A few people huddled together rip up readily available posters of Moldovan President Maia Sandu, scatter the shreds to the ground, and stomp on them, all to the delight of onlookers in the Moldovan capital on February 28.
The latest anti-government protest in Chisinau was organized by a group calling itself the Movement for the People and backed by members of Moldova's Kremlin-friendly Shor Party, whose founder and leader, Ilan Shor, was convicted of fraud in 2017 for the theft of $1 billion from three Moldovan banks in 2014.
Waving Moldovan flags, the crowd -- many of them reportedly bused in -- called for the country's new pro-Western government to pay the public's winter energy bills and "not to involve the country in war."
After one government recently fell amid growing public anger over higher prices, President Sandu and others have accused Moscow of lurking in the shadows, pulling the strings of these protests and seeking to further destabilize Moldova.
Sandu recently revealed chilling details of an alleged coup plot that comes amid fears Russian President Vladimir Putin could widen his war in Ukraine to Moldova by exploiting his troops on the ground in the breakaway pro-Russian Transdniester region. The Kremlin might not go that far, experts say, but nevertheless Moscow is eager to not only exploit Chisinau's current vulnerability but to try to distract Kyiv and its Western backers as well.
"Russia wants to make use of the destabilized situation in Moldova to increase fears around Transdniester and to try to provoke Ukraine to take military actions -- to be painted by Russian propaganda as the aggressor and to create another crisis situation," said Dionis Cenusa, a visiting fellow at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center, in comments to RFE/RL.
Amid the growing Kremlin pressure, the West has backed Sandu, whose country is sandwiched between EU and NATO member Romania and Ukraine, with which it shares a 1,222-kilometer border. In Moldova, the president represents the country internationally and carries huge sway over foreign policy.
On February 21, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Sandu in Poland and "reaffirmed strong U.S. support for Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
In July 2022, Moldova was granted, along with Ukraine, EU candidate status, much to the ire of Moscow.
Sandu on February 13 announced Russia was planning a coup in Moldova, noting Ukrainian intelligence had shared details of the alleged plot days earlier. Individuals with a military background, not only from Russia, but Belarus, Serbia, and Montenegro, were to be recruited to carry it out, according to the allegations.
Dressed as civilians, this group would then be tasked with gaining control of government buildings in Chisinau, taking hostages along the way. They would have the backing of so-called internal criminal groups, which according to Sandu would include the Shor Party and a group linked to former politician and oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who fled the country after being accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power.
According to Sandu, Russia had tried to destabilize the country in late 2022 but local security services thwarted those plans.
In response to the coup allegations, the U.S. State Department said that, while reports about the plot had not been independently confirmed, it is "certainly not outside the bounds of Russian behavior, and we absolutely stand with the Moldovan government and the Moldovan people."
A day later on February 14, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed Sandu's claims as "absolutely unfounded and unsubstantiated." A week later, Putin piled on, announcing that Russia had revoked a decree that recognized Moldova's sovereignty in resolving the dispute over Transdniester.
The decree, enacted in 2012 when Russia's relations with the West were less fraught, was annulled to "ensure the national interests of Russia" following "profound changes taking place in international relations," according to the Kremlin's website. Putin's move was payback for the Kremlin's failed "attempt to organize a coup," argued Vlad Lupan, a former Moldovan ambassador to the UN, on Twitter.
While Moldova may have parried the Kremlin coup plot, the country remains volatile, vulnerable, and increasingly on edge. On February 10, Natalia Gavrilita, the country's pro-Western prime minister, stepped down, saying Moldova was struggling with "multiple crises." Gavrilita said that when her government was elected in 2021, no one expected it would have to manage "so many crises caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine."
An energy crisis was sparked last year when Russia suddenly reduced its gas supplies to Moldova, which was completely dependent on Russia for natural gas. It caused inflation to skyrocket, sparking public unrest.
"Moldova is one of the countries most affected by the war in Ukraine, not only because of its physical proximity but also because of its inherent vulnerabilities as a small, landlocked economy with close linkages to both Ukraine and Russia," the World Bank wrote in its latest country overview.
Moldova has also struggled to cope with refugees from Ukraine, with more than 100,000 registered there as of late January, according to data from the UN refugee agency.
On February 16, the parliament in Moldova approved a new government headed by Prime Minister Dorin Recean, a former security adviser to Sandu and Moldova's interior minister between 2012 and 2015. In the bitterly divided country, the vote was strictly along party lines. The pro-Western Party of Action and Solidarity cast 62 votes in favor of the government, while opposition pro-Russian parties, the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists, and the Shor Party, all boycotted the vote.
Given his security background and the perceived threat from Moscow, Recean's appointment illustrates that "boosting the country's security" has taken on even greater importance for Chisinau, writes Kamil Calus, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies.
The threats to Moldova's security are real. On February 10, a Russian sea-launched cruise missile crossed through Moldovan airspace before it landed in Ukraine as part of a mass missile attack. Following the incident, Moldova summoned the Russian ambassador.
Even before his confirmation as prime minister, Recean had angered Moscow, calling for the demilitarization of Transdniester and the withdrawal of the remaining 1,100 Russian troops from the region, triggering a response from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
"We would recommend our Moldovan interlocutors to be very cautious about such statements," Peskov told a press briefing in Moscow on February 20, adding that relations between the two countries were "very tense."
Mostly Russian-speaking Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 over fears Chisinau could seek reunification with neighboring Romania, with which it shares a common history and language.
The two sides fought a short but bloody war in the spring of 1992 that ended when Russian troops stationed in Transdniester intervened on the separatists' side. They have claimed to be acting as peacekeepers ever since.
When Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago, U.S. officials and others warned the Kremlin also had its eye on Transdniester, hoping to build a land bridge across Ukraine's Black Sea shoreline.
Moldova's national intelligence agency warned of that very scenario in December 2022, saying the Kremlin was considering opening a second front.
Amid rising tensions with Moscow, Defense Minister Anatolie Nosatii confirmed in January that Moldova has asked its Western partners for air-defense systems, in a move that signals a departure from the country's policy of not seeking to purchase lethal weapons from the West.
According to the Kremlin it is its enemies that are plotting to sow unrest in Moldova and then conveniently blame Moscow.
On March 1, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova spoke of a supposed "provocation" where Kyiv was allegedly planning to use "radioactive materials" in an attack "near" Transdniester and then accuse Russian forces of responsibility -- echoing a familiar communications tactic employed by the Kremlin during the invasion: Blame Ukraine or the West for something the Kremlin has done or may be planning.
More ominously, the de facto leaders in Transdniester announced the same day that the "peacekeeping contingent" there would begin three months of military drills amid "military provocations."
Adding to the regional tensions are recent revelations by Romania of a fake news campaign -- with suspicions falling on the Kremlin of either orchestrating or encouraging it -- claiming that Romania was massing troops at its border with Moldova.
This, and the signaling from the Kremlin, have led many to suspect Russia is laying the pretext for military action, although military experts doubt Russia has much extra military muscle to flex.
"Russia is very unlikely to attempt to conduct a military coup in Moldova or attack Ukraine from Transdniester; the Russian military simply does not have military means or combat power to do so," explained George Barros, a Russia expert at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that monitors major events in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Russian troops in Transdniester would also offer Moscow little in terms of fighting strength, Barros said. "The Russian 'peacekeeping' group in Transdniester consists of two motorized rifle battalions -- which is a very small force. These two battalions in particular are among the least capable and combat-ready units within the Russian Western Military District. They have no reliable supply routes to mainland Russia," Barros told RFE/RL in e-mailed remarks.
"The Russian Airborne Forces (VDV), which could in theory support these forces, are heavily degraded and already committed to fighting in Ukraine. Furthermore, Ukraine air defense controls the airspace near Transdniester, making a Russian airborne operation impossible," Barros wrote.
"We assess the Kremlin is likely conducting information operations in order to distract Ukrainian forces, so to fix Ukrainian forces near Odesa and preventing Ukraine from deploying them where they could be more useful, such as on the eastern or southern front lines," Barros concluded.
That Putin is trying to divert attention rather than open a new military front was a view also shared by John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major who has been following events in Ukraine.
"It's more of Putin trying to divert attention from the front line," Spencer told RFE/RL. "Like before, he's trying to get Ukraine and the world to shift resources there. It's no real threat."