Home / Articles / War As a Neighbor: Moldova and the Challenges of Facing Russian Aggression in Ukraine
One of the poorest countries in Europe faces a war next door and destabilizing attempts from within through disinformation and propaganda attacks. Moldova, thirty-two years after independence, continues to struggle to secure its place on the European and world map as a democracy.
Moldovan leaders, with information and support from Ukrainian and Western partners, successfully thwarted attempts by Russia to stage a coup against Moldova’s pro-Western government. Despite the continued external security challenges, economic and energy shortages, the Moldovan elite, and the society at large are set to press ahead with the implementation of reforms required to advance on the road to EU membership.
Continued political and financial support from the West remains crucial to help Moldova maintain its pro-Western foreign policy orientation and join the Western club of states while staying out of Russia’s sphere of influence.
“The Kremlin is thinking about ways to strangle Moldova.” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said this in his speech during the Munich Security Conference on February 17, 2023 to convince Ukraine’s Western partners to speed up the delivery of weapons to Ukraine before the war escalates to neighboring countries.
With all these developments, the question many in Moldova and beyond ask is: Will Russian President Vladimir Putin decide that Moldova is the next country he will invade? The playbook that Putin is using in Moldova—steering social unrest, weaponizing energy, fueling disinformation and propaganda campaigns against the Moldovan leadership, and creating reports that Ukraine might attack Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway region internationally recognized as part of Moldova but currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists—has the goal of destabilizing Moldova from within and creating another hot spot around Ukraine’s southern border. By destabilizing the country, Moscow aims to institute a friendly, pro-Russia government in Moldova and thwart the current leadership’s efforts to bring Moldova into the EU. By creating turmoil, Moscow also aims to achieve a tactical gain in the war with Ukraine by getting access to the airport in Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau, which would then allow Russia to open another front and use its military resources from Transnistria in its war against Ukraine.
Recent changes within Moldova’s government are a sign that leaders are concerned with Moscow’s next moves toward Chisinau. Natalia Gavriliţa stepped down as prime minister on February 10, and Dorin Recean, with a reshuffled government, was voted as the new prime minister by Moldova’s Parliament. Maia Sandu, Moldova’s president, announced that the new government’s role was to strengthen the country’s security and economy.
The economic challenges Moldova is facing are not few. The country remains among the poorest in Europe and is most affected by the war in neighboring Ukraine. The energy infrastructure in Ukraine and Moldova is interlinked, so when Russia attacked Ukraine’s energy grid, Moldovans experienced blackouts. In 2022, Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas supplier, cut the gas supply to Moldova by 60 percent, which increased the price of natural gas in Moldova sevenfold and quadrupled the price of electricity. The inflation rate increased by 30 percent, and with energy bills accounting for more than 70 percent of household incomes, Moldovans’ grievances and frustrations are being exploited by well-positioned pro-Russia political groups. The Shor pro-Russia party, whose founder, Ilan Shor was convicted of fraud in Moldova over the theft of $1 billion from three Moldovan banks, is staging protests in Chisinau by paying protesters and busing them from across the country to delegitimize the pro-EU government’s anti-corruption reforms.
Sandu has accused Russia of planning to use foreign “saboteurs” to organize a coup in Moldova and destabilize the country from within. Russia violates Moldova’s airspace, firing missiles over the border. The most recent incident happened in February 2023, and the last one was in October 2022.
President Sandu, in her recent speech in the plenary session of the Moldovan Parliament, declared that “As long as I am president, Moldova will stand upright,” meaning that she, her government, and state institutions will ensure that Russia’s attempts to destabilize the situation in Moldova will not succeed. The main goal of Sandu’s government is Moldova’s EU integration and authorities in Chisinau hope that accession negotiations will start by the end of 2023. Apart from the security and economic challenges facing Moldova, another challenge is the implementation of reforms required by the European Commission—justice reform is one of the most important in the advancement of EU integration. The government is currently facing difficulties in advancing this reform, as the Moldovan judges are resisting efforts to face a pre-vetting system introduced by law to eliminate corruption from the judicial system.
Moldova’s two largest opposition parties, the Party of Socialists (PSRM) and the Shor Party, are openly anti-Western. If these parties gain a majority in the next Parliament (which is not inconceivable given the high degree of polarization), outpacing the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), Maia Sandu’s party, the EU integration efforts are seriously in jeopardy because they will stop Moldova’s EU integration efforts.
Igor Dodon, former president of Moldova (2016–2020) and head of the PSRM, one of the strongest pro-Russia opposition parties, was imprisoned by Moldovan authorities on corruption charges: he is accused of receiving between $600,000 and $1 million from the now fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc in exchange for Dodon’s favorable negotiations with Russia on behalf of Plahotniuc. Reports further alleged that, after his presidential term ended, Dodon has managed a business association in Moldova, created to strengthen business ties between Moldova and Russia, but which, during 2021–2022, received money from Kremlin-affiliated businessmen. Moldova’s General Prosecutor’s Office has announced investigations following reports according to which certain Moldovan pro-Russia parties are supported illegally by Russia. Even though now released from house arrest, Dodon remains under the court’s oversight. Most recently, campaigning in Gagauzia, a territorial autonomous region in southern Moldova (with high pro-Russia views among the public), Dodon has allegedly said “Moldova cannot survive without Russia,” it needs access to the Russian market and cheap energy resources. He further added: “I want to urge you to not give up, everything will be okay, we will make it. Our guys are already near,” referring to the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
In his February 21 visit to Poland, to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden met with President Sandu. In his speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, President Biden addressed President Sandu directly and asked the audience to give her a round of applause, saying: “I’m proud to stand with you and the freedom-loving people of Moldova.” The US President expressed “strong US support for Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in his one-on-one meeting with Ms. Sandu. She declared in her recent speech in the plenary session of the Moldovan Parliament that the US and EU assistance to support Moldova cope with political, economic, and energy challenges posed by the war offer Moldovan leaders the reassurance that Moldovans “were heard and are being helped” to continue their quest to join the democratic and economically advanced states in the EU.
On the day US President Biden met with Sandu in Warsaw, Putin revoked a 2012 decree that stipulated that Russia would seek ways to resolve the conflict in Transnistria by respecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and neutrality of Moldova. The Transnistrian separatist conflict was kept frozen since the short but brutal war in 1992, but since then, the region has housed around 2,000 Russian troops and one of the biggest Soviet-era ammunition depots in Eastern Europe in Cobasna. Russian state media reported that the Ukrainian army is planning military provocations in Transnistria. Both Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities denied these allegations. Given Russia’s tactics in Crimea in 2014 and in Ukraine in 2022, it is highly likely that Russia could use its forces in Transnistria to attack Ukraine. While Moldovan authorities say that Chisinau is prepared so that Moldova’s main airport does not fall into the hands of the Russian army, Chisinau does not control Transnistrian territory, so the likelihood of conflict escalating is high.
The current situation in Transnistria is uncertain. Despite information that Russia planned to create a land corridor connecting Russia, Donbas, Crimea, and Transnistria, the separatist regime in Tiraspol has, so far, tried to be neutral in the war. Vadim Krasnoselsky, the region’s de facto president, said that given the many ethnicities living in Transnistria, “the preservation of calm [and] peace” is the priority of the regime. Of the approximately 465,000 people who live in Transnistria, one third of the population is of Ukrainian ethnicity or holds Ukrainian citizenship, and there are close people-to-people links between those living in Transnistria and those living on the other side of the border, in Ukraine. Since its declared independence from Moldova, Transnistria managed to survive due to Russian political and economic support and military protection. According to a survey from 2019, people in Transnistria perceived Russia as the best economic and political partner for the region. Russian leaders declare that Russia is fully responsible for the security of Transnistria and the protection of 250,000 Russian citizens living in Transnistria.
For over thirty years, due to its porous borders and international isolation, Transnistria served as a “smugglers’ paradise” for weapons and human trafficking. Criminal groups in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Transnistria used the region as a hotspot for illegal distribution of weapons and human beings. The war in the eastern regions of Donbas and Luhansk in Ukraine in 2014, however, has started a process of change by which Ukrainian authorities tightened border control with Transnistria. When Russia fully invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the border control was tightened even more with Ukrainian authorities ordering that the Transnistrian section of the Moldova–Ukraine border to be closed and secured by tanks. This made the smuggling more difficult, with Transnistrian and Russian authorities saying that Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities have imposed an “economic blockade” on Tiraspol. Both Russia and Ukraine act as mediators in the “5+2” format, created with the goal of finding a solution to the Transnistrian issue. However, since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the negotiations on the conflict have been frozen. The evolutions of Ukraine’s fate in its war with Russia will dictate the fate of Moldova and Transnistria as well.
Moldovan authorities have acknowledged on many occasions that, by fighting and protecting its territory and sovereignty, Ukraine is also protecting Moldova’s territory and sovereignty. By aiming to destabilize Moldova from within and by using the conflict in Transnistria, Russia’s goal is to create more chaos around Ukraine’s borders and force Ukraine to divide and keep some of its military forces on the border with Moldova. Ever since their independence from the USSR, Ukraine and Moldova were fearful of finding themselves in a security vacuum on Europe’s fringes. Despite the recent voiced support from Biden to Sandu in Warsaw and the support of the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, the reality is that Moldova is not a NATO member and cannot rely on NATO protection in case of an imminent Russian attack. The overwhelming military and financial support that Western stalwart allies are offering to Ukraine and Moldova is unprecedented and very much welcomed and appreciated by Moldova’s and Ukraine’s leaders. Still, Moldovan leaders cannot escape the reality that, in the case of an open escalated conflict to its borders, the destruction of war and the suffering of civilians remains a high risk that they need to grapple with.
Moldovan authorities are critical of Russia, its invasion of Ukraine, and its tactics toward the Eastern European states. In March 2023, the Moldovan Parliament passed a law that clarified that the official language spoken in Moldova is Romanian. This attracted criticism from Moscow. In 2023, in the background of these security challenges, the Moldovan government is in a race to speed up the implementation of justice and anti-corruption reforms in order to start the EU accession negotiations. On June 1, Moldova will host the second meeting of the European Political Community (EPC), a new political forum in Europe created at the initiative of French President Emanuel Macron, to broaden European political collaboration by including non-EU member states. Though the support Moldova is receiving from its Western partners is unprecedented in the country’s independence history, to remain stable and be successful in its reform-implementation process, Moldova needs an increase in investment flows from the West and strengthened support for the country’s democratic institutions. There is also an increased need for support from the West to fend off Russian disinformation and propaganda and decrease the East-West polarization in Moldovan society. The changed regional security landscape has prompted discussion among the Moldovan leaders to consider the possibility of joining a “broader alliance;” although, a society-broad discussion about shifting away from its neutrality, a concept strongly established in Moldova’s Constitution, has not actively started in Moldova.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Image: Demonstrators carry a banner reading “Down with Maia Sandu! Down with the government!” during an anti-government protest in Chisinau, Moldova, November 6, 2022. REUTERS/Vladislav Culiomza