Wedged between Ukraine and Nato member Romania, the impoverished former Soviet republic of Moldova (population 2.5 million, the second poorest nation per capita in Europe) is watching the Russian tanks roll across its neighbour with a grim sense of foreboding.
Like Ukraine, Moldova has struggled to carve out an independent role for itself since shaking off the Soviet Union in 1991, and, again like Ukraine, it contains within its borders a secessionist breakaway region containing ethnic Russians which fought a civil war against the state, Transnistria.
The writ of Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, does not run here and the enclave’s ambition has been sustained for two decades by between 1,000 and 2,000 Russian “peacekeeping” troops who moved in in 1992 just after the end of the civil war.
Part of the ostensible mission of the Russian troops is guarding what is considered eastern Europe's largest munitions depot at Cobasna, 2km from the border with Ukraine. Russia has dragged its feet in moving to either liquidate or remove the munitions, as Moldova and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have called for.
Moldova has repeatedly called for the troops' departure, as foreign minister Nicu Popescu recently told Foreign Policy. "We are consistently calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldovan territory, and we stand for the fact that it's our sovereign right to make that decision."
These peacekeepers on Thursday contributed shelling to the southern flank of the Russian onslaught on Ukraine.
To Moscow’s intense annoyance, Moldova last July for the first time elected a solidly pro-European, anti-Moscow majority to parliament. The days of quiet compliance appeared to be ending. Moldova’s neutrality, copperfastened by its constitution, would not end, so Nato membership would not become an issue, but political rapprochement with the EU was definitely on the cards. But will Putin allow it?
The invasion of Ukraine has prompted widespread concern, not least in the Baltics, that Putin’s appetite will not be satisfied by Kyiv. The Russian president has made no secret that he regards the break-up of the Soviet Union as the great historic tragedy of the last century. And that he aspires both to reunite the Russian people scattered through the subsequently independent states, and to push Nato back from them.
For 30 years Moscow has mostly avoided direct confrontations with its former client states, what it still regards as its sphere of influence, but systematically developed a strategy of fomenting nationalism and the idea of reunification with Greater Russia within their substantial minority communities.
It did so by playing on real and imagined discrimination, elevated in Ukraine to preposterous charges of genocide. In the Baltics linguistic divisions became a means of permanently entrenching deep, destabilising differences. In Georgia, as it would in Ukraine and Moldova, Russia encouraged the establishment of what became illegal, breakaway republics, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia joining Luhansk, Donetsk and Transnistria in becoming platforms for legitimising future Russian return.
Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine would “ask” the Russians in in recent days. The latter’s invasion of the Ukrainian sovereign territory of Crimea in 2014, on the same pretext of protecting “oppressed” Russians, would be effected in the same manner.
So, within the grim Putin rationale of rebuilding the Greater Russia of old, what would be more logical, having “pacified” Ukraine – a task that he will find more difficult than he expects – than to send his tanks south through friendly Transnistria? No doubt it would also “ask” the Russians for help if required to do so. Into Moldova, to put manners on its pro-European leaders. How much easier militarily than in Ukraine.
And, Moldova not being a Nato member, a far more realistic endeavour than bringing Estonia or Poland back into the fold.
On Wednesday president Maia Sandu said Moldova would introduce a state of emergency and was ready to accept tens of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine after the Russian attack. “We will help people who need our help and support,” she insisted. What comes after them may not be so welcome.