BENDER, Moldova — On its journey to the Black Sea from its source in Ukraine close to the Polish border, the Dniester River runs through the tiny country of Moldova. Its banks are home to boar, pheasant and Russian soldiers, who nominally protect a breakaway slice of the country.
Passing through a checkpoint in early April manned by the Operational Group of Russian Forces on the way to the breakaway region known as Transnistria, which has aligned with Russia, one blue-eyed soldier threw himself back in a chair, the flag of the Russian Federation on the shoulder of his camouflage uniform. Another stood, black shoelaces loosely tied, with a rifle slung over his arm. Dug in beside them was an armored personnel carrier. A third uniformed man watched from the shade.
The river separates not only the Russian-speaking area from the Republic of Moldova, but also two competing ideological visions for the region’s future: a Russian-backed enclave under Russia’s control and the other in the European camp of Western democracies. Following Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the specter of armed conflict looms ever larger over Moldova.
An impasse here has existed since 1992, when a civil war followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Republic of Moldova as an independent state.
Today, Transnistria’s paramilitary force is armed, supplied and supervised by Russia, according to Col. Rosian Vasiloi, former head of Moldova’s Border Police. Meanwhile, it is subsidized with Russian gas, electricity and social programs such as pensions.
Transnistria’s government, which has seceded, calls for Russia to annex it. If that happens, Moldova, which last year elected an openly pro-Western government, could be next, experts and local officials say.
“There are comrades here just waiting to be empowered,” said Anatolie Golea, a political journalist and founder of the Infotag News Agency, referring to pro-Kremlin politicians in the country. Most pro-Kremlin Transnistrians believe they will seize control of the breakaway region with a population of over 450,000 without invasion or occupation but simply through the changing of power, he said.
“Through elections and through tensions on elections, if they take the south of Ukraine, Russian influence will be huge in Moldova,” he said.
Riddled with corruption, Moldova is one of Europe’s poorest countries.
According to the United Nations, its gross national income is around $13,600, compared to $31,600 in nearby Poland. It gets 100 percent of its gas and electricity from Russia. Meanwhile, combat-ready Russian troops occupy part of its territory, and disinformation and viral messages have been bombarding it since the invasion of Ukraine.
All this makes the country vulnerable.
Neither a member of NATO nor the European Union, it provoked the Kremlin’s ire last year after a pro-European party founded by Maia Sandu, Moldova’s first female leader, won elections on an anti-corruption platform. Prior to that, the country’s political elite had been tied to the Kremlin.
A majority of Moldovans — 61 percent according to a recent poll — share Sandu’s vision of Moldova becoming part of the European Union, and in March, following the invasion of Ukraine, Sandu signed a formal application for E.U. membership.
Despite vowing to tackle corruption, clean house and foster European integration, Sandu now finds herself, and her country, even more exposed.
A significant minority — 31 percent — strongly oppose closer integration with Europe, according to a poll by Magenta Consulting.
Igor Dodon, Sandu’s predecessor, preached close ties with the Kremlin. Earlier this month, Dodon held a meeting with Russia’s ambassador where he expressed a “firm desire to maintain the relations established for the benefit of the peoples of both countries.”
By not condemning the invasion along with its European neighbors, Sandu’s government is following a policy of official neutrality out of an instinct for self-preservation, according to Natalia Albu, a professor at Alexandru cel Bun Military Academy, the main military academy of Moldova, and a security expert.
She cited a Moldovan proverb that goes back to the Ottoman occupation: “The head which is down is not cut by the sword.”
Moldova doesn’t face only overt military and economic threats from Russia; it is also already fighting an information war where the weapons employed by the Kremlin are disinformation, propaganda and fake news.
Since the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, three main Russian broadcasters changed their broadcasts “immediately and dramatically,” said Liliana Vitu-Esanu, who heads Moldova’s Audiovisual Coordinating Council, a government regulator.
“The war disappeared,” she said, calling the moves “a form of manipulation by omission and not informing people.”
“They were informing that there are Ukrainian refugees in Moldova but not saying why there are Ukrainian refugees in Moldova,” she added.
Vitu-Esanu has used her position to fine and sanction misleading TV and radio broadcasts, according to the law, but has faced challenges and she does not have the power to shut down broadcasters.
NBC News reached out to two of the channels Vitu-Esanu mentioned, NTV and RTR, for comment but did not receive a response. NBC News was not able to contact a spokesperson at the third network, Primul.
Vitu-Esanu said pro-Russia propaganda now spreads on social media, so it is even harder to stamp out.
With such historically close ties to Russia, Moldova is divided in terms of public opinion regarding Moscow and the political and culture wars it promulgates.
“There are families torn apart, kids that don’t talk to their parents or to their grandparents,” she said.
This has all been made worse by the war.
Moldova’s borders are defined by two rivers: the Dniester, separating it from secessionist Transnistria and Ukraine, and the Prut, separating it from Romania. But eventually the waters flow into the same place: the Black Sea.
It is this large inland sea that determines Russia’s moves in the region, according to Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense think tank.
“It has always been etched in Russia’s mind that the Black Sea should effectively be a Russian lake,” he said. “Most Russians take it for granted that they should be top dog on the Black Sea.”
For Russia, the Black Sea region has long been of central importance. In the mid-19th century, it fought the Crimean War, a conflict for control of the region. In 2014, after more than two decades of Ukrainian independence, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
Control of the Black Sea — bordered by Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, Georgia and Turkey — would allow Moscow a marine buffer zone and naval access for its fleet to reach bases and interests in the Middle East, as well as open up a new strategic frontier in terms of energy security, strategic clout and trade routes.
All of the security threats that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has made in the last 20 years — the invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and, now, the invasion of Ukraine — have been in or around the Black Sea region, Eyal said.
So the area is one of the weakest points for both NATO and the E.U., Eyal said.
The Black Sea is “home to the least stable and economically developed countries in the region — where most mischief-making can take place,” he added.