UPDATED: Moldova protests to Russia over comments by top military commander

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(Reuters) – The Moldovan foreign ministry said it had summoned Moscow’s ambassador on Friday to express “deep concern” about comments by a top military commander, who suggested the country’s Russian-speaking population was being oppressed.

“These statements are unfounded,” the foreign ministry said on its website. “Moldova … is a neutral state and this principle must be respected by all international actors, including the Russian Federation.”

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu announced that  the country had submitted a first questionnaire on European Union membership.

Moldova, which last year elected an openly pro-Western government, fears it could be next in Moscow’s military plans.

Sandu has signed into law a bill banning the ribbon of St. George, a black and orange military symbol of Russian patriotism and aggression against Ukraine, as well as the signs “Z” and “V” used by Russian armed forces to mark their vehicles and equipment during Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Last month, Sandu signed a formal application for Moldova to join the European Union, hastening its planned pro-Western course in the wake of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Sandu endorsed the law, which envisions punishment by a fine of at least 900 lei ($49) for making, wearing, or displaying the banned symbols, on April 19, five days after Moldovan lawmakers approved it.

Kremlin forces plan to seize full control of the Donbas and southern Ukraine during the second phase of their invasion, according to Russian news agencies citing a military official.

Rustam Minnekayev, the deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, said today the new phase of the country’s operation had begun with an aim to establish full control over the eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas.

The commander went on to say that full control of southern Ukraine would also improve Russian access to Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria.

“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transnistria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed,” the Tass news agency quoted Mr Minnekayev as saying.

Mr Minnekayev was not cited as providing any evidence for that alleged oppression.

Transnistia is a breakaway territory in Moldova, it borders Ukraine and it comprises about 12% of Moldovan land.

Transnistria is aligned to Russia, its flag still proudly bears the Hammer and Sickle and it is home to a regiment of Russian soldiers.

Moldova, remember, is constitutionally neutral, has no functioning army and does not have the protection of either EU or NATO membership.

So the vulnerability is obvious.

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