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Moldova’s Prime Minister, Natalia Gavrilita, on Feb. 28, says she wants her country 'to move towards the European Union as fast as we can.'Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail

With the smoking evidence of attacks on Ukraine visible from her country’s borders, Moldova’s Prime Minister, Natalia Gavrilita, is vowing to speed the former Soviet state’s push toward Europe in the face of increasingly hostile threats from Moscow.

Moldova has already closed its airspace, banned exports of staple foods and placed law enforcement on alert at its boundary with Transnistria, the unrecognized Russian-occupied splinter territory, amid fears that what is happening in Ukraine will spill into its smaller neighbour.

“We want to move towards the European Union as fast as we can,” Ms. Gavrilita told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

At a critical moment in which Russia’s Vladimir Putin is threatening those leaning away from his country’s orbit, it “would be a very strong and important signal to our people” for the EU to provide Moldova with an accession perspective – a formal invitation toward membership – Ms. Gavrilita said.

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“Even within the EU there are now calls for this perspective,” she said. “I hope this happens,” she added, although “it’s unfortunate if it’s the crisis that speeds that up.”

Moldova is a landlocked crescent of hills and vineyards half the size of New Brunswick, wedged between Romania and Ukraine. It is best known for its wine, its monasteries and a history of systemic corruption that has left it one of Europe’s poorest places.

But its European ambitions are on full display in schools, offices and the government office where Ms. Gavrilita spoke to the Globe, which displayed the European Union flag alongside the Moldovan banner.

An abandoned building of the National Hotel is seen painted in Ukrainian national colors in Chisinau, Moldova February 27, 2022. The sign reads "No War".VLADISLAV CULIOMZA/Reuters

Russia invaded Ukraine less than eight months after Ms. Gavrilita’s Action and Solidarity Party won a majority in parliament. This is the first time since Moldova’s independence that it has been led by a pro-European prime minister.

Those ambitions have failed to overcome a long-standing unwillingness by the EU to usher in a country where graft has been rampant. Some member states have also feared angering Russian President Vladimir Putin by embracing a country that Moscow has sought to keep under its influence.

“The war in Ukraine has changed the security environment in Europe,” said Iulian Groza, the former deputy foreign minister of Moldova, who now leads the Institute of European Policies and Reforms. Russia’s instigation of war has suddenly made clear that “it’s much better to provide economic and political support by accepting us to Europe than to provide military equipment now to defend Ukraine,” he said.

The invasion of Ukraine has also underscored the risks to other former Soviet states.

A humanitarian center for refugees coming from Ukraine at the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, in Palalanca, Moldova, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.AUREL OBREJA/The Associated Press

On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss pointed to the Baltics, Poland and Moldova as places whose peaceful existence Russia has placed in jeopardy. “If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine we are going to see others under threat,” she told Sky News.

“We’re afraid that Russia is not going to stop in Ukraine,” Josep Borrell, the top EU diplomat, said Sunday. “And Russian influence can start working in the neighbouring countries, Moldova and Georgia.”

Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukraine reflects a determination to keep near neighbours from growing closer to Europe. Moscow has already warned Nordic countries against new rapprochement with NATO. Last week, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Finland and Sweden face “military and political consequences” if they join the Western military alliance.

Ms. Gavrilita called a Russian attack on Moldova, which spends just 0.35 per cent of its budget on its military, a “hypothetical question.”

But Moldova knows better than almost any other country the Kremlin’s willingness to seize territory it considers its own. That reality has long muted the country’s appetite for prodding Russia.

A short drive from the Prime Minister’s offices, the road east from the capital city of Chisinau passes an outpost with a tank and soldiers in blue peacekeeping helmets. Ahead, past a checkpoint, lies Transnistria, which was seized by Russian-backed forces after a war that ended in 1992.

Memories of fighting Russian-backed forces remain fresh, particularly in Criuleni, one of the main entry points to Transnistria from Chisinau. The small community holds an annual ceremony to commemorate the local residents who died, more than 300 in total.

Georgi Carpi built a house with a view onto a hill where those forces fired rockets into Moldova 30 years ago. Now 74, he remembers telling anyone who would listen, “Don’t mess with the Russians. Leave the Russians alone.”

Georgi Carpi built a house with a view onto a hill where those forces fired rockets into Moldova 30 years ago. Now 74, he remembers telling anyone who would listen, “Don’t mess with the Russians. Leave the Russians alone,” he said on Feb. 27.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

For most of the past three decades, Moldova has done exactly that. That hill has remained under the control of Transnistria, where thousands of Russian troops remain stationed today.

Stefan Manoli, a former police officer here, was among a group of Moldovan law enforcement personnel taken captive by Transnistrian forces, an event that was one of the sparks for the conflict three decades ago. Today, he believes Mr. Putin will not be satisfied until Russia has vanquished Ukraine.

Moldova should not fear the same, he said, so long as it is does nothing to goad Mr. Putin.

“If we stay calm, nothing will happen to us,” Mr. Manoli said.

Relations across the unrecognized boundary have typically been friendly. A half-dozen children from Transnistria cross into Moldova to attend the Criuleni Primary School. But fear has now settled upon the school’s mint-green halls. On Friday, a third-grade girl approached principal Dodon Ala with a question: “Dear teacher, will we have war?”

Dodon Ala, principal of Criuleni Primary School, said on Feb. 27 that children in her school have begun to cry from fear of war.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

“Then she started to cry,” Ms. Ala said. “I don’t know how to explain to a child what is going to happen.” At least one parent has told her they intend to keep their child out of class for the next few weeks as a precaution.

The school has already felt the consequences of chillier relations between Moldova and Russia. A fight last fall over the price of natural gas, delivered to Ukraine by the Russian state-controlled company Gazprom, led to a tripling in the school’s monthly heating bills. It’s an experience that has made Ms. Ala wary.

“There is a fear that if we get closer to Europe, it might make us as a people suffer,” she said.

But that process is already under way. Ms. Gavrilita said she would “work on energy security and ensuring that we are less dependent” on Russia, aided in part by European funding for green energy.

Moldova’s constitution binds it to neutrality, and public support for joining NATO remains modest. But there, too, the Ukraine crisis has opened the possibility of closer ties. On Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for “more support” to Moldova and other countries.

“I hope that the world now understands that fear of Putin is not a strategy,” Mr. Groza said.

Mr. Putin, he said, “will not be stopped if not deterred.”

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