The Curious Case of Moldova & Its Implications for the Black Sea Region
24 February, 2021
Back in November, the pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu won the Moldovan race for Prime Minister against pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon by a margin of 57.75% of the vote to 42.25%. While not a major event even in European politics, this election could be a bigger sign of a major shift in Moldova from a traditionally stalwart Russian ally to a country with budding EU aspirations, or even possibly reuniting with their Romanian siblings to the West. Moldova is a country, that for most of its history, was a part of greater Romania, and was originally known as Bessarabia. The current state of Moldova, and then a Soviet Socialist Republic, started from the 1941 Soviet occupations of the regions of Bessarabia and Bukovina (now in modern day Ukraine).
This otherwise low key European country is actually quite important for Russian interests, and depending on which way the political winds blow, could prove to be vital for their realpolitik and strategic interests. Why, you might ask? Presently, Russia has “piece keepers” in Moldova’s eastern region of Transnistria. No that was not a typo. I meant “piece keepers” as opposed to peacekeepers. No one, not even Russian apologists in the Western media are fooled by why Russia maintains a presence of 1500 armed military personnel in the region. Transnistria has been volatile since the fall of the Soviet Union, and its leaders have called on multiple occasions to be annexed by the Russian Federation in the same way Crimea was.
The country is currently divided on what the best path forward is, but rest assured the Kremlin will exploit tensions and divisions every chance they get. And while the current momentum is toward EU integration, it is by no means a foregone conclusion, and there is substantial support for strong relations with Russia within the country. However, a path for EU integration for Moldova is a difficult issue even without Moscow’s interference. Moreover, the likelihood of the integration of Moldova into Romania is low for the foreseeable future; however, if there was ever momentum this would be a much faster timeline for European integration with them merging into a Member State that’s already both an EU and NATO member, compared to the much longer path Moldova would have to take to gain accession independently.
Even less recognized is how Moldova could prove vital as a potential staging ground for Russian interests on the Black Sea – an area near or at the top of its strategic interests. Moldova does not technically touch the Black Sea (except for a small international port called Giurgiulesti, which is still cornered by both bigger Romanian and Ukrainian waterways). However, its close proximity to Odessa in Ukraine, its entire Western shelf, and the busy Romanian port city of Constanța (and other ports) in its south, in theory, would give them leverage they would not otherwise have. Their leverage would not only be limited to the ports, but also include the wider region, such as Ukraine’s entire western region country — a country they believe should be controlled by the Kremlin.
Of course, Russia is not going to go marching in and cause World War III over little Moldova, but if Western policy-makers think that they are not actively wargaming a myriad of different scenarios, undertaking extensive influence operations in Moldova, and filling vacuums wherever they can, then they should really reassess what their aims there are. Their aim is not to directly confront NATO or even the EU head on; rather, it is to divide and conquer, which it has been all along. Moldova is also no exception in their larger chess game for influence and control of the region. By every metric, Russia is a revisionist power that seeks to shape the world in its image, and maximizes its gains with minimal cooperation with states it deems are its subordinates. They know full and well that the reality of today does not mean the reality of tomorrow, and they will patiently operate from this premise. Rest assured, if the West does not wake up to that reality, they will absolutely fill those vacuums — and with force in some instances.
If Moldova does pursue EU integration or reintegration with Romania, a big question would be: what would Russia do? Besides the usual subterfuge that will happen regardless, there may be little they can do in a region increasingly hostile to Russian revanchism namely Ukraine and Romania. Be that as it may, the most likely option is to punish Moldova by halting economic support, energy exports and potentially splitting off Transnistria as punishment. However, the difficulty with which they would have getting resources to the region without dragging in those larger states (such as Romania, which is already a full fledged NATO member) would be exceedingly difficult. This is likely why Russia will stick to using its cultural clout within Moldova to stay in the Russian orbit and join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as opposed to European Union.
This leaves the other question of what the EU and the US can do to convince Moldova: that looking toward the West is in its long term interests. Firstly, the EU must have the political will and backbone to oppose Moscow’s when necessary. Something they have mostly tiptoed over out of fear, retribution, or escalation. With the dynamics as they are, Brussels will have most of the leverage if they are willing to assert themselves. A country that has and should continue to be in the lead on this is Romania given both their historical and cultural connection with Moldova. The other side of the coin is encouraging the leaders in Chisinau to tackle corruption and the many systemic issues it will face under Prime Minister Sandu’s leadership. This could prove pivotal as to whether or not Moldova’s pro-EU factions can convince a still sceptical voting electorate that a pivot to the West is in their collective interest.
In terms of what the US can do: it is best placed supporting EU activities and letting them take the lead in forming a pathway for integration and relationship building. However, something that could help build resolve is a continued American and NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. One potential option could be to place a permanent joint American – NATO naval base in the Romanian port city of Constanța. This, of course, would draw swift condemnation from the Kremlin with threats of confrontation and retribution. However, it should be reemphasized that was already started by Russian provocations with the invasion of Crimea and its usual harassment activities on the Black Sea. This is the exact kind of message that would make it clear to Moldova and Ukraine, that the West is committed to integrating them into the joint Euro-Atlantic space.
Conclusively, the outcome of what happens in Moldova is not going to likely be decided any time soon, and for better or worse, it is up to the Moldovan people to decide their own path going forward. Even so, the West’s complacency, inconsistency and indifference has had a hand in the worsening geopolitical environment in both Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. It is incredibly important for Western leaders to take the initiative to build a more secure and stable environment in the region, but that must also come with some of the risks entailed with so doing. The problem in essence is not Russia having a relationship with these countries, including with Moldova; rather, it’s their repeated attempts to subtrovert the growing aspirations of Western integration within these countries. In lieu of an accession path the Kremlin seeks to create compliant and oligarchic client states willing to do their bidding of undermining liberal democracies to its advantage.