The newly appointed defense minister of Moldova — the charming but intermittently hapless ex-Soviet Republic stuck between Ukraine and Romania — is a sturdy-looking ex-prison official named Valeriu Troenco.
He seemed, from a slight distance, to be an affable fellow, but he was deeply, dismissively uninterested in answering a question that I asked him after his swearing-in ceremony.
The ceremony was held in the presidential offices. While on a trip to Moldova and Ukraine earlier this month, I was invited to witness this stripped-down affair: a line of middle-aged, sagging bureaucrats standing impassively during a set of blessedly brief remarks; a piped-in version of Moldova’s national anthem (in English, more or less, “Gentle Dniester, which in ripples/Carries morning star’s flickers,” etc., etc.); a brief, awkward, bent-knee kiss of the flag and swearing of an oath to defend the nation.
That is not an easy thing to promise. It can be safely assumed that Russia, which seems intent on swallowing Ukraine, also has certain designs on Moldova. After a round of Champagne toasts, Troenco was off, but I caught up with him in a hallway. This is the question he didn’t seem to appreciate: “How many troops does Moldova have?”
He looked at me for a long moment. “Four thousand, five thousand.” Two questions quickly sprang to mind, neither of which I asked. The first was, “Which one — four thousand or five thousand?” It seemed like a substantial difference. The second was, “That’s all?”
Instead, I asked Troenco this: “Given the current situation in the region, and given that Russia already has 2,000 troops in Transnistria” — a breakaway Leninist rump state on the far side of the Dniester River whose independence is only recognized by three other breakaway Russia-centric faux states — “are you actually equipped to defend your country?”
He answered: “We are going to get ready. That’s my job — to get ready.” Then he hustled away, presumably to get ready.
Later that afternoon, I went to the main government building, on the central square of Chisinau (the city better known in Russian as Kishinev). The seat of government is an immense Soviet-era structure of drafty, high-ceilinged offices and endless hallways that seem to be straight out of "The Shining." I went there to ask the prime minister, Iurie Leanca, about the same topic: Are you ready for what may be coming?
“Honestly, what we don't count on is to be ready to resist militarily some outside intervention,” he said. “Look at the Ukrainian example. The Ukrainian army is much bigger than the Moldovan one. It’s not a feasible solution. What we count on is a de-escalation of the situation, to hope that everyone, especially in the east, understands that this tension isn’t good for anyone. So I hope that this” — Russia’s slow-motion dismantling of Ukraine — “is just a one-time episode.”
Does he actually believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will stop at Ukraine? He demurred. He knows he walks a knife’s edge — every word he utters is studied carefully in Moscow. But he went on to take note of a troubling trend: a pronounced increase in the tempo of Russian troop “exercises” in Transnistria, which sits just an hour away from Chisinau.
Transnistria, which has a population of roughly 500,000 (no one knows for sure, and the Transnistrian government, which is suspected of being controlled by the Kremlin, is uninterested in authorizing a rigorous census), maintains its own army and police detachments, which receive aid and support from Russian troops that never left. “The Russian army is trying to learn how to cross the Dniester River in a few minutes,” the prime minister told me.
Even though he refuses to speculate about Putin’s designs, I suspect Leanca understands that Moldova is facing an existential crisis. I suspect he believes that Putin has designs on Moldova because most everyone in Moldova — even the leaders of the Communist Party (it is still, rather unbelievably, called the Communist Party in Chisinau) — believes that Putin sees it as part of Russia’s birthright.
The communists naturally believe that this is a legitimate feeling on Putin’s part and so would like to lead Moldova back into Moscow’s orbit. The prime minister heads a pro-Western coalition facing a difficult election this fall. If he — and the European Union and Washington — pay insufficient attention, Moldova will find itself in Putin’s column. The consequences will be disastrous not only for Moldova, but also for the future of democracy in Europe.
“Some people say that there is an opportunity in any crisis, so this crisis is, of course, bad for us, our feelings and sentiments, but there is a positive aspect to this,” the prime minister said. “One basic problem we have, the same as Ukraine, is that we are in a gray neighborhood," unlike Romania, which, after the collapse of the Communist bloc, joined NATO.
"We need to have answers now not just for Crimea or Transnistria. The immediate response to our problems is for the EU and the U.S. to come forward with a vision to integrate Moldova into the EU. It means supporting Moldova more.”
The U.S., which has only recently woken to the threat facing Ukraine, has been even slower to appreciate Moldova’s equally precarious position. Barack Obama's administration is moving now to bring Moldova into the Western fold. The EU is, in tentative and not entirely confidence-building ways, also trying to signal to Putin that Moldova is not his for the taking.
After a week in Moldova and western Ukraine — more posts on that coming soon — it seemed unlikely to me that Putin had internalized the message.
Jeffrey Goldberg is author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has covered the Middle East as a national correspondent for the Atlantic and as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Read more reports from Jeffrey Goldberg — Click Here Now.
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