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Moldova looks west – with one wary eye on Moscow

Along with Ukraine, the EU has accepted neighbouring Moldova as a candidate to join the bloc, conscious of its vulnerability – not least because of its Transnistrian region loyal to Russia

Image: The New European

Transnistria is a country nobody has heard of, a state that doesn’t exist. A tiny strip of land along the south-east border of Ukraine, officially in Moldova – in the minds of its pro-Russia separatists, still tied to Moscow. Home to Lenin statues and other Soviet iconography, and separated from the rest of Moldova by the River Dniester, Transnistria is frozen in time and in conflict – an unresolved relic from behind the iron curtain. Many there are Russian speakers, and watch Russian television pumping propaganda into their sitting rooms.

The Ukraine war has given this troublesome breakaway enclave new resonance. In light of Russia’s war against Ukraine that began in late February, the fear of being next in line has begun to crystallise in the minds of the Moldovan people. So, too, the International media. Earlier this month, with its headline “If Odesa falls, Moldova is next”, the EU Observer joined publications from the Washington Post to France 24 and the Daily Mail in worrying about the potential expansion of the Ukraine war. In the Economist, Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, called this the most dangerous moment in Moldova’s history since its birth in 1991-92.

As it pounded Odesa across the border in Ukraine, would Russia try to push through and seize Transnistria with the help of the Russian soldiers still stationed there, in the hope of gaining a foothold from which to attack Ukraine with renewed vigour? 

It’s a question that has been worrying Moldova’s pro-European government, and increasingly the international community. One of Europe’s poorest countries, with minimal defence capabilities, Chisinau knows it is vulnerable. This is why it has followed Ukraine and Georgia – also partially occupied by Russia – in applying to join the European Union, in the hope of some protection. 

Located between two great neighbours, Romania and Ukraine, the emphatically neutral Moldova cannot escape the consequences of the war. More than 400,000 refugees have arrived in the country since the start of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and 100,000 are still there. Disruptions in transport and trade supply chains with eastern European states, caused both by the war and unprecedented western sanctions on Russia, have scarred Moldova’s economy, which has yet to recover from the pandemic. The energy crisis and the spikes in inflation make the situation even more worrying, and could give Russia an edge if it decides to target Moldova after Ukraine.

Moldova’s situation would be less dire were it not for Transnistria, which for 30 years has been ruled by autocratic regimes politically loyal to Russia. It’s been that way since the bitter 1992 civil war that followed Moldova’s post-Soviet declaration of independence. Today, Transnistria is almost entirely dependent on Russia for its energy. Although not recognised by the rest of the world, it has its own “government”, appointed and overseen by the puppet state’s separatist leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky. 

Worries about Moldova were intensified two months after the invasion of Ukraine when a Russian commander sparked alarm by suggesting that Moscow might extend its war to Transnistria through a southern Ukraine corridor. Shortly after the comments by Rustam Minnekaev, acting commander of Russia’s central military district, Transnistria was rocked by several explosions, and Moldova, Ukraine and their western allies were put on high alert. The question arose – was this simply a ploy to shake the fragile stability of Moldova, or was it a sign that Russia wanted to open another front against Ukraine?

War in Moldova – possible or not?

Until Minnekaev’s comments at the end of April, the idea of Russia extending its war into Moldova was ruled out as implausible by the Moldovan authorities, as well as western intelligence – although not by Ukraine. 

But despite the recent panic, there are several strong reasons why this scenario is still improbable. 

First, Russia has been weakened in the war. Ukrainian resistance in the Mykolaiv region has hampered the Russian advance in Odesa, making it difficult to envisage a link-up with the 1,500 to 2,000 Russian soldiers stationed across the frontier in Transnistria. 

Second, Transnistria has shown restraint and neutrality in relation to the war in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given its dependence on Moldovan infrastructure, including transport and the postal service, and the benefits the enclave – especially the pro-Russia political and economic elites – derive from Moldova’s trade agreement with the European Union. Then there are the opportunities afforded by Transnistria’s ties with Ukraine and proximity to the port in Odesa. In fact, importing and exporting through Ukraine is the only way for Transnistria to avoid the direct control of Moldova’s constitutional authorities, so direct conflict with Ukraine would have long-term consequences for its economic survival. Wherever it sympathies might lie, for Transnistria, “liberation” by Russia and a role in attacking Ukraine doesn’t make sense. Even the Transnistrian administration has argued that Ukraine is of great importance to the region in the long term.  

 Third, since Moldova has been eliminating its economic and energy dependence on Russia, the only effective way for Moscow to exert pressure on Moldova is through the conflict resolution mechanisms linked to the Transnistria stalemate. This means Russia would lose this advantage if it pushed the breakaway region into direct confrontation with the increasingly well-equipped and determined Ukrainian forces. Russia is also unable to cutoff the gas supply to Moldova as this would jeopardise the economic and political survival of the Russia-controlled elites in Transnistria.​​

Last but not least, Russia’s top priority remains to consolidate its military presence in the newly occupied territories in Ukraine, while adjusting to the costs inflicted by western sanctions. Going after Moldova would overextend its military and give the advantage to Ukraine, which despite recent setbacks still appears determined to drive the Russian army out of its occupied territories. 

The provocations in Moldova’s breakaway region

Moldova has openly criticised Russia’s aggression against Ukraine but, wary of taking any steps that Russia might interpret as hostile or provocative, chooses balance when it comes to sanctions. This caution is behind Moldova’s reluctance to give Ukraine the six obsolete Soviet-era MIGs that Kyiv wants for their spare parts.

The occasional explosions and attacks against official buildings and some critical infrastructure in Transnistria between April 24 and May 6 caused minimal destruction and no casualties, but they’re being investigated as provocations to destabilise the region. Ukrainian authorities have been at the forefront of suggestions that they could be false-flag operations designed to pave the way for Russian attacks on Moldova using its Transnistrian forces. Whatever the truth behind this, it’s very likely that the Russian-controlled intelligence in Transnistria is testing the speed and nature of reaction by Moldova, Ukraine and its western supporters. But so far both the Moldovan and separatist authorities have introduced measures to prevent escalation.

On the other hand, the provocations could be useful for local Transnistrian elites, who have been using the pressure as leverage against Moldovan authorities to obtain concessions on import restrictions for certain goods, such as scrap metal. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Transnistria has found it very difficult to bring compliant goods through Moldovan checkpoints, mainly because the separatist authorities are opposed to enforcing Moldovan legislation.

Low defence capacity – a structural weakness against military aggression

One problem that has become acute for Moldova as war rages on its borders is its underdeveloped military. Despite its historic vulnerability, an official assessment in 2010 found that it had not really invested in its defence capabilities since becoming independent.  Although national surveys present the army as the second most trusted institution in the state after the church, estimates show that Moldova has one of the most modest budgetary expenditures for military training and modernisation in central and eastern Europe, accounting for less than 1% of GDP. According to some estimates, in 2014, Moldova spent around 218m Moldovan lei, or up to £9.5m, on the regular army. The total defence budget for 2022 is about €20 million, showing that the numbers have not changed dramatically since then. Furthermore, the investment hasn’t covered the modernisation of the army.

As a result of the limited defence budget, Moldova’s anti-aircraft system is insufficient for the protection of strategic targets around the capital of Chisinau, including army unit deployment points. It can only cover 10% of the country and ensure monitoring of 70% of total territory, which spans 33,843 square kilometres, including Transnistria.

In addition, existing planes and helicopters can only carry out limited operations to transport people and ammunition, not large-scale military operations. ​​According to the same 2014 estimates, in the event of a crisis, the Moldovan national army can only deploy up to 1,000 soldiers and about 200 units of military equipment to help the civilian population.

Moldova’s neutrality: real or mainly “on paper”?

The Moldovan government expects peace and non-aggression from Russia based on its status of permanent neutrality, stipulated in article 11 of the 1994 Constitution. However, there is no national or international mechanism to enforce Moldovan constitutional neutrality. In May 2017, with a pro-EU government in Moldova that had difficult relations with Moscow, the country’s constitutional court ruled that Russian forces stationed in the breakaway region of Moldova were “occupation forces”. 

The Russian forces, whose presence since the 1990s is illegal under Moldovan law, are made up of up to 2,000 soldiers who belong to the Operational Group of Russian forces. A third of these forces are part of trilateral peacekeeping forces, along with a Moldovan unit and forces representing the breakaway region. Russian soldiers are also involved in protecting the highly unstable and outdated ammunition depot in the village of Colbasna.

In early 2022, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Council of Europe resolution on Ukraine explicitly said that Russia was committing an “act of aggression” and “occupation” through its military forces in Transnistria. This statement was ignored by Russia, which left the organisation at the same time that it decided to terminate Russian membership. In the past, Russia has failed to honour its own promises to respect Moldova’s neutrality by withdrawing its military forces and ammunition from Transnistria, as stipulated in the 1999 Istanbul Summit agreement.

Oscillating between the EU and Russia 

Moldova has received a positive response to its membership application from the EU on June 23 , its new candidate status paving the way for deep reforms on a long road to accession. Its ambitions are helped by the EU’s changing attitude towards  further enlargement in the Western Balkans and for “the associated trio” which, besides Moldova, includes Ukraine and Georgia.

hopeful that the EU’s apparently changing attitude to further enlargement will improve its case.

The majority of Moldovans strongly support EU membership, despite its geopolitically polarised society – with the latest poll showing close to 60% support in favour of joining the EU. The population prefers this option to the alternatives, such as reunification with Romania or joining the Eurasian Economic Union controlled by Russia. European integration is rightly perceived as a way to reform the country as well as lessen and ideally eliminate its dependence on Russia, especially for energy.

One security option Moldova will not seek is Nato membership, afraid as it is of upsetting the balance and drawing Russian ire. But with its war in Ukraine, Russia has given Chisinau its strongest motivation yet to join another hated western organisation in the hope of increasing resilience and stopping the erosion of Moldovan statehood.

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