Ukrainian Euromaidan protesters being taught to fight Russia for Crimea (Photo by Henry Langston)
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between Crimea and Transnistria, the Russian separatist region in the Republic of Moldova. But the most obvious and simplistic similarity is that both Ukraine and Moldova are ex-Soviet countries, and both Crimea and Transnistria are regions in those countries that would mostly rather be aligned with Russia than the EU.
The neighbouring countries maintain friendly relations, but the fact that Transnistria lies along the border between them could now be a bit of a worry.
Russia currently have an estimated 1,500 soldiers stationed in Transnistria, while Moldovan troops have moved in on its western side and Ukrainian soldiers have rallied to its east, leaving the Moldovan region and the Russian soldiers stationed there sandwiched between two countries and their armies. And in the context of what's going on in Crimea – with Putin recognising the region as a Russian-allied independent state – who's to say Moscow isn't going to try and do the same with Transnistria?
I had a walk around the Moldovan capital of Chisinau to ask locals how they thought the situation in Crimea might affect them and their country.
VICE: Do you think the Ukrainians in Crimea will fight against the prospect of joining Russia?
Tudor: I don't know how much they'll fight back – I just know they want to avoid a war with Russia. If a military conflict arises, the situation will go berserk in Moldova, too – in the pro-Russian regions of Gagauzia and Transnistria.
The Romanian president warned Putin not to do anything in Moldova, while our parliament have barely said anything about the situation in Ukraine. Why do you think that is?
Our politicians are trying to maintain economic relations with Russia, as many of our industries still depend on them. They're waiting to see how the situation in the region plays out before taking a clear position. They're trying to avoid upsetting the minorities in our country: Russians, Ukrainians, Gagauz people. Maybe they have an opinion about the situation, but they prefer to keep it to themselves.
So we're a neutral country.
We should have a firm position – neutrality doesn't bring any advantages. Usually, big politics is done by big states, and because we're a small state we cannot influence the situation in the area. So we should side with either the West or the East.
What kind of battle are the Ukrainians facing?
Ion: It's a geopolitical one between Russia and Europe, between values and chaos, between the future and the past. It's an unacceptable abuse on Putin's part, and I hope Ukraine will have the fortitude to get rid of this Big Brother character.
It's also important for us Moldovans, right? Since we love going on holiday in Crimea.
That too, yes. Our economic relations would be affected by a conflict, but we'd get over it. The Europeans will save us. They don't only bring [an acceptance of] homosexuality, but also the supremacy of the law above all else.
How could we help our neighbours?
We must state our position out loud – we mustn't allow another state to interfere in the internal politics of Ukraine. I hope the situation can be solved peacefully and without any deaths.
What do you think of Vladimir Putin?
Tamara: I think Russia has bad luck with its leaders. Comparing him to Hitler would be too soft; he wants to seem democratic, but he's a bastard.
And what about the Ukrainians?
They're awesome. We all sympathise with them and support them. They taught us a lesson in strength, and I hope they keep it up and don't give up on Crimea.
Does the situation in Ukraine affect Moldova?
A hundred percent. If Russia was closer to us we'd be in danger on the Transnistrian border. We have to cross our fingers for the Ukrainians. Their victory is our victory.
How is Ukraine presented in the Moldovian media?
Victor: I noticed that the Russian press here are manipulating the situation a lot, which is understandable. For example, Pervîi Canal and Rossia 24 [two of the largest TV news networks in Moldova] are saying some insane stuff. The Ukrainian media is trying to be objective, but you can tell they're under pressure. The Western media is also manipulating the situation, but not as much as the Russians.
What are the Moldovans doing?
They're just picking up whatever they hear. Anything is good if it has a lot of blood and beatings. And because you can't tell how believable their reports are, there are misunderstandings and confusions.
Putin is nominated for the Nobel peace prize. What do you think about that?
It's tragi-comic. Nominating Putin – especially during this current situation – is just appalling.
Considering all the recent news, what does the future of life in this region look like?
Sasha: I think everything will be OK and that we have a bright future ahead of us – a better world.
I like the optimism. The Ukrainians certainly seem to be fighting for a better future.
I actually have relatives in Ukraine. I hope the situation there gets better.
Moldova had its own anti-government protests in 2009. Did they change anything?
Nothing at all.
Is everyday life in Moldova affected by what's going on in Crimea at all?
Naili: I don't know, but I think I should go back to Uzbekistan, where I came from. My parents brought me here to Moldova when I was three, then they didn't even ask me what I wanted.
Okay. I think the situation with Russia would probably affect you either way.
I heard about Ukraine. Quite frankly, if I were at the Maidan, I would have fought along with them.
Because I would have become a hero.
The media are talking about war in Crimea. Is that necessary?
Andrei: This conflict was to be expected. The fuse was set ever since the USSR crumbled. There have always been and there will always be wars; there have never been times of absolute peace. In these conditions, the leader's power matters, and Ukraine doesn't have a real leader. The country is divided. That's why it's in chaos.
But the Ukrainians united on the Maidan.
You call that united? The western and eastern Ukrainians hate each other. All those youngsters were "zapadențî" [a derogative slur for western Ukrainians] and were bought off with cash, because they don't even have jobs. Everybody protested on the Maidan for the Orange Revolution in 2004, but now a new generation has replaced them and they don't even know their own history. You have to know your own history.
So that you don't repeat mistakes from the past?
Sooner or later you'll repeat it. People don't learn from their own or others' mistakes. The scenario in Moldova in 2009 was identical, and there were losses back then, too. It's unclear where everything is heading. To a better life? Maybe, but at what price?
What do you think about everything happening in Ukraine?
Mihai, a soldier: It's their problem, not ours.
Fair enough. Is Moldova prepared for a military conflict?
Why wouldn't we be? I'm a group commander. I have 12 men under my command. If the situation calls for it, we will act.
Is it normal to be at war in the 21st century?
Clearly it isn't, but that's not my call to make.
I find it hard to believe that you soldiers aren't worried about this situation.
Of course we are; I'm thinking about it, too. I don't know – there might be war, but I don't think it will reach Moldova.