The situation in Moldova reminds an equation with many unknowns, which many are trying to solve. We will try to join the process of studying the situation in Ukraine’s neighboring country, the small size and certain geographical features of which can be misleading.
Moldova is known to have common borders with two countries – Romania and Ukraine. While Romania’s influence on the country’s domestic life is well known and noticeable, Ukraine has sometimes been contemptuous of its southwestern neighbor since independence. Instead, more unofficial attention was paid to unrecognized Transnistria, a fragment of Soviet reality that has existed for almost 30 years on the left bank of the Dniester. By the way, in Moldova the attitude to the Dniester (Nistru) resembles the attitude of Ukrainians to the Dnieper, so the construction of the Ukrainian side of the Dniester hydroelectric power station is perceived very critically.
Moldova now has a mono-majority with pro-European positions and a rather strange constant look to Moscow. Although Moldova is a parliamentary republic, the country’s tuning fork is Maya Sandu, a politician who managed to defeat Socialist Igor Dodon in the fall of 2020 оn a second try. Her first visit as a state leader was to Kyiv, where there were many assurances of a desire to develop bilateral relations, up to the construction of the Kyiv-Chisinau highway. However, the abduction of former judge Mykola Chaus in Chisinau by Ukrainian special services has significantly undermined trust in bilateral relations. This was used in Moscow, from where Sandu tried to persuade not to make sudden movements.
In the spring of 2021, Sandu initiated the dissolution of parliament, and in the summer the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) won more than 50% of the vote, forming a mono-majority, which, however, is not enough to amend the Constitution. The country’s prime minister has become Natalia Gavrilitsa, who has no significant differences with the president. A notable figure in the executive branch is Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spina, who negotiated with Gazprom in the autumn of 2021 amid a severe energy crisis. The 5-year gas contract he signed drew much criticism and forced the government to significantly adjust its policies to increase the social component. It should be reminded separately that Ukraine has helped its neighbors with an amount of gas, which was not superfluous, albeit small. I would like to note that Gazprom is threatening to cut off gas supplies to Moldova, which cannot repay its debts to the Russians.
In July 2021, the presidents of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in Batumi officially announced the creation of the Associated Trio, an association of the Eastern Partnership countries proclaimed in May of the same year, aimed at accelerating European integration. Unlike other members of the trio, Moldova has a neutral status fixed in the country’s constitution, which it tries to adhere to strictly. In August 2021, Maya Sandu took part in the inaugural summit of the Crimean Platform.
With the start of large-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Government of Moldova has declared a state of emergency in the country and closed its sky to passenger air travel. Accordingly, when Russian propagandists post pictures with the empty sky over Moldova at the end of April, don’t be surprised. The country has become one of the main shelters for Ukrainian refugees – about 400,000 Ukrainian citizens found themselves in Moldova for a short time, although the majority of them have moved quite quickly into Europe. The organization of refugee reception was undertaken by the citizens of Moldova and its authorities, then European Union joined in financing the needs of Ukrainian refugees.
European Pravda claims that at the beginning of the war with Russia, Ukraine’s leadership asked Moldova to sell six MiG-29 fighters, but received a refusal. However, this appeal may have been informal. Moreover, Russia’s Kommersant emphasizes that official Chisinau strictly adheres to neutrality, preventing the supply of even dual-use products to Ukraine through its territory. Against this background, the accusations of Russian propagandists against Moldova in the transit of oil products from Romania to Ukraine through their territory look quite spicy.
In early March 2022, the authorities of Moldova (and Georgia) demonstrated cynical pragmatism, following Ukraine’s application to join European Union. It is clear that for formal reasons this is in line with the goals of the Associated Trio, but Ukraine’s acceleration on European integration is due to the courage of our defenders and the gradual realization of the European establishment that Ukraine protects the EU from Russian invasion. You can’t say the same about Moldova and Georgia: they refused to join the EU sanctions against Russia, but they also decided to speed up on the way to the European Union. However, the questionnaires required to obtain candidate status were handed over not by Ursula von der Leyen but by EU Commissioner Oliver Vargey. Like a trifle, but significant.
In the middle of April, the Parliament of Moldova banned the public use of St. George’s ribbon and symbols of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Communists and socialists opposed the decision, but Sandu herself called the “coloradka” a symbol of aggression. It is worth noting here that the Victory Day over Nazism in Moldova continues to be celebrated close to Kremlin standards and a difficult winter for many families in Moldova may be a catalyst for the May attack on power.
Recent events in Transnistria have drawn attention to an unrecognized republic on the left bank of the Dniester, which the PACE recognized as occupied by Russia in March 2022. It is worth recalling that on the eve of the presidential election, Maya Sandu promised to use the geopolitical window of opportunity for Moldova’s reintegration. However, the shelling of the Ministry of State Security building in Tiraspol, the detonation of Russian radio repeater towers in Mayak village and the injection of military alarms are, of course, not such a window. The Kremlin is too strong. However, we should not forget two more facts: Transnistria is a black hole in the center of Europe, through which a significant flow of smuggling passes, and the local “sheriff’s” establishment usually has two or three passports, including Ukrainian. And the local self-proclaimed president Vadym Krasnoselsky is no exception. Sandu has publicly stated that relations between various groups of security forces in Transnistria, which are a continuation of the Russian FSB and GRU, are being clarified. It seems that the President of Moldova continues to believe the assurances of Dmitry Kozak, whose efforts almost 15 years ago almost federalized Moldova, and who continues to take care of the situation in the region.
Our military is forced to seriously consider the possibility of invading Transnistria from the territory of Odessa, but we should not forget that both the local army and the Russian battalion-tactical group are formed mainly of Transnistrians, who can hardly be called militant. The unrecognized republic is better known as a springboard for information and psychological operations against Ukraine, and sabotage and reconnaissance groups can be sent from there. Accordingly, the “Transnistrian blitzkrieg” or the transformation of the airfield in Tiraspol into a landing site for Russian troops is far from the only, albeit dangerous, scenario.
It makes little sense for Russian troops to break into Transnistria, even if a previously unknown General Minnekayev mumbled about it last week. The phrase “14th Army” is used only by Russian propagandists, as only giant artillery depots in Kolbasna remain. Their TNT equivalent – more than 20,000 tons – should be a concern, not an encouragement, as these munitions have been stored 2 kilometers from Ukraine for more than 30 years. And they were taken there not from factories, but from Soviet warehouses in Europe. In fact, it is a huge time bomb, dangerous for the region as a whole.
Although some hotheads in Ukraine are initiating an invasion of Transnistria, it is unacceptable, as a result our state will only receive the status of an interventionist, which is unlikely to have a positive impact on the consolidation of the world community to rebuff Russian aggression. Transnistria should become the focus of attention for Maia Sandu and her team, for which is time to realize the formula tested by Ukrainian politicians: multi-vector creates problems. As Moldova’s army is not a real force, Chisinau must rely on diplomatic steps and economic instruments on Transnistria. It can be economically isolated by joint efforts with Ukraine. The local authorities are in power to reduce the space for the activity of Russian diplomats in Moldova.
Russia, for obvious reasons, will not sit idly. Its goal is clear – to repeat the riots in Moldova, such as the events of 2009, when protesters seized the presidency and parliament buildings. This format of destabilizing Moldova is most in Russia’s interests. And Maya Sandu must understand this first of all.