After the Russian invasion, the people of Bessarabia turned their side

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WHEN RUSSIA First attacked Ukraine in 2014 Bessarabia was a place to worry. Less than half of its people identified as Ukrainian. The region was poor and, for historical and economic reasons, many people believed that Vladimir Putin might be their savior. But Russia’s efforts to foment trouble in this strategic Ukrainian border have failed. Ukrainian forces defeated Russian attempts to land commandos at the start of the full-scale offensive in 2022, and the security services arrested dozens of agents. Although the Russians damaged and closed one of the two bridges that connected Bessarabia to the rest of the country, they did not close the other one.

Photo: The Economist

In a little more than 200 years, the possession of Ukrainian Bessarabia has changed nine times. It is bordered by the Danube and Dniester rivers, the Black Sea to the south and Moldova to the north. Captured from the Ottomans by Russia in the early 19th century, it became Romanian between the world wars and later became part of Soviet Ukraine. In addition to Ukrainians, its people include Russians, Moldovans, Gagauz, Bulgarians and Albanians whose lingua franca is Russian rather than Ukrainian and for whom Russia was a historical supporter.

Oleh Kiper, the governor of Odessa region, which includes Bessarabia, says pro-Russian sentiment there declined after 2014 and “diminished” after Russia’s February 2022 invasion. e one reason, he says, that, thanks to help from France, “Russian satellite TV propaganda” has been blocked there since 2015. Since then Bessarabia has been not only peaceful, but a vital way of life for Ukraine. Hundreds of trucks thunder every day, loaded with grain and other goods.They carry vital cash-earning exports to the Danube river ports of Izmail and Reni, or into Romania and beyond.

Ten years ago the main road across Bessarabia from Odessa was terrible, and Izmail felt like the end of the world. No longer. The road was improved and a ferry service opened in 2020, connecting the region to Romania and the rest of Europe. Russian attacks have not put him out of service. On the Danube in Izmail a Togolese-flagged grain vessel lies at anchor; tough old men squat on the nearby river bank before protesting the ban on swimming in the river. Others prefer a dip in Izmail’s brand new municipal sports complex.

In recent years wineries and tourism have flourished in Bessarabia, although the post-Soviet recovery has been uneventful. In Izmail money has poured in from up to 8,000 sailors who call this port home. Those caught here in the raid two years ago were lost to Russia’s Black Sea blockade, but most of those at sea have remained abroad. Although it has been hit by Russian rockets, Izmail has had a good war. Businesses and refugees from Black Sea ports like Kherson and Mykolaiv have moved here. “People were proud to be Ukrainian,” says Andriy Abramchenko, the mayor, who made it clear in 2014 and in 2022 that his city would have no truck with Russia.

In the small Moldovan town of Hlyboke, history comes alive at the cemetery. The town lies on the banks of the Sasyk, a basin that is suffering from a disastrous Soviet-era attempt to turn it into a freshwater lake. The water is rising and the shore is eroding. The bones of Cossacks who were buried here in the 18th century, and their descendants, are just off the edge of the sandy cliff of the cemetery, finally falling on the beach below. At the other end of the cemetery is Sasha Gorun, the school’s history teacher, who died fighting the Russians last May.

Maria Chekir, aged 80, who taught Mr. Gorun when she was head of the school, says that she does not know anyone in the town who supports Russia. Outsiders often assume that older people harbor pro-Russian sentiments and nostalgia for Soviet times. In fact, when Russia invaded in 2022, the locals feared that their troops would land here. Now, says Mrs Chekir, “when I hear people speaking Russian I tell them. Our boys are fighting Russians and I don’t want to speak Russian anymore.”

Hanna Shelest, an analyst in Odessa, says she is not surprised that the Russians failed to incite anti-Ukrainian unrest in Bessarabia. The war in Donbas, in the east, destroyed any local faith in the Kremlin’s propaganda about a “Russian World”. At the same time, the government in Kyiv recently began to pay attention to the sector. Ten years ago farmers from small towns like Utkonosivka sold their cabbage to Russia, and they blamed the Ukrainian government when war killed that industry. Now they have found other markets, and the government’s resentment has dissipated.

Although the fear of divorce has increased, the threat of corruption has not. Ivan Rusev, an environmental researcher and activist, says the army has closed parts of Bessarabia’s national parks. The park rangers have no power there now. Inside the closed zones, he says, people with connections are seizing land for farming or hunting. Allowing corruption to thrive under the guise of fighting Russia is not going well. Asked about Mr Rusev’s allegations, Mr Kiper, the governor, said simply: “Thank you for contacting me.”

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