In the three decades since Moldova gained its independence, Russia has spent billions, perhaps trillions, of rubles to subvert this tiny country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. At different times, using different tactics, Russian security services have helped create and nurture pro-Russia political parties, pro-Russia media, and pro-Russia social-media campaigns in Moldova. Russian “entrepreneurs” created a web of corruption in Moldova, too, culminating in the spectacular scheme known as the Moldovan Laundromat. In that venture, a group of Moldovan banks, with the support of several senior Moldovan politicians, among others, helped launder more than $20 billion of illicit Russian money from 2010 to 2014.
Whatever schemes Russia dreams up for the ex-Soviet world—corruption, subversion, or now, ominously, invasion—Moldova has usually been an early victim. Way back in the 1990s, Russia helped separatists carve out a slice of Moldova—including Tiraspol, the second-largest city; quite a few factories; and most of what used to be the main road from the capital to the Ukrainian port of Odesa—by triggering a military skirmish and then helping the slice declare itself to be the independent republic of Transnistria, an entity recognized by no other UN member state, Russia included.
Transnistria was the first of several mostly unrecognized statelets to be created in former Soviet republics; it was followed by South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, as well as the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” in Ukraine. These bits of territory have been supplied and aided by Russian troops and used to destabilize independent countries that might otherwise escape Moscow’s orbit. Russian troops launched their current invasion of Ukraine from Donetsk and Luhansk, among other places. The first Transnistrian “president” was a former Soviet official of dubious origins, whose previous areas of interest were Cuba and Nicaragua, or so he told me in 1991. Still home to some 1,500 Russian soldiers, Transnistria has been a source of contraband and smuggling operations ever since.
[Read: A global geopolitical crisis comes to Moldova]
All along, this has been an unfair contest. Moldova only has around 2.6 million people and hardly an army to speak of. Its borders match, more or less, the territory once known as Bessarabia, a piece of land that has moved back and forth between Soviet/Russian and Romanian control over the past couple hundred years. The majority of the population speaks Romanian, but a large minority, perhaps a quarter, speaks Russian. Many of the latter get their news from the gushing stream of anti-Western, anti-European propaganda readily available on Russian state television. The economy is one of the weakest in Europe. The capital city, Chişinӑu (better known to some by its older spelling, Kishinev), has long been on the periphery of other states and empires, and it still feels that way. The side streets have the dusty somnolence of a provincial town.
But the summertime silence is also deceptive. Despite the Russian money launderers, the Russian propaganda, and the persistent efforts of the Russian secret services; despite the ease with which Moldovans can get Romanian passports and simply leave; despite the lack of a national military tradition of the kind that exists in Ukraine or Georgia; despite all of this, many Moldovans have fought hard to make their country a European democracy. And probably no one has fought harder than the current president, Maia Sandu.
I recently met Sandu in the presidential palace, a hulking piece of 1980s architecture (formerly home to the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic) where she almost looks out of place. Most of the previous national leaders, both during and after the Soviet years, were heavy-jowled men in ill-fitting gray suits. Neither jowled nor male, Sandu was wearing a crisp flower-print dress. Her English is excellent—she is a Harvard graduate and a former employee of the World Bank—but she also speaks her native Romanian and Russian. She employed the latter two during her inaugural address, as well as the minority languages of Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Gagauz, a Turkic language spoken in the south.
Sandu has been in national politics for years and eventually created her own political party, making a point of doing so without relying on business interests. Her party, she says, relies on small donations and volunteers. She took office in December 2020 after a decisive victory, promising to be “honest and transparent” and calling on her government to “advance the rule of law, democratic reform, and greater economic prosperity.” She told me that she wanted to succeed not just politically but economically, to prove that “democracy is not to be blamed for corruption, for poverty.”
“This was my biggest dream,” Sandu said: “To have the chance to focus on dealing with the internal challenges, not to have any complications around us and in the region.”
Unfortunately, there are complications around Moldova and in the region. In fact, other than Ukraine itself, Moldova is the country most severely affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Not that affected really conveys what has happened; better to say that Moldova has been blindsided, stunned, or perhaps smashed by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The country has suffered the obvious problems: the refugees flowing across the border, the ruptures to business and trade. But on top of that, Moldova, which is not in NATO, could be drawn more directly into the fighting. The Russian soldiers based in Transnistria could suddenly claim they are under attack from Ukraine and decide to open a second front; Odesa is only a couple of hours’ drive from there. In April, a series of explosions erupted across Tiraspol. The Transnistrian president immediately blamed Ukraine; Ukraine responded that these were false-flag attacks, designed to create a fake pretext for Transnistria to enter the war.
Nothing came of that event, but there are other scenarios to fear—for example, a Russian-orchestrated uprising, designed to use economic dissatisfaction to get rid of Moldova’s young, energetic, pro-European president and replace her with yet another old man from Moscow, one who might make himself useful to the Russian war effort. Alternatively, the Russians could just cut off Moldova’s gas and then wait to see if a popular uprising emerges by itself.
Sandu told me that technically, her country can buy gas from other parts of the world, “but it’s extremely difficult to find a supplier now when the market went crazy, and everybody’s looking for gas.” The price, not the access, is the problem. Later, another Moldovan politician, speaking on background because of the sensitivity of the subject, described his country’s plight more explicitly. If gas used to be, say, four lei per cubic meter, he said, now it’s something like 24. This winter it could be 50. Monthly heating bills could account for 50 to 60 percent of the average salary. “And what will happen then, when one of the pro-Russian politicians stands up and says, ‘Vote for us; we will join the fight against Ukraine and get the price back down to four’?”
Sandu herself doesn’t descend to that kind of apocalyptic thinking, although she does note that the pro-Russian parties “say that if they would be in power, then Moldova would be enjoying better prices for energy.” Everyone knows that blackmail is a possibility: Russians could just hold the country for ransom until its economy collapses, its population freezes from the winter cold, and the government is overthrown. Already, inflation, especially energy inflation, has hit Sandu and her party very hard, as their poll numbers show.
The irony is that this should be Sandu’s most triumphant moment. She has just achieved one of her most important campaign promises—indeed one of her lifelong dreams, one that seemed out of reach for a very long time. Alongside Ukraine, Moldova was granted candidate status in June, moving it closer to membership in the European Union. If it weren’t for the war, Moldova might even have a better chance of swift entry than Ukraine because of its smaller size. Sandu says that most Moldovans “understand that this is not going to happen tomorrow, that we’ll have to work hard,” but they do believe they will eventually become part of Europe. “So this brings, first of all, hope.”
But alongside the conquest of eastern Ukraine, the destruction of hope is one of Russia’s key war aims. Vladimir Putin is fighting, after all, not just to re-create the Soviet Union, but also to undermine the idea of democratic transition, that you can escape autocracy and adopt something better. He doesn’t merely want Ukrainians to drop their dream of normalcy, of stability, and of integration into Europe. He wants everybody else—Moldovans, Georgians, Kazakhs, Balts, and many others—to drop it too.
Most of all, he wants Russians to drop the dream, to accept cruelty and kleptocracy as normal. He wants to rule for life and he doesn’t want anyone to challenge him, even by example. Sandu’s central campaign promise—that she would show Moldovans “that democracy means good governance, good economic results, and improved living standards”—is precisely the one he seeks to thwart.
Sandu describes this ideological challenge to the region as a “clear goal” of the war, and she is doing what she can to counter it. Knowing that her presidency is at stake, she has approached the European Union about helping out with gas purchases, although a number of other, rather larger, rather longer-standing members of the EU, notably Germany and Italy, may also struggle with gas this winter. But the best thing Americans could do to help her, and to help Moldova, is follow the one course we still haven’t quite convinced ourselves is possible: Make sure Ukraine wins the war and the Russian army retreats, and persuade the Russian state to rethink the thuggish imperialism it has deployed to disrupt all of its neighbors for so long.