Amid Russian attacks on Ukraine, former Soviet republic of Moldova fears it could be next

Like other former Soviet Republics, Moldova has increasing concerns about its security in the wake of Russia's war on Ukraine. Not only is it hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, it has had Russian troops on its territory for years in a breakaway region. Special correspondent Willem Marx reports from Moldova on how the echoes of war in Ukraine ring in Europe's poorest nation.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the former Soviet republic of Moldova has grown increasingly worried about its security as the war in Ukraine grinds on.

    Not only is it hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. It's had Russian troops in its territory for years in a breakaway region.

    Special correspondent Willem Marx traveled to Moldova to hear how the echoes of war in Ukraine ring in Europe's poorest nation,

  • Willem Marx:

    Dorian Kovas (ph) and Victor Latopshuk (ph) patrol these furrows on foot, guiding an almost invisible line that today separates conflict from comfort, peace from war.

    Until last month, Moldova's border with Ukraine was a rarely mentioned relic of a Soviet past, a sometimes problematic perimeter stretching hundreds of miles north from these fields. But for the country's Politiei de Frontiera, or Border Police, it's now ground zero for a refugee and safety crisis of unprecedented proportions.

    What's the biggest security challenge you think you face right now?

  • Rosian Vasiloi, Chief, Moldova Border Police (through translator):

    There are a few. Right now, we're already facing a migration of criminality.

  • Willem Marx:

    Rosian Vasiloi heads up Moldova's border police, tasked with welcoming the displaced into his country while keeping guns and violence out.

  • Rosian Vasiloi (through translator):

    Recently, we have also recorded cases that involve military ammunition. We believe criminal groups may use this situation to traffic weapons.

  • Willem Marx:

    He took us on a tour through his border region's no man's land, where his men scour riverbanks and hillsides for unlawful arrivals from Ukraine.

    Away from more remote outposts, the busy crossings process up to 500 refugees each hour. For several years, European customs officers have operated on both sides advising Moldovans and Ukrainians. Now, only in Moldova, they try to help Ukrainians however they can also.

    This E.U. border assistance mission is led by Polish General Slawomir Pichor, Moldova recently requested emergency membership of the European Union, a move he welcomes.

    Gen. Slawomir Pichor, Head of E.U. Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine: I guess that it was natural to support a country which is — wants to be a part of this family in the future, once it was natural to support as much as you can during this terrible time.

  • Willem Marx:

    Support will expand as the E.U.'s own border force arrives at posts like this one to help manage new arrivals, lives stuffed into back seats and suitcases, making this the E.U.'s own new de facto border and freeing Moldovan forces to patrol further afield.

    But they cannot roam entirely free, for within Moldova's internationally recognized borders is a separatist region called Transnistria sealed off by the Dniester River and supported by Russia.

    As we traveled close to Transnistria, while still very much on Moldovan soil, we encountered Russians Manning military checkpoints and self-identifying as peacekeepers.

    We are right in the middle of Moldova farmland. But a few 100 yards that way, Russian soldiers asked for our passports. And this checkpoint, well, it's staffed by Moldovans, but go a little further this way, and you end up in the separatist territory of Transnistria. And, for years, that's been home to more than 1,000 Russian troops.

    After the Soviet Union collapsed, a brief, but brutal conflict left Moldova divided. The Kremlin backed Russian speakers who declared an independent state that remains unrecognized elsewhere.

  • Ian Manole, Executive Director, Promo-LEX:

    They support them financially, economically, socially, military including, and politically, diplomatically, on all levels.

  • Willem Marx:

    Ion Manole has spent years researching the separatist territory, and he's concerned Russia's presence represents a real and present danger to Moldova.

  • Ian Manole:

    The problem is that they have control on the Transnistria territory. And in this territory, we have so-called Transnistrian army. So all this military structure is under the control of Russia.

  • Willem Marx:

    Do you think Moldovans can trust Russia today?

  • Ian Manole:

    Probably nobody can trust Russians.

  • Willem Marx:

    Back in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, similar worries are widely shared.

    Behind me is the Russian embassy. And they have recently, while we're in Moldova, issued a statement on their Facebook page addressing (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) Russian compatriots, asking them to report instances of ethnic or linguistic discrimination, including acts of violence.

    And that's got some people who are concerned about Russia's intentions towards this former Soviet state.

    Meanwhile, at a Moscow concert President Putin attended last month, one popular Russian singer described Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova as his country.

    But with help from Europe, that must never happen, the country's interior minister, Ana Revenco, told me.

  • Ana Revenco, Moldovan Interior Minister:

    Being part of the European Union means sharing the same values and equally co-participating in building safety.

    But, definitely, we truly understand that safety starts here in the Republic of Moldova. And that's the primary concern and task of the central authorities, of the government.

  • Willem Marx:

    The Moldovan military and Ministry of Defense will not talk publicly about a possible Russian invasion, focusing instead on drills like these, which were conducted alongside the U.S. military.

    But, at this tense time, the country's army still has its critics

  • Doina Straisteanu, Human Rights Attorney:

    Numerically and professionally, we are unable to face any military attack.

  • Willem Marx:

    Human rights lawyer Doina Straisteanu recently encountered the country's military failings in a high-profile court case and came away concerned.

    Should people in Moldova have faith in their military?

  • Doina Straisteanu:

    We do not have a strong army able to defend the country as it is expected.

  • Willem Marx:

    Back at the border, Chief Vasiloi awaits greater manpower and more modern equipment. But, meanwhile, he must make do with what he already has.

    Have you been told to prepare for military attacks?

  • Rosian Vasiloi (through translator):

    All our forces are ready for any kind of change in the situation.

  • Willem Marx:

    This small country at the edge of a great struggle, willing to help, but hoping not to fight.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Willem Marx in Palanca, Moldova.

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