WASHINGTON — Russia’s war on Ukraine has exposed a host of new threats for the tiny, landlocked nation of Moldova, which has grappled with an influx of Ukrainian refugees while maintaining a total dependence on Russian gas.
Moldova is Eastern Europe’s smallest nation, with a population of fewer than 3 million and a landmass slightly larger than the state of Maryland. In less than two months, however, it has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing Russia’s ongoing military campaign.
“Of course, we cannot compare ourselves with Ukraine and the tragedy for which Ukraine is going through,” Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs Nicu Popescu told a table of think-tank experts at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C., on April 19.
“But we are the most fragile neighbor of Ukraine because we are the country that is most affected and we are the country that has the fewest resources to deal with the situation and the fallout from the war,” Popescu added.
Popescu, who wrapped a series of meetings at the State Department last week, said that more than 400,000 people fleeing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war have crossed into Moldova.
“We’ve let everyone in because they are escaping the war,” Popescu said, adding that Moldova relaxed entry and visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals and is currently working to provide long-term access to health care and education.
“This is much faster, much bigger than anything that has been seen,” Popescu said, adding that the refugee crisis has threatened Moldova’s stability and economic development.
The ongoing war next door has put the landlocked country of Moldova, a former Soviet republic and one of Europe’s poorest nations, in a precarious position.
In hopes of mitigating Moldova’s fragility, the country submitted a questionnaire required for European Union membership last week. The application process comes as Russian officials hint that the Kremlin’s war may have the potential to expand beyond Ukraine.
On Friday, Russian commander Rustam Minnekayev said that Moscow wanted “full control” of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Minnekayev explained that capturing this swath of the country would allow the Kremlin to create a “land corridor” from Russia in the east to Transnistria to Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea that Russia forcefully annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Asked about a potential Russian invasion of Moldova, Igor Zhovkva, deputy head of the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the possibility of Russian troops moving into Moldova is high.
“Now they want to capture the whole Donbas. Yes, they want to have the connection between Donbas and the Crimea,” Zhovkva told NBC. “As far as Moldova is concerned, yes, we heard those announcements of Russian officials,” Zhovkva continued. “Who knows? You never know with Russia, but that could be a high possibility.”
Adding to Moldova’s vulnerability on Eastern Europe’s frontlines is its complete reliance on Russian gas supplies.
Popescu said that 100% of Moldova’s gas supply comes from Russia and 80% of electricity comes from the Transnistria region, a heavily armed breakaway region controlled by Russia with borders touching Ukraine and Moldova.
“We are very, very vulnerable on the energy resilience front,” Popescu said, adding that due to Moldova’s geography his country has limited international trading access.
“We used to import quite a lot of goods from Ukraine and quite a lot through Ukraine from the port of Odesa, which was the cheapest way to ship, but now all of that has stopped,” he said, adding that Moldova is aggressively working to establish new trading relations.