(CNN) — Tensions are running high in Moldova, a small country on Ukraine’s southwestern border, where Russia has been accused of laying the groundwork for a coup that could drag the nation into a Kremlin war.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu accused Russia of using “saboteurs” disguised as civilians to stoke unrest amid a period of political instability, extending similar warnings made by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has baselessly accused Kyiv of planning its own assault on pro-Russian territory in Moldova, where Moscow has a military foothold, raising fears that he is creating a pretext for annexation to the Russian Federation. Crimean style.

US President Joe Biden met with President Sandu on the sidelines of her trip to Warsaw last week, marking the first anniversary of the Russian invasion.

Although there are no signs that he has accepted their invitation to visit her, the White House said it reaffirmed its support for Moldova’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

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What happens in Moldova?

Earlier this month, Zelensky warned that Ukrainian intelligence had intercepted a Russian plan to destabilize an already volatile political situation in Moldova.

The recent resignation of the country’s prime minister followed a continuing period of crisis, led by rising gasoline prices and sky-high inflation. Moldova’s new prime minister continued the government’s pro-EU campaign, but pro-Russian protests have since taken place in the capital Chisinau, backed by a fringe pro-Moscow political party.

Amid the tensions, Moldovan President Sandu launched a blunt accusation that Russia was seeking to take advantage of the situation.

Sandu said that last fall the government had planned “a series of actions involving saboteurs who have received military training and are disguised as civilians to carry out violent actions, attacks on government buildings and taking hostages.”

Sandu also claimed that people disguised as “the so-called opposition” would try to force a change of power in Chisinau through “violent actions”. CNN cannot independently verify those claims.

“It is clear that these threats from Russia and the appetite to escalate the war against us is very high,” Lulian Groza, Moldova’s former deputy foreign minister and now director of the Chisinau-based Institute for European Policy and Reform, told CNN.

“Moldova is the most affected country after Ukraine (by) the war,” he said. “We are still a small country, which still has an underdeveloped economy, and that creates a lot of pressure.”

What is Russia planning?

Despite Moscow’s pleas of innocence, its actions regarding Moldova bear a striking resemblance to moves it made before its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

Putin on Tuesday revoked a 2012 foreign policy decree that partly recognized Moldova’s independence, according to Reuters.

Then, on Thursday, Russia’s Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of “preparing an armed provocation” against Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria “in the near future,” state media TASS reported.

No evidence or further details were offered to support the ministry’s allegation, and Moldova has dismissed it.

But the claim put Western leaders on high alert, almost exactly one year after Putin made similar and unsubstantiated claims that the Russians were under attack in Donbas — Ukraine’s eastern flank where Moscow had supported separatist militants since 2014 — which allowed him to launch his invasion of the country as a matter of legitimate defense.

“It was the case before: we have seen constant activities by Russia trying to explore and exploit the information space in Moldova using propaganda,” Groza said.

“With the war, all these instruments that Russia used before have multiplied and intensified,” he said. “What we see is a revival of Russian political representatives in Moldova.”

“I see a lot of fingerprints from the Russian forces, the Russian services in Moldova,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told CBS last Sunday. “This is a very weak country, and we all need to help them.”

Why does Russia have a foothold in Moldova?

The center of Russia’s interests in Moldova is Transnistria, a breakaway territory that slithers along the country’s eastern flank and has hosted Russian troops for decades.

The territory — a 3,366-square-kilometre enclave on the eastern bank of the Dniester River — was the site of a Russian military post during the waning years of the Cold War. It declared itself a Soviet republic in 1990, opposing any attempt by Moldova to become an independent state or to merge with Romania after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

When Moldova gained independence the following year, Russia quickly inserted itself as a so-called “peacekeeping force” in Transnistria, sending troops to back pro-Moscow separatists.

War with Moldovan forces ensued and the conflict ended in stalemate in 1992. Transnistria was not recognized internationally, not even by Russia, but Moldovan forces turned it into a de facto breakaway state. That stalemate has left the territory and its estimated 500,000 people trapped in limbo, with Chisinau having virtually no control over it to this day.

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Why does Moldova matter?

Moldova is a country at a crossroads between east and west. Its government and most of its citizens want closer ties with the EU, and the country achieved bid status last year. But it is also home to a breakaway faction whose sentiments Moscow has been eager to rouse.

It has been a hotspot on the periphery of the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the past year, with Russian missiles crossing Moldovan airspace on several occasions, including earlier this month.

A series of explosions in Transnistria last April raised concerns that Putin was seeking to drag the territory into his invasion.

Russia’s faltering military progress since then had temporarily allayed those fears. But Moldovan officials have warned the West that their country could be next on Putin’s list.

Several houses were damaged in the Moldovan village of Naslavcea last month after a Russian missile intercepted by Ukrainian forces hit the northern part of the town, the Moldovan Interior Ministry said. (Credit: Ministry of Interior of Moldova)

Last month, the head of Moldova’s Security Service warned that there was a “very high” risk that Russia would launch a new offensive in the east of the country in 2023. Moldova is not a NATO member, making it more vulnerable. to Putin’s agenda.

If Russia launches a spring offensive focusing on southern Ukraine, it may again look to push towards Odessa and then link up with Transnistria, essentially creating a land bridge through southern Ukraine and moving even closer to the territory of the NATO.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Hannah Ritchie and Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting.


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