A massive Soviet-era munitions dump is being guarded by hundreds of Russian troops in Transnistria, a breakaway territory of Moldova, not far from the southern border of Ukraine.
The world is paying closer attention to this depot, these soldiers, and this pro-Russian separatist territory.
Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova have all been accused of plotting to destabilize Moldova in recent weeks, and there have been concerns that another crisis could break out in this region.
In response to President Maia Sandu’s fears that Moscow is preparing to overthrow her pro-Western government, Moldova’s Prime Minister Dorin Recean has argued that Russian forces should be ejected from the area.
The prospect of a “false flag” strike by Ukrainian forces has been emphasized by Moscow, which has also warned that any attack on its troops in Transnistria will be viewed as an attack on Russia itself.
Numerous observers in the West have noted that Transnistria might give Moscow another way into Ukraine, diverting Ukrainian forces from other fronts of conflict.
Transnistria, which has been ruled by pro-Russian separatists since the end of Moldova’s civil war in 1992, is therefore being closely observed both internationally and by people who are much closer to home.
The village of Molovata Noua is heavily threatened by the rumors of a new conflict.
This is a tiny Moldovan outpost that is wedged between Transnistrian territory and the rest of Moldova, which is divided by the River Dneister.
Residents of Molovata Noua feel entirely exposed, much like Chisinau inhabitants do.
Several of the elder males in this area fought pro-Russian rebels 30 years ago for this territory. They are now pondering whether they will need to fight here once more.
Veterans of that struggle gathered on Friday in Molovata Noua for an annual remembrance journey into Transnistria over the line of control.
There were twenty men wearing military fatigues, their chests adorned with colorful medals, and their eyes were shadowed. One of them was Vlad Untila, 62.
He said, “We’re fortunate that Ukraine is protecting us right now, but if it starts in Moldova, we’re prepared to defend this region again.
Like they did thirty years prior, their car convoy enters hostile territory by traveling along the empty dirt road from Molovata Noua into the separatist pro-Russian region.
Vlad growls as his car reaches the Russian checkpoint, “Look how they stare at us.
A group of armed troops watch the caravan as it transports men wearing military uniforms from Moldova into separatist territory while turning a blind eye to this arresting yearly tradition.
That was all a battlefield, Vlad continues, “look around you.” This is where we fought.
The slender dirt road now winds through the quiet countryside, bordered by dark fields and winter-damaged trees.
His pal Constantin adds, “I feel like I’m in my own country, so it’s hard. “Even though this is my own country, I can’t move around freely.”
The pilgrimage’s first stop is a straightforward blue cross made of metal poles, just a short distance past the checkpoint and concealed in bushes by the side of the road.
It designates the location where a local mayor was slain 31 years ago. To honor their fallen friends, the veterans assemble around with a bouquet of flowers and a wine bottle filled with wine.
They honor their fellow soldiers, siblings, and friends as they travel down the path of light blue memorials dotting this region.
Vlad recalls that he and his companion Vasea were both snipers at the time of Vasea’s death. “They were firing at us from a tank atop that hill over there. He was struck in the neck by one of the shards of shrapnel. He died in my arms as he slid to the earth.”
The local Moldovan school’s students, led by Tatiana Rosca, the headmistress, come out to meet the veterans as they pass by.
In 1992, there were significant battles, according to Tatiana. “And the people’s souls continue to harbor deep wounds. We’re terrified because we understand what war entails and do not want it for anyone.”
One of her students claims that, like her father and grandpa thirty years before, she is prepared to use force if conflict arises once more.
But the history, geography, and economy of this region, as well as the rest of Moldova, make allegiances difficult.
The pull of Moldovan identity is pitted against the pull of Russian gas that is being subsidized from Transnistria here on the other side of the River Dniester.
Since the commencement of the war in Ukraine, the economic gap with the rest of the nation has been wider. Last year, Russia cut off gas shipments to Moldova.
Oleg Gazea, the mayor of Molovata Noua, said to me, “I’ll be honest. Since gas is so much cheaper in Moldova, it is quite difficult to persuade people that life is better there.
“They will ask us: “Are you crazy,” if we urge them to cross the river and pay 30 times more for their bills while also talking about freedom and a better life. But the cheap gas comes with a hidden cost: it buys their support.”
Several locals are adamant that Moscow is an economic ally, not a military threat, and that president Maia Sandu is the one starting a conflict by leaning toward the West.
Maria Ursachi, 59, tells me that Transnistria is really standing up for us.
“Yet, Moldova is a letdown. There is a border control post there, and they check our baggage, so many are afraid to cross the river to talk to us. Chisinau is blind to us.”
When the veterans return to Molovata Noua, they leave red carnations at a monument to the place’s frozen battle to mark the completion of their trek.
Their children have grown up with Russian soldiers, the Russian language, and Russian economic backing in the years since they fought the pro-Russian separatists.
Vlad assures me that even with the participation of younger guys, “we older men will still constitute the center of any opposition.”
In this small Moldovan outpost, lingering memories of the past are being exacerbated by mounting anxieties about the future.