Putin is about to open a sinister new front in his war on Europe


In recent weeks, the talk in Europe has turned to where, after Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin could set his sights on next. Could that place be Moldova?

Last week, officials in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria set alarm bells ringing by declaring that this Wednesday they plan to convene a rare meeting of its Congress of Deputies to discuss the “dramatic deterioration” in relations with Moldova. The last time the congress of this unrecognised republic met was in 2006, when they passed a motion to hold a referendum on formally breaking away from Moldova and joining Russia. The fear is that they will try to do the same again.

In his rambling speeches, Putin has made clear that he considers Transnistria and Moldova more generally to fall within his concept of the “Russkiy Mir”. Just two weeks ago, his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov gave a stern address in the Russian Duma, stating “We still have 200,000 citizens living there. And, of course, we are concerned about their fate, and we will not allow them to become victims of another Western adventure.”

It’s clear that Putin views Transnistria as rightfully his. This quest to once again reunite the former lands of the Russian empire and Soviet Union (regardless of whether they are still officially Russian-speaking) was the excuse Putin has also used repeatedly to justify his invasion of Ukraine. The EU’s decision to announce membership negotiations with Moldova in December was viewed by the Kremlin as a further threat to its authority in the region.

If Transnistria does hold another referendum, there would, of course, be little guarantee that the results are fair. A combination of Russian influence and propaganda would almost certainly ensure a favourable result for Moscow.

But even if Transnistria does decide to formally break ties with Moldova and try to join Russia, would Putin take it on? The Russian army already has approximately 2,000 soldiers stationed in the breakaway state, supposedly as “peacekeepers”, who were installed following Transnistria’s first attempt to break away from Moldova in 1992.

All eyes will be on Putin’s state of the nation address on Thursday. Will he use that as an opportunity to formally annex Transnistria? For those who believe they are witnessing a repeat of the events that saw Russia recognise the republics of Donbass and Luhansk and the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the concern is that this could set in motion a chain of events leading to similar conflict in Moldova.

An invasion of Moldova remains unlikely though, at least in the near future. 2,000 soldiers is hardly enough to seriously start a conflict in the country. Moreover, Transnistria is a land-locked region; sending troops and supplies from Russia would most likely require going through the region’s border with Ukraine. Putin may, for the time being, have the upper hand in Ukraine but his military resources are nevertheless stretched – realistically, starting another conflict now is not in his interests, particularly so close to the Russian presidential elections in mid March.

But Putin is an agent of chaos. He relishes any opportunity to sow discord and confusion in the West, particularly anything that throws the stability of the European Union, or other alliances such as Nato, into question. Putin doesn’t need to annex Transnistria to potentially wreak havoc for Moldova and its plans to join Europe. All he needs to do is give the breakaway rebel republic enough hope.

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