The ongoing large-scale Russo-Ukrainian military conflict has greatly disturbed the geopolitical shifts in Ukraine and its immediate surroundings. It is manifestly a major risk that jeopardizes Moldova and its desire for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
At the commencement of the war, the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu condemned the act of war by Russia against Ukraine, as a blatant breach of International law.
Understanding the role of Moldova
After the breakup of the Soviet Union as a result of Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika in 1991 political landscape of the USSR changed.
Moldavia Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR ) along with other SSR’s declared its independence in 1991. It may be highlighted that before the creation of Moldavia SSR, in 1940, the Bessarabia part of Moldova was a part of Romania (1918-1940).
Bessarabia is a historical region in Eastern Europe. It’s bordered by the Dniester river on the east while the Prut river borders on the western side.
Approximately two-thirds of Bessarabia lies within modern-day Moldova. The Ukrainian Budjak region covers the southern coastal region and part of the Ukrainian Chernivtsi Oblast covers a small area in the north.
In 1989 with the partial opening of the border between Romania and Moldova on May 6, 1990, many in Transnistria and Moldova began to believe that the Union between Moldova and Romania was inevitable.
This caused fears among the Russian-speaking population that it would be excluded from most aspects of public life. Protests started in the region against the Central government’s ethnic policies which developed into secessionist movements in Gagauzia and Transnistria.
Initially, these movements sought autonomy in the Moldavian SSR but later declared independence from Moldova to be attached to the Soviet Union as independent Republics.
To build up its military strength, Moldova started recruiting troops for the newly created Ministry of Defence in 1992 and its strength reached up to 35,000.
In addition, it also banked upon the Soviet jets and weaponry it inherited upon independence. Likewise, Moldova received arms from Romania along with military advisers and volunteers.
However, Transnistria remained Moldova’s rightful obsession and a sore point between Russia and Moldova. Both attempts of Moldova to cross the Lunga bridge and take control backfired and resulted in severe casualties.
In June 1992 a full-scale battle erupted after regular Moldavian forces entered the city of Bender to reestablish its authority. Urban warfare ensued between the two sides in a densely populated city causing civilian causalities.
The war ended with Russian intervention as Russian forces in Tiraspol were called to storm Bender. On June 22, 1992, on the news that the 14th Army from Russia was ready to move into Moldova, the latter ordered air strikes to destroy the bridge between Bender and Tiraspol.
It is estimated that nearly a thousand people were killed and 3000, wounded. However Moldavian army never got the control of Transnistria.
Finally, a ceasefire was signed on July 21st, 1992 by the Presidents of Russia and Moldova; Boris Yeltsin and Mircea Sengur. The agreement provided for establishing peacekeeping forces to ensure the ceasefire and oversee security arrangements.
This force was composed of five Russian battalions, three Moldavian battalions & two others that reported to a Joint Military Command Structure (JCC).
Impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on Moldova
Despite being the poorest and smallest nation in Europe, on February 24th, 2022, Sandu announced that a state of emergency would be declared and the country was ready to receive Ukrainian refugees.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, 400,000 refugees entered Moldova. Nearly 100,000 of them decided to settle there. For Moldova, the consequences of the war have been disastrous.
Moldova’s political stability and economic welfare are dependent on the delicate balance between the realization of its European aspirations and tangible economic ties with Russia.
Moldova, along with Georgia and Ukraine are the most active countries in terms of gaining EU membership. On March 3, 2022, a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moldova officially applied for fast-track EU membership.
It may be highlighted that simultaneously Moldova’s ties with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) declined and were reduced to formal membership.
Issue of Transnistria
Transnistria remains a hot and sensitive issue with Russia. Also, it is pertinent to note that Moldova did not join the sanctions on Russia because of the fear of jeopardizing its gas imports from Russia.
Moldova is one of those countries that were more severely hit by the rise in natural gas prices adding to its economic suffering in the energy sector, given the high energy poverty in the country.
Moldova has no alternative for Russian natural gas from any other quarters. Its reliance on Russia for remittance, supply chains, trade routes, and energy is phenomenal.
Furthermore, it may be highlighted that Russia is an important market for 8 percent of Moldova’s exports. Being one of the poorest countries in Europe makes Moldova highly vulnerable to the effects of socioeconomic shocks as a result of this war.
Russia accounts for nearly half of all agricultural exports to Moldava (UN Comtrade 2021). According to rough estimates, there are 350,000 Moldavian citizens working in Russia.
Moldova’s reliance on Russia
Moldova relies very much on remittances of its workers from Russia and hence finds it extremely risky to alienate Russia because of the above-mentioned constraints.
However, the Russo-Ukraine war does not seem to have changed people’s perceptions and attitudes toward Russia. The village of Congaz in Gagauzia, for instance, has offered shelter for 600 Ukrainian refugees and condemned the Russo-Ukraine war.
Though it does not view Russia as an enemy of Moldova. The other important reason is that labor migration is one of the factors connecting Gagauzia and Russia. The former with its agriculture-based economy relies very much on its exports to Russia.
After Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Kremlin is escalating a hybrid subversion campaign against Moldova situated between Ukraine and Romania.
Apparently, its efforts are to destabilize Moldova and sabotage its efforts to build a stable democracy and join the European Union by choking its vital gas supplies to cripple its economy and sponsoring mass anti-government protests to launch pro-Russian political parties.
Along these lines, after debris from a Russian missile shot down by Ukraine reached a Moldavian village, the country protested the firing of missiles from its Black Sea naval force over Moldova to hit Ukraine.
Moldavian Prime Minister Sandu openly declared that Moldova chooses to continue on its European path despite ‘Russian Blackmail.‘
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s subversion of Moldova is part of his overall effort to o reassert Russian control over the countries which Moscow ruled in the past.
Russia’s influence on Moldova
For the last 30 years, Russia has tried to weaken Europe’s influence in Moldova, using the same tools it applies in Ukraine, Georgia, and ex-Soviet Republics i.e. strangulating energy supplies, capitalizing on the corruption of local politicians, Russian military or proxy control over parts of each country’s territory.
Like other Eastern European nations, Moldova has made progress in building a democracy with credible elections and a transition to power. Yet the country remains extremely vulnerable because of the Kremlin’s grip over energy supplies and the luring of corrupt politicians.
Russia enhances its energy dominance over Moldova by delivering its gas through Russian backed separatist region of Transnistria.
Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, Moldova has voiced support for Ukraine and welcomed its refugees. Resultantly, Russia further increased gas prices to Moldova and slashed gas supplies by 40 percent.
Similarly, Russia is renewing a longtime tactic in former Soviet Republics i.e. buying political support through strategic corruption via its Intelligence Service; FSB.
The economic distress for ordinary Moldavians intensified by Russia’s chokehold on energy has generated pro-Russian street protests, about 7000 people marched in the capital Chisinau on October 23, demanding Sandu’s replacement with a pro-Russian government.
The eventual outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine will have a disastrous effect on the countries seeking more stable democracies and integration with Europe particularly Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova.
Dependence on Russian Gas
The Moldavian government is working to expand gas and power lines to other countries to erode Russia’s exclusive control over its energy supplies. The lurking fear is that both Ukraine and Moldova’s 2.6 million people will need help in surviving a cold winter made worse by Russia’s assaults.
In June during the war with Ukraine, 27 nation block of the EU offered Moldova and Ukraine Candidate status for membership. Both have been kept off the list of applicants for long due to frozen conflict in the Transnistria region and endemic corruption.
NATO had a general rule against accepting new members that had foreign bases. These concerns were however overlooked when Romania and Bulgaria were admitted to the EU.
It may be recalled that the rebel leaders of Moldova under Russian influence, announced the independent status of Transnistria, three decades later the political divide remains unresolved over the territory with half a million people.
Maintaining frozen conflicts is an important tool of Russian foreign and security policy. Transnistria is one of the many, other examples range from the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, seized by Russia in its 2008 war, and the Eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine, captured during Russia’s 2014 military invasion.
Instead of outright annexation as in the exceptional case of Crimea in 2014, the common practice had been to promote the formation of unrecognized state-like formations under its control.
What is currently at stake for Russia goes beyond the battle for Ukraine irrespective of how the war ends. Russia’s long-standing role of hegemony in Central Asia is being visibly eroded as even its staunchest ally Kazakhstan is turning a cold shoulder.
However three conflicts viz Georgia where Abkhazia and South Ossetia are being protected by Russian forces since they proclaimed independence. Second is Ukraine where Kremlin has not been able to conquer Luhansk and Donetsk.
Third is Moldova where the conflict in Transnistria remains frozen. If Ukraine can regain its occupied territory from Russia in this war Moldova would be safer from Kremlin aggression.
Recent developments on the ground are hopeful for Ukraine. According to Kyiv, it has seized 6,000 sq kilometers of its territory from Russian control this year yet almost 120,00 square kilometers, roughly 20 percent is still in Kremlin’s hands.
Moldavian integration into the EU
Prospects for integration of Moldova into the EU would worsen if Transnistria remains an incubator of corruption and organized crime and if it remains integrated into Russian criminal networks and their offshoots in Hungary and Austria.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Moldavians have been hit so perilously that the International Monetary Fund is calling on nations to send monetary support.
Bilateral donors are being asked to send more grants. Moldova is caught between the two worlds. It hopes to join the EU but is in the Russian bear’s embrace mainly because of energy dependence and the separatist territory of Transnistria backed by the Kremlin.
Before the war, IMF projected that Moldova’s ratio of public debt to GDP would hit 40 percent in 2022, from 27.9 percent in 2019. But these projections have been proved utterly wrong. IMF alone has pledged about $815 million in budgetary support.
Another $300 million facility for Moldova to buy stored natural gas awaits approval from European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Board. As detailed above, the impact of Russia/Ukraine war has had a far-reaching impact on Moldova.
*Disclaimer: The Diplomatic Insight does not take any position on issues and the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight and its staff.