Moldova Faces Multiple Threats From Russia as It Turns Toward EU Membership, Foreign Minister Says

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) -- The past two years have been the hardest and most tumultuous for European Union candidate Moldova in more than three decades as it faces threats from Russia in multiple spheres of public life, the country's foreign minister says.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, its neighbor Moldova has faced a litany of crises that have at times raised fears the country is also in Russia's crosshairs. These included errant missiles landing on its territory; a severe energy crisis after Moscow dramatically reduced gas supplies; rampant inflation; and protests by pro-Russia parties against the pro-Western government. Moldova has also taken in the highest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita of any country.

"This past two years without exaggeration have been by far the most difficult in the past 30 years," Mihai Popsoi, appointed foreign minister in late January, told The Associated Press in an interview.

Moldova gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but Russia continues to see the country -- sandwiched between Ukraine and EU member Romania -- as within its sphere of influence.

Moldovan officials have repeatedly accused Russia of conducting a "hybrid war" against the country -- funding anti-government protests, meddling in local elections and running vast disinformation campaigns to try to topple the government and derail Moldova from its path toward full EU membership. Russia has denied the accusations.

Last week, Moldova's national Intelligence and Security Services agency said it has gathered data indicating "unprecedented" plans by Moscow to launch a fresh and sprawling destabilization campaign as Moldova gears up for a referendum on EU membership and a presidential election later in the year.

"We know that the Kremlin is going to invest a lot of energy and financial resources through their proxies to try to get their way," said Popsoi, a lawmaker from the governing Party of Action and Solidarity who also serves as deputy prime minister.

"They're trying to bribe voters and use citizens to bribe them," he added. "The Russians are learning and adapting, and they're trying to use the democratic process against us … to topple a democratic government in Moldova."

Tensions have also periodically soared in Moldova's Russia-backed breakaway region of Transnistria -- a thin strip of land bordering Ukraine that isn't recognized by any U.N. member countries but where Russia maintains about 1,500 troops as so-called peacekeepers, guarding huge Soviet-era weapons and ammunition stockpiles.

Shortly after the war started, a string of explosions struck the region; an opposition leader was found fatally shot in his home last July; and anxieties soared last month when some feared the region would ask to be annexed by Russia. Instead, the region appealed to Russia for diplomatic "protection" amid what it said was increasing pressure from Chisinau.

Popsoi acknowledged that the situation with Transnistria is tense, and he worries that the speculation could adversely impact investment. "The situation will remain tense as long as the front line is 200 miles away," he said.

The 37-year-old minister noted the testing period Moldova has been through has nevertheless also been transformative for his country, which has a population of about 2.5 million people.

"When we look at the energy security of Moldova, two years ago there was very little," he said. "Now Moldova is quite independent or has alternatives and can choose where to buy gas and electricity."

The same can be said, he added, for his country's defense capabilities, the resilience of key institutions such as intelligence, police force, and justice reform. "Moldova is moving in the right direction despite enormous challenges."

Cristian Cantir, a Moldovan associate professor of international relations at Oakland University, says Moldova has faced a "constant onslaught" of Russian tests to probe weaknesses that might undermine its EU trajectory.

"It feels like a geopolitical race in which Russia is trying to stop Moldova from moving toward the EU, while Moldova tries to fend off Russian influence until it joins the EU," he said, adding that the authorities "have been much more open about acknowledging the danger Russia presents to the country's democracy."

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moldova applied to join the EU and was granted candidate status in June 2022. In December, Brussels said it would open accession negotiations for both Moldova and Ukraine.

Although militarily neutral, non-NATO Moldova has boosted defense spending over the past year and recently approved a new national security strategy that identified Russia as a main threat and aims to raise defense spending to 1% of GDP.

"A significant number of Moldovans still live under the spell of Russian propaganda which has made a boogeyman out of NATO," Popsoi said. "But that doesn't stop us from cooperating with our NATO partners and building resilience in our armed forces."

Since the war started, Moldova has received critical financial and diplomatic support from its Western partners but needs long-term investments, Popsoi said. The referendum later this year on EU membership aims to gauge where Moldovans see their future. Officials have an ambitious target of gaining full accession by 2030.

"We will do our utmost to make sure we get this message across that there is a better tomorrow and that is within the European Union," Popsoi added. "No matter how hard Russian propaganda tries to convince our citizens of the opposite."