Moldova is very likely to be Putin’s next move on the chessboard, as Russia continues to extend its influence and, if possible, outright control in the non-NATO areas around it.
Putin hopes to achieve either a pro-Moscow government in Chisinau, or at the very least, another frozen conflict or perhaps simply expand the already existing frozen conflict in Moldova’s Transdniestria region, to accomplish Kremlins’s geopolitical goal of keeping the country from joining the European Union, or even worse, NATO.
There is already evidence indicating these activities have already begun.
Bordering Ukraine and Romania (a NATO member), Moldova lies in a neighborhood of great importance to Russia. The proximity of NATO member-state Romania is challenging to Moscow and the conditions are also favorable in Moldova for Kremlin to act, considering that:
- The country was part of the former Soviet Union and some nostalgic Russian-speaking older Moldovans are still wishing for stability (stable prices, jobs, pensions), as memories of the then hardships and authoritarian rules are fading away.
- The grand scale corruption in Moldova offers Kremlin a foothold. The widespread perception that the current and recent Westward leaning governments are under the control of local oligarchs, exacerbated by the unsolved theft of a billion dollars from Moldovan banks, provides fertile ground for Russian propaganda and influence measures
- The country is very poor and Russia has sought to worsen the economic situation by severely limiting trade.
Against this background, Romania, with its deep historical, cultural and linguistic ties to Moldova, has taken the lead on trying to keep its small neighbor tracking toward the West.
From Bucharest’s point of view, there are several reasons for this, some more sublime, some more practical, as it is obviously in Romania’s national interest to have Moldova on its side in the struggle between East and West, Russia and NATO:
- Romania would like to have its own buffer against the Russian expansion in the region.
- There are (not necessary completely transparent) lucrative economic and business ties between the elites of the two countries.
- The two nations share many cultural and linguistic connections, greater than Moldova and Russia.
- If Russian meddling were to extend from Moldova into neighboring Romania, the latter will face a significant economic and political fallout.
- Bucharest’s arguments are not entirely self-serving, as they envisage wider security issues.
Romania might also make the argument that Western democracies must take stronger action to ensure that Moldova continues to move toward Europe, before it suffers the same fate as Georgia and Ukraine. Moldova must be careful, because Moscow’s modus operandi when it sees countries like Moldova moving toward Europe is to create instability from which the country in question cannot easily or quickly emerge. This has the effect of slowing or in some cases stopping planned ascension into NATO and EU bodies, a key goal of Russia’s.
So, when talking about Moldova, one must take into account both geopolitical and economic factors and, more important, focus on the message it would send to Russia if Europe and the United States took no action at all. Then, just as in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin would inevitably interpret that answer as a weakness to be exploited.