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After Ukraine, Eastern Europe worries where Putin might strike next

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The war in Ukraine is prompting countries across Eastern Europe to rethink how they can protect themselves from Russia, and nowhere more so than Moldova. Like Ukraine, it's a former Soviet republic. It's not in NATO. It's not part of the European Union. And its leaders are watching the war closely. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the capital, Chisinau.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Before dawn on February 24, Ion Manole, a human rights lawyer here in Chisinau, got a phone call. A colleague told him, open your window. Outside, Manole could hear the sound of Russian missiles exploding in the distance.

ION MANOLE: My first thought was that in Transnistria something started, or Moldova - this part of Moldova was attacked.

LANGFITT: Were you scared?

MANOLE: Everybody's scared. If someone will tell you he's not scared, he will lie.

LANGFITT: Manole's referring to Transnistria, a separatist region of Moldova. Transnistria is home to about 1,500 Russian troops, at least 8,000 Transnistrian soldiers, and has been under effective Russian control since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Manole has won dozens of cases against Russia over human rights abuses in Transnistria. He was afraid if Russian troops invaded Moldova, they'd detain him.

MANOLE: We are persona non grata in Transnistria. We have criminal cases against us. So we prepared our luggages (ph) to be able to leave.

LANGFITT: In fact, the explosions Manole heard came from over the border in Ukraine. But people here feared Russia might invade because of the way President Vladimir Putin views some former Soviet republics. Alexandru Flenchea served as a deputy prime minister in Moldova's government.

ALEXANDRU FLENCHEA: Putin's global ambition is to rebuild, in some shape or form, the Soviet Union.

LANGFITT: And Flenchea says the Russian leader sees a nation such as Moldova - or Ukraine, for that matter - as not really legitimate.

FLENCHEA: A country that accidentally became a country because of what he called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in history - the collapse of the Soviet Union. So to Putin, countries like Moldova and the Baltic states and even Poland - they are not nations that have a right to be sovereign countries.

LANGFITT: Which helps explain why people in Moldova, which is just slightly larger than Maryland, feel nervous. Analysts here say Putin might prefer Moldova as a pro-Moscow buffer state between an expanded Russia and NATO. Of course, Russian troops have since become bogged down in Ukraine and seem much less of a threat at the moment to neighboring countries. Moldovans are breathing more easily these days, but the war next door emphasizes the country's precarious position. Moldova's maintained a policy of neutrality to protect itself and not antagonize Russia. But Igor Grosu, speaker of Moldova's parliament, says that policy isn't enough and his country now needs security guarantees from big nations.

IGOR GROSU: (Through interpreter) I think the notion of neutrality in connection to guarantees will be dramatically changed.

LANGFITT: Does neutrality work?

GROSU: (Through interpreter) I'm saying that in the form that it's been practiced until now, it does not function. And therefore the new system of - guarantees that the great powers must create a consolidated system, because otherwise, in the current form, it's very vulnerable.

LANGFITT: Grosu didn't go into detail, but Iulian Groza did. Groza runs the Institute for European Policies and Reforms, a think tank. He thinks the best way to protect Moldova is to develop an even closer relationship with Europe.

IULIAN GROZA: There are a lot of things that both EU member states or NATO member states can do to help us.

LANGFITT: Does that mean sending you weapons?

GROZA: Not only weapons. It's about all chain of everything, which is linked to defense capabilities. I mean, medical, infrastructure, training, equipment, everything. Professionalizing our army.

LANGFITT: An army with about 6,000 troops and not a single tank. But Moldova may be too small to survive on its own. Yuri Renitsa (ph) is a former Moldovan ambassador to NATO. His solution? Reunify with neighboring Romania, which is a member of the EU and NATO.

YURI RENITSA: We do have their same language, culture, everything. There are no differences. This might be, from my point of view, the best choice. You are joining immediately EU and - but most important, NATO. The EU under NATO umbrella.

LANGFITT: Moldova used to be a part of Romania. That ended in 1940 when Moldova was occupied by Russia. But reunification faces big hurdles. Only 44% of Moldovans support it, according to a recent poll. And Russia would certainly object if Moldova tried to reunify with Romania, a NATO ally. A third option for Moldova - continue to stay neutral and try not to provoke Russia. Ion Chicu recently served as Moldova's prime minister.

ION CHICU: I don't think that we need to buy more weapons to fight Russia. That's clear. And also, many of Moldovans consider that some countries and neighbors of the Russia became somehow interesting for NATO. This is the reason why Russia, at least formally, launched this war.

LANGFITT: And Chicu says it's naive to think other nations will come to the aid of a small country like Moldova in what he says is essentially a major contest between Russia and the United States.

CHICU: Let's put it bluntly. Nobody will protect us. The biggest country in Europe - and, by the way, the richest one considering its natural resources - Ukraine, I mean - became a battlefield between two large geopolitical powers. That's the reality. It is exactly what happens back in, let's say, in Korea, Vietnam or Syria.

LANGFITT: Russia's leverage over Moldova goes beyond its troops in Transnistria. Moldova, which is landlocked, relies on Russia for 100% of its natural gas, which is something that many here, including the government, says has to change. Sergiu Tofilat is an energy analyst.

SERGIU TOFILAT: We need to convince our society, which is very divided among pro-Russians and pro-Europeans, that relying on Russian gas - this is not normal. It's like funding the Russian army who kills Ukrainians, which fight for our independence.

LANGFITT: Tofilat says developing new energy suppliers won't be easy given the high cost these days, which is especially hard for Europe's poorest nation. But he says it's a price Moldova must pay for its own security.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Chisinau.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALICE IN WINTER'S "DON'T LET GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.