If Moldova wants to integrate with the West, the best way forward would be to modernize its infrastructure and strengthen its democratic institutions.
That's the advice given by American journalist and author Robert Kaplan, who argues in his latest book, In Europe's Shadow, that Russian President Putin's recent moves against Ukraine have pushed Romania and Moldova to the front line of the West's confrontation with Moscow.
In drawing on his travels in communist Romania in the 1970s, and charting the nation's complicated past and future following recent visits , the author could not ignore Moldova's deep historical ties to the current NATO and EU member.
He argues in one chapter that the two neighboring countries, although together on the front line of a "new Cold War" triggered by Russia's actions in Ukraine, are far apart.
He described their differences as "stark," during an interview with RFE/RL on March 7. "And they are stark because one country has been in the EU for almost a decade now and one is kind of still trapped in a kind of post-Soviet sub-development."
Today, says Kaplan, Moldova finds itself in a fight for its survival as a state.
"What Moldova needs to do -- first of all, the most important thing, and this is true of Romania as well -- is to strengthen its institutions, make them sturdier and more transparent, less corrupt," Kaplan told RFE/RL.
Moldova has seen months of anticorruption protests prompted by the disappearance of more than $1 billion from three banks in 2014, a scandal that led to the downfall of the government.
The resulting political crisis threatens to reverse Moldova's recent efforts to integrate with the West and turn the former Soviet republic back toward Moscow's orbit.
Kaplan advises the new government -- whose introduction in January rekindled antigovernment protests calling for early elections that could bring pro-Kremlin forces to power -- to tread carefully if it wants to continue on a Westward course.
"Moldova should seek a stronger association membership with the European Union, and some sort of associated membership with NATO, but it cannot join formally these large institutions of the West without leading to a Russian backlash," he says.
Protesters rally in Chisinau in favor of Moldova becoming part of Romania. Kaplan says the notion of the two countries unifying is a longstanding idea that is "never really off the table."
Chisinau is pursuing EU membership, having signed an EU Association Agreement in 2014. Moldova cooperates with NATO through its membership in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Partnership for Peace program, but is constitutionally neutral and has no plans to join the alliance.
Kaplan suggests that, ultimately, Moldova should strive to preserve its historical status as a buffer state between Russia and the West.
"Moldova, for reasons of geography and history, sad to say, you know, is somewhat a neutral buffer state that cannot... that should not join either alliance for the time being," said Kaplan.
Reunification A No-Go
The notion of reunification with Romania, a longstanding idea that Kaplan writes is "never really off the table," is also a nonstarter. Pursuing reunification, he says, could be seen by Russia as cause for war, particularly under the current circumstances.
"I do not see how Moldova and Romania can unify," Kaplan explains. "That would be almost a casus belli for [President Vladimir] Putin's Russia."
WATCH: Robert Kaplan On The Potential Ramifications Of Moldova Becoming Part Of Romania
While some two-thirds of Moldova's population of 3.5 million speak Romanian, most of its present-day territory was alternately part of Romania and Russia or the Soviet Union.
Moldova's eastern, mainly-Russian speaking Transdniester region separated violently from Chisinau in the early 1990s over fears that the ethnic Romanian majority would seek reunification with Romania.
Transdniester remains a Russian bulwark against the European Union and NATO, reinforced by the presence of some 1,200 Russian troops. Stationed there since the Soviet era, the forces guard arms dumps and serve as "peacekeepers" separating Moldovans and Transdniestrians.
Both Chisinau and Bucharest have floated from time to time the idea of reunification as a possible shortcut for Moldova's accession into the West, while Russian speakers have been using the Romanian "threat" as justification for maintaining close ties to Moscow.
"Were Romania to annex Moldova or to unify with ethnic Romanian-speaking Moldova, that could lead Russia to formally annex Transdniester and that would create far greater regional tensions than we see now."
Kaplan told RFE/RL that Moldova's "incredibly high levels of corruption" and the public's "complete loss of confidence" in the government is playing right into Russian President Putin's hands.
"Moldova is kind of being unwoven, it's kind of coming apart without Russia having to do all that much," Kaplan says.
"It wouldn't take much for Putin to undermine it," Kaplan adds. "He probably already is doing so, because as I write, Russia has various age-old forms of imperialist tactics -- subversion, intelligence operations, buying media through third parties, and on and on that are ambiguous enough to be deniable."
Kaplan said that the West -- and the United States in particular -- has to do more to help Moldova back onto the right track.
Kaplan recommended increased American military power in Central and Eastern Europe coupled with more robust diplomacy.
"The secretary of state, the president, the secretary of defense -- they need to be seen to be paying more attention to Europe, because it's my contention that Europe is as important to the United States now as it was during the Cold War," Kaplan concludes.
Watch the full video interview with Kaplan