Russian strikes on Ukraine spotlight Moldova’s energy woes

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Massive blackouts that temporarily hit more than a half-dozen cities across Moldova this week highlighted the impact Russia’s war in Ukraine is having on Europe’s poorest country.

The power outages happened Tuesday as the Russian military pounded infrastructure targets across Ukraine, which borders Moldova. Less than a week earlier, the European Union pledged 250 million euros (nearly $260 million) to help the former Soviet republic tackle a severe energy crisis after Russia halved its natural gas supply.

Moldova became a candidate for EU membership in June, on the same day neighboring Ukraine did.

“Every deadly bomb dropped on Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure has direct consequences for the people of our country,” Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu said after Russia’s latest missile strikes caused the electricity to go out across the border.

Moldova’s pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, said Moscow’s decision to cut her country’s gas supplies amounted to “political blackmail” and was an attempt to “cynically exploit people’s hardships” and to turn the country away from its path toward joining the EU.

The energy crisis was compounded when Transnistria — a Moscow-backed separatist region of Moldova with a key power plant and where Russia bases around 1,500 troops, nominally as “peacekeepers” — also cut electricity to other parts of the country.

In response, Moldovan authorities turned to another neighbor, Romania, which now supplies about 90% of the smaller nation’s electricity, according to Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu. But Moldova’s Soviet-era energy systems remain interconnected with Ukraine, which is why the Russian missile barrage triggered the automatic shutdown of a supply line and caused the lights to go out temporarily.

“For three decades, no government has built alternatives for electricity insurance,” which has kept Moldova “dependent on the power plant in the Transnistria region,” Sandu said Wednesday.

“Until then, we can bring electricity from Romania or other EU countries through Ukraine, and this creates major risks in a period of war,” she said.

Mihai Tirsu, director of the Energy Institute at the Technical University in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, said that had a broader network of power lines been built since Moldova gained independence in 1991, “the system would have been much more stable and we would not have found ourselves in such situations.”

“We have to understand that energy flows go partly from Ukraine to Moldova, from Moldova to Ukraine,” Tirsu said, “They circulate from one side to another and when the flow disappears on one segment, it starts to overload other lines.”

Russia’s nearly nine-month-old war in Ukraine has had other troubling effects in landlocked Moldova, to where at some points it looked as though the conflict might spread.

Russian missiles have passed through Moldova’s airspace at other points in the war, and residents of one city were shaken up when missile debris landed there. In April, tensions soared in Transnistria after a series of mysterious explosions hit the breakaway region.

The country received scores of bomb threats at prominent public facilities such as the capital’s airport and the country’s supreme court in July and August. Along with energy insecurity and skyrocketing inflation, Moldova now is seeing frequent anti-government protests, which anti-corruption prosecutors allege are being funded at least partly by Russian money.

“The energy crisis puts Moldova in a very vulnerable situation,” Dionis Cenusa, an analyst at the Chisinau-based think tank Expert Group, told The Associated Press. “Despite its strategic reserves of gas and other preparations, there are implications related to the increase in the prices of energy sources.”

“Attention should be paid to the protection and functionality of critical infrastructure within Moldova and on the border with Ukraine.”

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Stephen McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.

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