In the early hours of Monday morning, a Russian cruise missile crashed down around the town of Naslavcea, after reportedly being shot down in flight by Ukrainian air defences. The scenes of shattered windows and shaken residents would be just another grim but unremarkable moment in the war were it not for one thing – Naslavcea is in Moldova.

It’s not the first time the neighbouring former Soviet Republic has found itself in the crossfire since President Vladimir Putin announced his full-scale invasion in February. Officials in the capital, Chisináu, have previously sounded the alarm over Russian rockets, launched by warships in the Black Sea, flying through their airspace en route to targets in Western Ukraine. And in June, a Moldovan-flagged fuel tanker adrift in the same waters was hit by a missile, sparking fears of ecological disaster.

At the same time, the tiny Eastern European nation, home to just over two and a half million people, has been taking a tough line against the Kremlin. “Russia’s unjust war against Ukraine clearly shows us the price of freedom,” Moldovan President Maia Sandu declared in August. Elected two years ago on a pro-reform agenda, the former World Bank economist has cut the close ties Chisináu has kept with Moscow since the fall of the USSR and taken her country on a sharp pivot towards the West.

So far, it has been greeted with open arms. In June, Brussels announced it would grant candidate status to Moldova at the same time as Ukraine, clearing the path for the country – one of the continent’s poorest – to join the EU. “This is a defining moment for Moldova and for Europe,” European Council President Charles Michel said after a meeting with Sandu. “Russia’s war against Ukraine has caused senseless suffering and pain. And the consequences do not stop at the Ukrainian borders.”

However, breaking with decades of Russian cultural, political and economic dominance is no easy feat. Moscow has repeatedly threatened to cut Moldova off from gas supplies it has almost entirely depended on for everything from heating homes to fuelling its power plants, while putting up the prices since the start of the war, despite shrinking demand for Russian energy. Brussels has stepped in to help the struggling government balance its budget, but Sandu has been clear more support is needed.

For years, successive governments have maintained close ties with the Kremlin, positioning Chisináu as a long-standing ally. And yet, out of necessity as much as anything else, they have also pursued economic relations with the EU – not least with neighbouring Romania, which speaks the same language and is viewed as a sister nation. As a result, despite political overtures and manipulation from Moscow, the balance of trade in key industries like agriculture has switched and, apart from energy, Moldova has never been in a better place to reduce its dependence on its former imperial ruler.

And yet, there are still plenty of tools in Russia’s arsenal to try and reverse its declining influence. For most of its history since independence, top Moldovan political figures, military chiefs and officials relied on patronage, or at least informal support, from Moscow. The opposition to Sandu, led by former President Igor Dodon, has sought to frame his defeat to her in 2020 as a blow for the country’s large Russian-speaking population, taking to Kremlin media channels to accuse her of targeting their language, culture and identity. “The same thing that happened in Ukraine is happening here,” Dodon told Russian state media just a week ago.

Moscow’s increasingly bombastic Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has weighed into the row, warning Moldova against marginalising Russian speakers – despite the fact that conversations on the streets of Chisináu are more likely to be in Russian than Romanian, and there is no effort to change that. Lavrov has also cautioned Sandu not to seek to oust the 1,500 or so Russian forces stationed in Transnistria, a breakaway region along the border with Ukraine, run as a Moscow-proxy and frozen in the days of the Soviet Union. “Any action that would threaten the security of our troops would be considered under international law as an attack on Russia,” the top diplomat said.

The status of Transnistria has become a key hurdle for Sandu’s government in bolstering European integration, and an Achilles heel in what they want to present as a united front against Russia. The country’s main gas-fired powerplant is located there, and one senior Moldovan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Reaction that it serves as a regional hub for Russian spies from intelligence agencies including the FSB, GRU and SVR.

Others are concerned that the Kremlin might try and leverage its influence in the country to undermine its efforts to build a new economic and political future with the West. “The risk of retribution from Moscow is high,” Vlad Lupan, the former permanent representative of Moldova to the UN, tells Reaction. “It’s no secret that Russia uses energy as a weapon of political coercion. Meanwhile, the FSB has reportedly been working with Russian-affiliated political parties and corrupt individuals in Moldova. It is clearly aiming to achieve the demise of the current government.”

Yet according to Lupan, years of being treated as a regional backwater that Moscow could push around have finally come to a head. “These realities, and the current situation in Moldova, have motivated the country to push for EU membership. We’re located behind Ukraine, which is a natural barrier between us and Russia – and now has friendly relations with Moldova.”

For almost a decade, the country has enjoyed visa-free travel with the EU, and virtually half of its citizens are believed to hold Romanian passports, giving them the opportunity to study and work abroad, often in service and agricultural jobs. Now though, with their government turning its back on Russia, many Moldovans like Lupan hope that the next generation won’t just be seeking a better future abroad, but building one at home as well.