Alexandra Besleaga, now 48 years old, still carries the weight of the memories of March 1992. At the time, she was just 17 years old and living in the Moldovan enclave of Molovata Noua, where fighting was raging. The order was given to evacuate women and children, and Besleaga fled with friends and relatives by ferry to the west bank of the Dniester River, where buses awaited. However, not everyone was so fortunate. As they were waiting to leave, separatists began bombing the buses. People were jumping out of windows and running in all directions. Besleaga saw a man carrying her cousin, whose shirt was covered in blood. Her cousin died a few minutes later.
Molovata Noua is situated on the east bank of the Dniester River and is isolated from the rest of Moldovan-controlled territory to the west, reachable only by ferry. The few roads out of the commune lead through Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway republic where conflict has persisted for more than three decades. Moscow maintains a presence of some 2,000 soldiers in Transnistria, and Ukraine and its Western allies fear that Russia could use it to launch new attacks on Ukraine.
Today, Moldova has become an increasingly visible sideshow of Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Russia is accused of trying to destabilize Moldova within the next decade and bring it back within Russia’s sphere of influence. In the past year, observers say Russia has amped up misinformation campaigns, engineered an energy crisis in Moldova by slashing gas exports, and stoked political unrest by funnelling money to Kremlin-friendly Moldovan politicians who pay protesters to call for the removal of Moldova’s Western-leaning government.
Moldova has a long history of geopolitical games. At different points in its history, the area of land that makes up modern Moldova has fallen under the sway of the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, Romania, and then the Soviet Union before declaring independence in 1991. In the intervening years, Moldova has struggled to improve its economic outlook, reduce dependence on Russian energy, and curtail endemic corruption. Recently, the country has shifted ideologically toward Europe, electing a pro-Western government in 2020 and applying for European Union membership after Russia invaded Ukraine. It has also signalled interest in joining NATO, prompting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to threaten that Moldova could be the “next Ukraine”.
The war in Ukraine has exposed deep divisions in Moldova. While its youth are drawn to opportunities in the EU, pro-Russian sentiment still permeates other areas of society, especially among the older generation that remains nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and in regions such as the autonomous Gagauzia territory that favour Russian over Romanian as the lingua franca. In such areas, Russian news and social media channels provide an avenue for the spread of misinformation, according to Watchdog MD, a local monitoring organisation that has been documenting trends since last year’s invasion of Ukraine.
“They are always trying to weaponise narratives in one way or another,” said Andrei Curararu, associate researcher at Watchdog MD. “There is always a twist. They modify news stories to make them seem more dire for the population of Moldova and to raise the general level of anxiety.”