Moldova Feels the Shock Waves of Putin’s War

Russia is now talking about driving toward Moldova’s border as part of its plan to redraw the map of the Black Sea region.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks next to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks next to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks next to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 6. Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February sent shock waves around Europe, and nowhere more than in neighboring Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, which has long sought to balance its relationship with Russia and the West. On a per capita basis, the small country has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other European nation, and the war has spurred officials in the capital, Chisinau, to apply for membership to the European Union. At the same time, Moldova, which is wholly dependent on Russia for its gas supplies, has held off joining Western sanctions on Moscow amid fears that the Kremlin could seek to further destabilize the country.

Now, Chisinau has more cause for concern. On Friday, the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekaev, said that one of the goals of Russia’s renewed war in Ukraine was to create a corridor to Moldova’s Russian-backed separatist enclave of Trans-Dniester—a sliver of land between Moldova and Ukraine—to prevent the “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.” 

In light of the struggles that have beset the Russian military campaign in Ukraine so far, analysts are skeptical that Moscow can push west along the Ukrainian coast to Trans-Dniester, which hugs Moldova’s eastern flank. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February sent shock waves around Europe, and nowhere more than in neighboring Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, which has long sought to balance its relationship with Russia and the West. On a per capita basis, the small country has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other European nation, and the war has spurred officials in the capital, Chisinau, to apply for membership to the European Union. At the same time, Moldova, which is wholly dependent on Russia for its gas supplies, has held off joining Western sanctions on Moscow amid fears that the Kremlin could seek to further destabilize the country.

Now, Chisinau has more cause for concern. On Friday, the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekaev, said that one of the goals of Russia’s renewed war in Ukraine was to create a corridor to Moldova’s Russian-backed separatist enclave of Trans-Dniester—a sliver of land between Moldova and Ukraine—to prevent the “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.” 

In light of the struggles that have beset the Russian military campaign in Ukraine so far, analysts are skeptical that Moscow can push west along the Ukrainian coast to Trans-Dniester, which hugs Moldova’s eastern flank. 

“I think where they go from here remains to be seen,” said U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “[T]hey are a long way from cities like Odesa and certainly from Moldova.”

But the remarks have highlighted Moldova’s precarious position. While Moscow may struggle to pose an imminent military threat, Russia’s ongoing efforts to destabilize the county politically could lay the groundwork for action. 

“It was an intimidation and an attempt to destabilize Moldova in a way to drag it into the war in Ukraine,” said Alexandru Flenchea, a political analyst who previously served as Moldovan deputy prime minister for reintegration. “I tend to see this as part of the disinformation campaign and information war against Moldova in this case.”

Speaking to journalists in Washington last week, Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu acknowledged the country’s exposure to the war in Ukraine. “We’re the most fragile neighbor of Ukraine, we’re the country that is most affected by it, and we’re the country that has the fewest resources to deal with the situation and the fallout of the war,” he said. As of last week, Popescu said that there had been no change in the military situation in Trans-Dniester, which is home to 500 Russian peacekeepers and around 1,000 Russian military personnel. The Trans-Dniestrian military is thought to have around 4,000 active troops.

“There are very few people in that region who want to trade their existing situation for becoming part of a war zone. Having said that, we cannot predict how things will evolve,” Popescu said. 

It’s unclear how long the relative quiet in the breakaway region will last. On April 26, tensions flared as Trans-Dniestrian authorities announced a “red level” terrorist threat for 15 days across the territory. The announcement came after alleged attacks on two communication towers and on a state building in the self-declared capital, Tiraspol, as well as an incident involving a military unit in the village of Parkany. It’s unclear who was responsible for the attacks. In response, Moldovan President Maia Sandu convened a security council meeting.

In a pattern replicated across the region, Moscow has retained a number of pressure points over Moldova, which, like Ukraine, has been increasingly looking to the West for its geopolitical future. Russian disinformation seeps into the country’s Russian-language media, while the country’s socialist party, which has deep ties to Moscow, held the presidency for four years until 2020, when pro-EU candidate Sandu was elected. 

An annual foreign intelligence assessment released by Estonia this year noted that the Kremlin was actively working to oust Moldova’s pro-European leadership, noting that Moscow had a range of tools to undermine the Moldovan government, including the country’s energy dependence, the influence of the Orthodox Church, and Russian-language television. 

As with other Russian-backed breakaway regions in Georgia and eastern Ukraine, Trans-Dniester offers Moscow a useful lever with which it can dial up the pressure on Moldova. 

Trans-Dniester dates back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After Moldova declared independence in August 1991, Russian speakers in the east of the country pledged closer ties to Moscow, and they got military and economic support in return. When civil war briefly broke out in Moldova in 1992, the Kremlin backed those fighters in the east and later became part of the peacekeeping mission. Today the official goals of the Russian presence in Trans-Dniester are to prevent a return to conflict and protect 22,000 tons of Soviet-era military equipment in the tiny village of Cobasna. 

While the Moldovan government has repeatedly called for the removal of Russian troops, Trans-Dniestrian authorities have sought not reunification with Moscow but rather international recognition—yet only the fellow breakaway states of South Ossetia, Artsakh, and Abkhazia have heeded this call. 

“Trans-Dniester wants to have Russian support because they understand the region is incapable of surviving without it, but, at the same time, they want to have a margin of sovereignty from the decisions in Moscow,” said Dionis Cenusa, a visiting fellow at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Lithuania. “There are political actors that are close to the Kremlin, but there are actors like oligarchs who control everything and understand they need a degree of independence from Russia to make more money.”  

Tiraspol has benefited greatly from Chisinau’s Association Agreement with the EU, which it signed in 2014 and which gave Moldova access to the EU market: Trans-Dniestrian companies can export goods to the EU once they register on the territory of Moldova. The breakaway region exports a lot more goods to the EU than it does to Russia, but it imports a lot more from Russia than from Europe. 

Crucially, the authorities in Tiraspol receive free natural gas from Moscow, which has allowed them to exert an element of control over Chisinau, which is dependent on the breakaway region for electricity. However, last week, Moldova’s Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development Andrei Spinu said his government was looking into buying electricity from Ukraine when the contract with the Russian-owned company MoldGres expires next month.

Much like Moldova, Trans-Dniester is trying to walk a fine line, remaining coy on Russia’s war. “[They] have certainly been cautious, especially about calling the situation in Ukraine a war, they have actually been avoiding this word and avoiding putting the blame on Ukraine,” said Cristian Vlas, an independent political consultant. “If they changed their position, the EU could suspend the application of the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the region, since hypothetically such a corridor with the Russian Federation would ensure effective occupation of the territory.”

Meanwhile, the 5+2 diplomatic format putters away in the background, seeking a negotiated solution to the 30-year-old problem of Trans-Dniester. With Ukraine and Russia among the mediators, and with Russia’s view on the neighborhood clear, the future of the discussions is in flux.  

“Russia will have to choose: It has to acknowledge that it is either a party in this conflict, or it withdraws from this format. That said, Russia will continue to drive pressure on Moldova,” Vlas said. 

The complex nature of the conflict is spurring more Moldovans to support the recognition of Trans-Dniester as a means to pave the way to EU membership for Moldova. According to recent polls, 31 percent of people support the independence of the territory, up from 22 percent in February, the Eastern Europe Studies Centre’s Cenusa said.

“People think the region [Trans-Dniester] is an impediment to the advancement of the country [Moldova], that it is perceived as an extension of Russia’s militaristic foreign agenda. They want to decrease the insecurity coming from it,” Cenusa said. “I think this is an important signal coming from the population.”

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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