Moldova, which for years has vied with Ukraine for the unenviable title of “poorest country in Europe,” now has a more urgent concern: the potential horror of a Russian invasion if Vladimir Putin gets his way in Ukraine.
A tiny defenseless nation about the size of Maryland, this former Soviet republic is home to roughly 2.5 million people. Or at least it was, until the sudden influx of some 365,000 Ukrainian refugees, about 105,000 of whom have opted to stay in Moldova for the time being.
Eugen Caras, Moldova’s ambassador to the United States since March 2020, said the situation on his country’s eastern border is desperate.
“This is a tragedy not only for the Ukrainians, but for all of Europe. We condemned this invasion in the strongest possible terms when it started,” Caras told The Washington Diplomat in a one-hour meeting March 21 at his embassy, which—in a sort of bitter irony—sits next to the recently vandalized Russia House restaurant on Connecticut Avenue.
“I have been asked many times whether or not Moldova is next,” said the ambassador. “According to our information, there are no indications that Moldova is being targeted from a military point of view. But, of course, we have to be very careful and on alert.”
Caras said Moldova has already taken in more Ukrainian refugees as a percentage of its population than any other country in Europe. Heartbreaking scenes of women and children streaming across the border with little more than the clothes on their backs have been replayed on TV news programs around the world.
Complicating Moldova’s fragility is the presence of 1,500 Russian troops and 6,000 paramilitary forces in the separatist enclave of Transnistria—a narrow 3,500-sq-km sliver of territory wedged between the Dniester River and Moldova’s border with Ukraine.
On March 1, only one week into the war, a video surfaced showing Putin’s friend and ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, standing next to a map that appeared to indicate Transnistria as a potential next target. Officials in Belarus later clarified the matter, saying the map was a mistake.
Caras: ‘Our capacities are already overstretched’
But that’s done little to calm the nerves of Moldovans, given that it’s only one to one and a half hours by car from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau (Kishinev). The fear on many citizens’ minds is that Russian forces could conquer Odessa and link up with pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria—under secessionist control since 1992—and quickly swallow up their country, which is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
It is a fear well-grounded in the past, given the country’s long history of domination by the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union.
“From day one, we’ve been calling for peaceful, diplomatic negotiations. This is a totally unjustified war,” said the ambassador. “What we are doing is using the argument of our neutrality. We want to keep our neutral status. We will not engage in any kind of military undertaking, and we would expect others—including Russia—to respect that neutrality.”
Caras, 50, was born in the town of Sîngerei and spent his childhood in Bălți, Moldova’s second-largest city. He studied at Moldova’s Alecu Russo State University, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Al. I. Cuza University in Iași, Romania. He also completed a foreign service program at Oxford.
Beginning his career in the foreign relations department of Chisinau City Hall, Caras worked at the Turkish Embassy in Chisinau, as well as the Moldovan Embassy in Ankara from 2001 to 2004, and again from 2009 to 2010. He also spent three years at Moldova’s embassy in Washington (1995-98), and was with his Foreign Ministry’s OSCE and International Security Division in the Multilateral Cooperation Department (2004-06).
From 2010 to 2012, Caras was deputy head of the ministry’s European Integration Department, and for the next seven years (2012-19), was Moldova’s ambassador to the European Union in Brussels before taking up his assignment in Washington two years ago.
“I have not talked to any Russian diplomat since the war started,” said Caras. “It’s a difficult time, and we all see this.”
He added: “We want to help Ukraine in any way we can. The best we can do now for Ukraine is give shelter to these refugees. Ordinary people have gone to the borders and taken in unknown families. But our institutions and capacities are already overstretched, and the number of refugees keeps increasing.”
NATO not in the cards, but EU membership a possibility
To that end, Caras said his government has appealed to EU member nations as well as the United States to take some refugees and relieve the burden on Moldova, given that it costs $25 to feed and house one refugee per day.
Countries are heeding the call: Germany has announced it would accept 2,500 Ukrainians, the Biden administration will provide $30 million over the next six months to resettle the newcomers, and Poland has pledged a $20 million interest-free loan to help Moldova through the current crisis.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s “fake news” machine is alive and well in Moldova, where pro-Russian propagandists are busy spreading false rumors about the war and blaming shortages of everything from salt to gasoline on the Ukrainian refugees themselves.
Despite its vulnerable position, Moldova was one of 141 countries to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when it came up for a vote March 2 before the United Nations General Assembly, though notably, it did not join international sanctions against the Kremlin.
Even so, the war has ruined Moldova economically, given that Russia and Ukraine—along with Belarus—account for a combined 25% of Moldova’s imports and 15% of its exports.
“That market is now totally closed, with the exception of Russian gas,” said Caras. “It’s not huge in numbers, because the vast majority of our trade—68% of our exports—is with the EU. But all our agricultural production that was going to the Russian market has been stopped.”
Caras said his country will not seek NATO membership in accordance with the official neutrality enshrined in its constitution. But Moldova’s current government is pro-EU, and after Russia’s invasion, it submitted a bid along with Georgia and Ukraine to join the 27-member bloc.
“Eventually, this war will end, and we Moldovans support the territorial integrity of Ukraine according to international borders,” said Caras, adding that “we want to join the EU at some point. We want the Republic of Moldova to be a functional state, and our reintegration [with the Transnistria region] shouldn’t preclude that.”