CHISINAU Moldova's pro-European government expelled five Russian diplomats on Monday, a move the country's Moscow-backed president Igor Dodon described as "outrageous" and aimed at undermining Moldova-Russia relations.
Moldova has been ruled by a succession of pro-European Union administrations but Dodon's election in late 2016 reflected a loss of trust in its leaders as well as Russia's increasingly assertive influence over ex-Soviet states.
Moldova's government gave no reasons for the expulsions. Russia's ambassador to Moldova, Farit Mukhametshin, confirmed the sanction but gave no further details.
"The government has taken an outrageous step regarding our strategic partner, Russia," Dodon said in a Facebook post.
"This has most likely been done on orders from the West, maybe even from across the ocean, by those who are worried that a constructive and effective dialogue has finally been found between the presidency and the Kremlin," he said.
As in Ukraine and Georgia, past moves by Chisinau to forge closer ties with the EU were met with strong resistance from Moscow. In 2014 when Moldova signed a political and trade pact with the EU, Russia imposed a retaliatory ban on Moldovan produce.
Dodon won the presidential race after campaigning to put the brakes on seven years of closer relations with the EU, after a massive corruption scandal sapped the popularity of his pro-Brussels rivals.
Even so, Moldova's parliamentary majority and government remain close allies of Europe.
Earlier this year, Moldovan officials accused Russia's security apparatus of seeking to derail a Moldovan probe into a Russian-led money laundering operation by harassing Moldovan officials as they travelled to or through Russia.
Moldova, Europe's poorest country, borders EU member Romania, with which it has close linguistic and cultural ties, but remains heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies.
(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Larry King and Richard Lough)