, Moldova also faces an imperial Russian challenge that is highly reminiscent of the one that faces Ukraine, as the fearful flow of thousands of people out of Transnistria this week vividly illustrates. Western policy failed to respond strongly enough, soon enough, to deter Moscow’s machinations against Ukraine after it took Crimea and Donbas in 2014. Hence the disaster now unfolding across Europe and, indeed, the world. There would be no excuse for making the same mistake twice.

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