"What's important is for Ukraine to move forward with European integration and to continue to reform itself according to international norms," Natalia Gherman said in an interview with USA TODAY here in the Moldovan capital.
Moldova is a small, agrarian and impoverished former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine.
Apart from its wines and chocolates, it's known these days for its Russian-majority autonomous region, Transnistria, which fought for independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992.
Russian troops in Transnistria guard a massive Cold War-era arms depot and call themselves peacekeepers, holding Moldovan forces at bay.
Transnistria's economy is largely independent from the rest of Moldova and residents identify culturally with Russia.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said Ukraine may have to accept an autonomous Russian-controlled region in the east like Transnistria if it cannot defeat the rebels.
The separatists began fighting a year ago for independence with Russian help after pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev ousted a Russian-aligned government and pushed for closer relations with the European Union.
Last year, Moldova ratified an "association agreement" with the European Union that paves the way for closer economic ties, but the country continues to struggle because of the conflict next door.
Much of its trade with Ukraine, Russia and former Soviet republics farther east have been disrupted by the fighting.
Russia, reeling from Western sanctions over its meddling in Ukraine, cut payments to Russian pensioners in Transnistria by 30%.
And investment in both Moldova and Ukraine has chilled.
"Speculation about spillover of the conflict in Ukraine brings a sense of vulnerability that people have about Ukraine and Moldova, which never existed before," Gherman said.
As President Obama considers providing weapons to Ukraine to help offset Russian support for the rebels, Gherman said the incentive of free trade with Europe is a more powerful lever to undo separatist ambitions.
Already, she said, producers and manufacturers in Transnistria are inquiring about changing their standards to gain greater access to the European market.
"Moldova and Ukraine become much more attractive to separatist regions within their own countries because of modernization, human rights, economic growth and moving toward the Europe Union, which is a zone of stability," she said.
"If we become more attractive compared to other zones (Russia) ... people will make the right choice."
Moldovans interviewed here were skeptical of Gherman's optimism about the power of joining the EU.
Photographer Vladimir Chekir, 60, strolled past a statue of Stephen the Great, a 15th-century Moldovan ruler famous for winning 46 battles against the Ottoman Empire, and noted that world powers always try to influence smaller countries.
"What's happening in Ukraine is a bunch of Nazis supported by America need a war to fight," Chekir said, repeating Russian media propaganda of the conflict.
"In one year, Ukraine from a normal country became a conflict zone."
Flower seller Veronica Vlas, 43, whose 23-year-old son graduated from a university but can't find a job, bemoaned Moldova's economic problems she said are hampered by corruption and the Ukraine war.
"Our government is not developing anything," Vlas said.
"If I find a place to work abroad, I would go."
Fashion student Nicoleta Harghel, 20, didn't think the promise of free trade with Europe would lure Transnistria back into the Moldovan fold.
"They want to be separate," Harghel said.
Russia offers incentives of its own, such as low-priced gas to countries that stick by its side, which Harghel referred to as manipulation.
"They want to devour us," she said.
"They want to have us under their influence, not as a partner, just to know they have us."
Source: USA Today