As Moldovan President Maia Sandu openly flirts with joining the EU and NATO, Moscow is increasingly agitated at the prospect of yet another pro-Western ally on its periphery.

At the 30th meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Skopje, Macedonia, in December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov painted Moldovan European aspirations as part of an anti-Russian conspiracy, charging, “Moldova is destined to be the next victim in the hybrid war against Russia unleashed by the West.”

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The remarks were not taken lightly. The world is all too aware of Russina President Vladimir Putin’s willingness and capacity to use military force to assert his dominance in Eastern Europe.

According to ex-DIA military intelligence analyst Rebekah Koffler, author of “Putin’s Playbook,” “It’s an almost certainty that Putin would go to war to prevent Moldova from joining NATO. And that is what Lavrov is referring to when he talks about hybrid warfare – except it’s Russia, which will use asymmetric warfare against Moldova. It’s strategic signaling.”

Moldova is arguably the most critical fault line between East and West today, with signs that its citizens, under the leadership of President Maia Sandu, are leaning in a pro-Western direction.

Yet, this tiny nation of 2.6 million, one of the most unvisited and obscure in Europe, has a considerable Russian ethnic and linguistic minority, which Russia has proved adept at mobilizing against the pro-Western government. On several recent occasions, pro-Russian protesters have taken to the streets of the capital, Chisinau, in a bid to thwart Moldova’s pro-EU trajectory.

Skyrocketing inflation and rising energy prices have proved fertile ground for an already disgruntled Russian minority, which views the Sandu administration with suspicion, and believes that they are victims of a campaign of marginalization.

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Generally regarded as the poorest country in Europe, other than Ukraine, the tiny finger-nail-shaped sliver of a country, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, was the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova from 1940-1991.

Moldova endured the brutality of Nazi-aligned Romanian “Conducator” Ion Antonescu, a half century of subjugation by the Soviet Union, and a difficult post-Communist transition period marked by struggles to establish a market economy and resolve lingering ethnic and linguistic tensions.

The chaotic dissolution of the Soviet Union took a particularly bloody turn in Moldova, culminating in the 1990-1992 Transnistrian conflict, which pitted pro-Russian separatists against the Moldovan government.

The situation in which Moldova, the EU and Russia find themselves today is a direct result of a failure to find a resolution to the Transnistria question, and the surrounding uncertainty presents a persistent thorn in the side of Moldova’s EU bid.

Sergei Lavrov has thundered against the current Moldovan president’s alleged anti-Russian machinations, describing Sandu as, “As a president who wants to join NATO, has Romanian citizenship, is ready to unite with Romania and, in general, is ready for almost anything…this is one of the countries that the West wants to turn into another anti-Russia.”

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Of greatest concern to Moldova and the West, in the Transnistrian breakaway region, is the contingent of 1,500 Russian soldiers. Their larger purpose, in addition to ensuring pro-Russian orientation of the government, is to guard the Cobasna weapons depot, which contains an estimated 20,000 tons of Soviet-era war equipment.

Koffler believes that current U.S. political dynamics may play a key role in Putin’s geopolitical machinations. “If there’s a good time, from Putin’s standpoint, to stir trouble in Transistria and Moldova, doing it at the height of the [U.S.] Presidential election season is the time. It was always Putin’s plan to restore Russia’s strategic security perimeter — of which Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and other former Soviet States are (minus the Baltics), in Moscow’s view, that has shrunk following the collapse of the USSR.”

In the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol, homage to the Soviet Union looms large in every government building, public park, monument and street corner. Russian flags fly proudly next to their Transnistrian counterparts while Russian troops patrol the streets.

Yet, the ongoing war in Ukraine has, to some degree, brought Transnistria closer to Moldova. Since Ukraine closed the border at the start of the war in February 2022, Transnistria is much more economically reliant on Moldova than it was before. However, it remains an uneasy and wary third century of peace, with constant allegations of geopolitical interference and pending invasion leveled by each camp against the other.

Meanwhile, President Sandu recently announced that she will run for a second term at the end of 2024. The move comes as the European Union voted on Dec. 14, 2023 to open membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova, in a direct affront to Russian ambitions.

Koffler suggests that the Russian potential for military action in Moldova should not be underestimated. “Moldova’s potential membership in the E.U. and in NATO is unacceptable to Russia, for the same reasons as Ukraine’s membership in these organizations is unacceptable. My assessment is that it is highly likely a red line for Putin. Crossing it would likely trigger Russia’s offensive operations against Moldova.”

Sandu, who founded and is backed by the center-right Party of Action and Solidarity, appears poised to win a second term despite the pro-Russian protests. Nonetheless, Russian influence in the region remains strong, particularly as Putin and his minions are able to skillfully weaponize the energy issue. In response, the Moldovan government has shifted away from Russian energy company Gazprom and is seeking new energy sources.

Sandu won the 2020 Moldovan presidential election with 57.7% of the vote, defeating incumbent President Igor Dodon, who received 42.3% of the vote. Dodon was regarded as a pro-Russian candidate, and has since been charged with corruption, campaign finance violations and treason, charges his supporters claim are politically motivated.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.