TIRASPOL, Trans-Dniester — With Crimea now firmly under Russian control, many are casting their eyes around for the next likely target should Russia continue to redraw the map of modern Europe.

TIRASPOL, Trans-Dniester — With Crimea now firmly under Russian control, many are casting their eyes around for the next likely target should Russia continue to redraw the map of modern Europe.


They’ve settled on the Republic of Trans-Dniester, a sliver of contested land that declared its independence from Moldova, Europe’s poorest nation, back in 1990 but has yet to be recognized by any government around the world.


With a population of just half a million — a mix of ethnic Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians — Trans-Dniester is little more than a blip on the map, but in recent weeks it’s become the focus of much political attention.


Speaking Sunday at a meeting in Brussels hosted by the German Marshall Fund, a research center, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, focused on the place as he discussed the "very, very sizable and very, very ready" Russian forces deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border.


"There is absolutely sufficient force," he said of those troops, "to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome."


Russia already has a troop presence in Trans-Dniester, which is separated from Russia by about 400 miles of Ukraine and was once part of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the Soviet Union’s 15 units, until Moldova became independent in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed.


As that collapse was taking place, Trans-Dniester — so named because it’s on the east side of the Dniester River — declared itself independent from the rest of Moldova. A brief civil war ensued in 1992, which ended in more than a thousand deaths and an uneasy stalemate.


At the end of the war, the Trans-Dniestern authorities invited around 1,500 Russian troops to stay, in order to keep the peace and ensure their independence. They’ve been here since.


But whether Russia is interested in Trans-Dniester is not so clear.


Last week, the chairman of the Supreme Council, Trans-Dniester’s governing body, asked Russia to consider drafting a law that could lead to the annexation of Trans-Dniester. Russia hasn’t responded, and despite the presence of its troops in the breakaway republic, it has yet to recognize Trans-Dniester’s independence.


"There is nothing new about Trans-Dniestern authorities declaring they want independence, or their interest in joining the Russia Federation," said Iulian Groza, Moldova’s deputy foreign minister. The interest hasn’t been mutual.


On Sunday, however, Moldovan media reported that Russian troops stationed in Trans-Dniester were staging military drills, while reports out of Russia said Russian ministers in Moscow had discussed the issue of Trans-Dniester.


"We have asked our Russian counterparts about this meeting and what it involved," Groza said.


Sentiment in Tiraspol seems to strongly favor a return to the Russian fold.


"We are a small nation and can’t be independent, and I am scared of the EU," said Andrei Dabrovichi, 19, a student working at a cafe off the main square in Tiraspol. ‘They are very different to us. We here have a Russian soul."


Selling used clothes from a sheet placed on the dusty pavement, 82-year-old Valentina Ivanova speaks a common sentiment. "I pray for the return of the Soviet Union," she said. "Putin gives us hope. He is reuniting the Soviet Union."