Reportage. Refugees enter Moldova where the population, with a large Russian-speaking presence, fears being Putin's next target. Ukrainians vow to return and rebuild.

Ukrainians fleeing to Moldova predict ‘Putin’s next victim’

The road from Yuzhnoukrainsk to Chisinau passes through destroyed villages and towns. The bus carrying a dozen or so Ukrainians crammed into the worn-out seats often has to leave the main roadway because it is obstructed by barriers and military vehicles, many of which have been destroyed in the recent fighting. During the detours, we pass farms whose fields seem abandoned.

“What will we eat in the coming months?” asks a woman who, with her two children, has left her husband and eldest son behind to fight. She doesn’t speak in the third person, doesn’t ask what those who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave and stayed in Ukraine will eat. She always speaks in the first person, because she, like the others, don’t want to remain refugees. Their future is here, in their own country, and they see this escape to the west as something temporary. The present is just a moment suspended between the past and the future, floating in a limbo of anguish.

The bombs have divided families, a chain reaction gone mad, out of control, which is destroying the society of this nation. “The Russians are forcing us to flee, but we will return and rebuild Ukraine. We don’t want to stay outside our country a day longer than necessary,” says an old man who, together with his wife, is taking their 5-year-old grandson to Moldova. His parents have remained in Mykolaiv, the father fighting in the militia, the mother continuing to work in the public facilities that are still resisting the siege by Moscow’s troops.

Through the windows, we see columns of armored vehicles moving south to defend Odessa. At the checkpoints, they ask how many Russian soldiers we have seen, what armaments they have, how they are stationed. Each piece of information will be put together with the others they acquire in order to try to draw up a realistic and up-to-date map of the situation on the ground.

The destruction has not spared even the smallest villages, those inhabited by farmers who drive rusty tractors and tires so old that they have worn treads and cracks. The houses with irregular walls and facing small gardens bordered by fences painted in the wildest colors are almost entirely destroyed. Smoke is still billowing from many of them, and here and there we see fire enveloping what remains of what was once a barn, a stable, some furniture, a car. In one house, the sun illuminates a room whose walls have been completely destroyed, allowing us to see a woman cooking soup on a wood stove.

We arrive at the border with Moldova, and they let us cross without any problem. A quick look at our ID cards and passports and we are across the border. Actually, we still have to travel several dozen kilometers before we reach the area controlled by the government in Chisinau. The long sliver of territory that divides Ukraine from Moldova is the self-proclaimed independent republic of Transnistria, a Moscow loyalist – but not the current Moscow, the Soviet one.

The red-and-green-striped flag of the Tiraspol government still prominently features the hammer and sickle with the Soviet star, and all along the way, the flags of the republic are often accompanied by those of the Russian Federation. “Moldova will be Putin’s next victim,” a girl tells us, a biology student at Sukhomlynskyi University in Mykolaiv. This is something I have often heard during my stay in Ukraine. After all, the similarities are obvious.

Like Ukraine, Moldova also has a strong Russian-speaking presence on its territory, but unlike the situation in neighboring countries, this population has managed to carve out its own autonomy by coexisting more or less peacefully with the population of Romanian origin.

To try to avoid escalating tensions, Chisinau has agreed to recognize Russian alongside Romanian as an official language, but the 2019 constitutional crisis that led to the ousting of pro-Russian President Igor Dodon is seen by many as an exact replica of the events that led to the Ukrainian invasion, including the support given by Vladimir Putin to Dodon. At the time, the Russian president made a direct reference to the Ukrainian situation, claiming that, just like in the neighboring country—now being invaded by his troops—in Moldova as well, the power has been taken by oligarchs who “have crushed all the structures of the state.”

None of the Ukrainians who have arrived here in Moldova feels like they’re in danger anymore, but no one wants to stay too long, because among the refugees there are many who believe that, if the European Union fails to give a firm and unambiguous response against the invasion, Putin’s next stop will be Chisinau.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!