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The smoldering Moldovan crisis

Originally published: Russian and Eurasian Politics on January 7, 2023 by Gordon M. Hahn (more by Russian and Eurasian Politics) (Posted Jan 11, 2023)

The battle between Russia and the West for Moldova has been ongoing since the Soviet collapse, despite the country’s constitutional ban on joining alliances, presumably applying only to military ones. That battle has been slowly escalating ever since the February 2014 Western-backed Maidan putsch, rise of the oligarchic-ultranationalist Maidan regime, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the Donbass conflict. Many aspects of the situation in Moldova mirror those that led to war in Ukraine: (1) a cleft state cobbled together as a result of World War II; (2) a ‘stateness problem’ with divisions between pro-Western and pro-Russian elements; (3) corresponding ethnic and religious cleavages; (4) NATO and EU encroachment on the country in opposition to Moscow’s interests and security; (5) Russian gas supply issues; and (6) worsening tensions inside the country exacerbated by Western and Russian involvement.

Like Ukraine, Moldova is a cleft state located on the cusp of the West-Eurasia dividing line between the European peninsula and the Eurasian continental—in other words, the new post-Cold War Eastern Europe. A signpost in the struggle for Moldova came in January 2020 when NATO member Romania threatened to break relations with Moldova because Kishinev under pro-Moscow then President Igor Dodon sought to join both the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the EU (www.ng.ru/cis/2020-01-22/1_7774_moldova.html). Now, according to former Moldovan ambassador to Russia, Anatol Tsarapu argues Russo-Moldovan relations are headed for “complete collapse” (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-11-13/9_8588_moldova.html).

Moldova, which has stateness problems rooted in mutually antagonistic ethnic groups (Moldovans, pro-Russians in Transdniestr, Ukrainians, and pro-Russian Turkic Gagauz*), is now being targeted for full incorporation into the West, including NATO. Of course, the central conflict is between the largely Slavic (Russian and Ukrainian) Transdniestr region’s population and the Romanian Moldovan majority. Serious Western cooptation of Moldova would be sure to inflame the country’s ‘frozen conflict’ with the ethnic Russian-dominated breakaway region of Transdniestria, which borders Ukraine and is protected by Russia’s 14th Army Group, as well as with the Gagauz Autonomous Republic, the Turkic population of which looks to Moscow as its protector.

Moreover, religious tensions overlap ethnic tensions in Ukraine and are likely to be exacerbated by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s attack on the formerly affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, could very well spillover into civil war. Tensions between the Orthodox and Uniate churches are traditionally tense in places like the central hub of Mukhachevo in the formerly Romanian territory of the Transcarpathia region in western Ukraine, and could draw in Romania, which Transcarpathia borders (along with Hungary and Slovakia), and thus Moldova, the border of which is just 100 miles away from Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region.

Ukraine would certainly support any move by Kishinev to force Transdniestr’s reintegration. Indeed, it supports these efforts whenever it can. In August, Russia’s envoy for the Moldovan-Transdniestrian issue Dmitrii Kozak was promised by Sandu that there would be no blockade of the breakaway region and no restriction on automobile plates. However, in September 2021, Ukraine started to close its territory to automobiles with Transdniestr license plates, which was unlikely to be implemented without Moldova’s approval if not outright request, something Kishinev denies it gave. But Kishinev had begun to violate its agreement with Tiraspol’ under which neutral license plates were given to Transdniestr residents, allowing them not only to travel into Ukraine but all EU territory. The transport restriction began to put strain on Transdniestr’s exports (www.ng.ru/cis/2021-09-09/1_8248_moldova.html). Thus, even before the present war, Zelenskiy and Moldova’s President Maria Sandu were cooperating to undermine Russian interests in Moldova-Transdniestr.

A crisis or civil war in Moldova might open up a second front to which Moscow might need to divert resources otherwise targeting Ukraine. It also might help bring NATO into the war; something Kiev has been struggling to achieve since February 2022. And Sandu’s Moldovan administration appears intent on escalating tensions with Moscow over several issues—most notably, that of possible NATO expansion.


The only thing still connecting Russia and Moldova are latter’s purchase of the former’s natural gas and the presence of Rssia’s 14th Army in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestr. But Moldova is moving to get off all Russian gas and purchase it from its co-ethnic neighbor Romania. Already last winter, before the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Moldovan journalist Dmitrii Chubachenko noted that the repeated failure of Moldova to pay its gas debt and bills to GasProm, and Sandu’s failure to seek a new agreement with Moscow for well over a year despite the inevitability of a resulting gas crisis. If Moldova is to succeed in transitioning from Russian to alternative gas and avoid political instability, he argued, the West should pay for Moldova’s Russian gas in the interim at least during this winter of high prices if it cannot replace the supplies Moldova needs to avert a catastrophic gas cutoff (www.ng.ru/cis/2022-01-17/1_8347_moldova.html). The gas crisis threatens now to break Moldova and/or Transdniestr, whether by design or otherwise.

President Sandu and her ruling Action and Solidarity Party (ASP) support a full break with Russia and are using the Ukrainian method of failing to make gas payments on time, diverting gas supplies, and then asserting Moscow has unilaterally cut supplies. At a November joint press conference with EU Chair Ursula von der Leyen, Sandu emphasized the GazProm cut of supplies in half without noting Moldova’s repeated failure to pay for gas and receiving approval from Gazprom to postponement payments and Moldova’s failure to honor the stipulation in its GazProm contract that Kishinev conduct an audit of its estimated 700 million Euro debt to GazProm and begin payments on that debt by May 2022. At the same time, she has blamed protests against high energy prices on Moscow or “pro-Russian parties in Moldova and criminal groups,” referencing “much information” she never elaborated upon. At the same time, Leyen boasted that the EU had reduced its dependence on Russian gas and would help Moldova this winter with gas and electricity supplies (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-11-13/9_8588_moldova.html). But with the war and sanctions, non-Russian gas and electricity supplies will be more expensive for Moldova’s citizens.

According to some evidence, Ukraine is helping the Moldovan government facilitate such a break by ‘storing’ or withholding 56 million cubic meters of Russian gas that should transit to Transdniestr, as the Moldovan government has prepared shifting the country away from reliance on Russian natural gas by storing for a ‘rainy day’ over 200 billion cubic meters of gas that would have supplied the breakaway region. Some argue this is a deliberate policy to destroy Transdniestr’s economy and provoke a revolt against its pro-Russian leadership (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-11-27/11_8600_catastrophe.html). Unfortunately, for Kishinev, Moldova’s lone electricity plant from which energy bought from Russia is supplied is located in Transdniestria. Thus, an electrity collapse would necessitate, perhaps, a re-start of the frozen conflict.

In short, the stage is being set for a complete break from Russian not only regarding gas supplies but in overall relations in the attempt to complicate Transdniestr’s energy and political stability. In this way, with Moldova’s separation from Russian gas supplies and integration with the West and Ukraine, Transdniestr might be destabilized. That might activate the only remaining Russo-Moldovan ‘connection’—Russia’s 14th army, which could be targeted by Ukrainian forces, among others.


It is curious indeed that on the background of a mounting gas crisis in Moldova and Europe, Moldova is moving closer to Ukraine and its military and NATO is becoming ever more involved in Moldova. In November there developed a discussion in Moldova on the possibility of transferring its territory where Russian ammunition depots are located to Ukraine. President Sandu had said earlier that she was ready to ‘share with her neighbors.’ Then the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Moldova, Viktor Shelin, stated that Ukraine’s shortage of ammunition could be solved by Moldova’s agreement to exchange those army depots for part of Ukraine’s Odessa region, which would also benefit Moldova’s fraternal state Romania, which would gain control of the Danube. Sandu, during a conversation with Telegram Channel prankers Vovan and Lexus in which she believed she was speaking with Ukrainian PM Denis Shmygal, expressed her readiness to give lands of her country to Ukraine for temporary use. She said she had discussed with representatives of Ukraine the village of Giurgiulesti in the south of Moldova, where the Republic of Moldova has 1 km of the Danube coast and a port has been built: “We have made a proposal. Your people (from Ukraine) came and inspected the territory that we are ready to provide you with. We are still trying to resolve legal issues with the port as a whole. However, we can offer you land for use for the next few years” (www.ng.ru/cis/2022-11-14/5_8589_cis02.html).

Then there is the EU’s more concrete ‘Plan of the Euro-commission for the Increase of the Mobility of the Armed Forces of NATO’ (www.ng.ru/cis/2022-11-14/5_8589_cis02.html). Through the Euro-commission’s NATO Plan, the European Union will connect the Moldova, Ukraine, and the Balkans in order to increase military mobility for the rapid deployment of NATO combat forces to the east. Under this plan all automobile and railroad transport systems will be adapted to facilitate the rapid movement of NATO troops to ‘the east.’ In November, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Josep Borrel stated in Kishinev that in accordance with the ‘Plan of the Euro-commission for the Increase of the Mobility of the Armed Forces of NATO’: “The military mobility Plan implies strengthening cooperation with NATO and key strategic partners such as the United States, Canada and Norway, while facilitating interaction and dialogue with regional partners and expansion countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans” (http://www.ng.ru/cis/2022-11-14/5_8589_cis02.html). “The European Union will involve Moldova in projects to increase military mobility for the rapid deployment of combat forces” by modernizing and interacting with EU infrastructure Moldova’s auto and rail transport infrastructures, according to Borrell. He stressed that bridges, tunnels, roads and railways are needed for this. (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-11-13/9_8588_moldova.html). Shelin specified: “There are stations in Moldova that were equipped in Soviet times for railway junctions where railway tracks intersect. These are Ungheni, Balti, Bender, Bessarabian. They can be used to transfer trains from the European gauge to the one that remained in the post-Soviet space from the USSR. That is, goods such as sunflower oil and grain needed in the EU can be transported from the territory of Ukraine to Europe in a mobile way. And military cargo—from the EU through Romania and Moldova—to Ukraine. Moldova will become a transit country, including for NATO military equipment” (www.ng.ru/cis/2022-11-14/5_8589_cis02.html). Strategically, the EU-NATO ‘mobility plan’ undertakes to “allow the armed forces to move faster and better across borders” and “solve the problem of the deteriorating security situation after the Russian aggression against Ukraine and increase the EU’s ability to protect its citizens and infrastructure.” Borrel noted: “We need to adapt our entire mobility system so that our troops can quickly deploy their capabilities. And this is critically important for our defense: the ability to quickly transport troops from one part of the EU to another part—mainly from west to east” (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-11-13/9_8588_moldova.html).

Similarly, Moldova has ratified and will receive a 60 million Euro credit from the French Development Agrency to modernize the country’s energy and transport sectors and anchor them in the West, Kishinev recently restored the Kiev-Kishinev rail line (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-11-13/9_8588_moldova.html). The developments in transport are tied directly to security issues, as discussed below.

Moreover, the European Peace Foundation has given 40 million Euros to Kishinev for its army’s development and opened a Center for EU Support on Issues Internal Security and Border Administration “to help solve problems connected with the Russian invasion in Ukraine.” (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-11-13/9_8588_moldova.html). Since 2007, as has been the practice in other states that eventually joind NATO, there has been in Kishinev a Center for Information and Documentation of NATO for providing Moldovans with information about NATO, its policies, and “questions of security and Moldovan-NATO relations: (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-10-02/11_8554_moldova.html). Like Ukraine, Moldova continues is being targeted for NATO expansion, despite the country’s constitutional mandate of neutrality and the NATO expansion’s lead role in sparking war in Moldova’s neighbor, Ukraine.

The Western attempt at a somewhat asymmetrical escalation will be clear should Moldova revise its constitution and repeal its neutrality clause. In late September, Sandu’s presidential adviser on security issues and Secretary of Moldova’s Security Council Dorin Rechan seemed to be preparing the groundwork for revising Moldova’s neutral status. Stating that Kishinev ought no longer to rely on foreign policy instruments alone, one of which is the status of neutrality, he noted: “Society must understand that this is critically important for the survival of the state, funds must be allocated for defense, and the support of citizens is most important here” (www.ng.ru/dipkurer/2022-10-02/11_8554_moldova.html). According to the leader of the Communist Party, Vladimir Voronin, Sandu and the ASP were moving in mid-November to make their move. Holding 63 of 101 seats in parliament and needing 68 to amend the constitution, Sandu’s ASP was looking for the five additional votes needed to amend the constitution (http://www.ng.ru/cis/2022-11-14/5_8589_cis02.html).

As all of the above was occurring, Moscow did not remain idle. Russia appears to have successfully hacked the telephone accounts of Moldova’s highest-ranking officials, including President Maya Sandu, her advisers, Justice Minister Sergei Litvinenko, Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Son and others, sparking a political scandal. Moldovan media published private communications between them in discussion about rigging the competition for the post of head of the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office in favor of the “American” Veronika Dragalin at the request of the IMF, about manipulating members of the “independent” Supreme Council of Prosecutors, about setting up ex-Prosecutor General Alexander Stoyanogo in 2021 and of pro-Russian ex—President Igor Dodon in 2019, about numerous episodes of corruption, use of official office for profit, the preparation of legislation in favor of lobbyists and “agreements” with businessmen about specific transactions. The ruling PAS party called the hacking an attempt by Russia’s FSB to block Moldova’s European course (www.ng.ru/week/2022-11-13/8_8588_week5.html).


To be sure, the West will not allow Moldova to remain vulnerable to Russian influence, no less normal relations. If this was conceivable at any time, that period ended on February 24, 2022. The Ukrainian crisis makes a Moldovan one much more likely. NATO member Romania’s ambitions in Moldova (and perhaps in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia as well) makes NATO’s drive to Moldova inevitable. With Russian troops in Transdniestria and U.S. troops in Romania, another staging point is set for a fuller-scale NATO-Russian war.

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