Moldova next? How Europe should respond to the implied threat from Russia – European Council on Foreign Relations

April 22 Deputy Commander of the Central Military District of Russia Rustam Minnekayev outlined the goal of the second phase of his country’s war against Ukraine. The aim was not only to capture the Donbass region in the east of the country, but also to take control of the southern coast of Ukraine – and to join the breakaway Moldovan Republic of Transnistria.

The Kremlin was officially silent on the matter, and unofficially the Russian Foreign Ministry has denied its plans for Transnistria. But shortly afterwards the quasi-authorities in Transnistria proclaimed they would “make decisions to protect the interests of the Republic”. Since Transnistria is a de facto Russian base of operations run by the FSB and GRU security services, this means either secession or other forms of military preparations in support of Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine. Days later, attacks uninhabited and insignificant military targets in Transnistria provided the Transnistrian authorities with an excuse to appoint a general mobilization and tighten security measures.

So what could Russia’s intentions be? The combined Russian and “separatist” military contingent in Transnistria outnumbers the Moldovan standing forces. They comprise approximately one to two Russian mechanized battalions, as well as 8,000 local auxiliaries made up mostly of light infantry and the paramilitary security forces of the MGB (successor to the KGB). In this number, however, they are too small to intervene alone in the war against Ukraine. They could only join the battle if Russian forces were nearby, distracting Ukrainian reserves, or already in the process of linking up with the breakaway region. In the last scenario, they could provide much-needed infantry to the Russian military. But the Russian advance on Odessa has been deadlocked outside the city of Cherson for weeks. The Russians would still have to cross the Bug, which is very wide and only hundreds of kilometers apart by bridges. Russia will not have the strength to do so before completing its slow-moving Donbass offensive.

With Russia’s military stalled in the east, the timing of Moscow’s invasion of Moldova is a mystery at best.

With Russia’s military stalled in the east, the timing of Moscow’s invasion of Moldova is a mystery at best. It gave Chisinau a chance to prepare and gather international support. Moldova deployed its security forces alarm, and the public debate in the country is now focused on the mobilization of the armed forces. The more time Moldova has to defend itself against an attack either from Transnistria alone or from Transnistria together with Russian forces, the faster and more effectively it will be able to react. And while Moldova’s military capabilities are far inferior to those of Ukraine, an armed country can still prove a nightmare for Russia’s logistics and communications routes. Resistance in Moldova could deprive Russia of a potential advantage in trying to push through the country to reach the Ukrainian rear.

What should Europe and the West do? Moldova’s best life insurance, of course, is continued support for the Ukrainian forces holding off the Russian offensives in Donbass and Kherson. If Moscow’s forces never get anywhere near Transnistria, nothing serious should happen.

In the meantime, the EU should increase Frontex support to the Moldovan border guards. This is crucial to prevent Transnistria from staging provocations, terrorist activities or false flag attacks to stoke anti-Ukrainian sentiment or to destabilize the government in Chisinau. Similarly, Europeans should increase intelligence cooperation with Moldova to thwart such attacks and provide Chisinau with strategic advance notice.

Sadly, Moldova’s military itself has been neglected for decades. The country’s leadership has long assumed that geography – that is, Ukraine – would prevent the worst. The new progressive President Maia Sandu and Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița put anti-corruption and rule of law reforms at the heart of their (peace) government plans. Now the leaders also have to focus on defence. The European Union has pledged its support to the country European Peace Facility, but even then it takes years for such reforms to come about. As the situation in Ukraine is rapidly evolving, European leaders should urgently develop additional means of assisting Moldova.

One possibility is to move NATO units near the Moldovan border with an increased forward presence in Romania. Should the situation deteriorate, Moldova could invite these forces to “maneuvers” on its own territory. Even if such a training mission were only nominal, the risks of Russia invading the (state-controlled) Republic of Moldova would increase significantly. When Russia began increasing its deployments along the Ukrainian border in 2021, the West did not respond by deploying any major in-kind deployments. This limited their ability to credibly signal maneuvers or deploy blocking forces, thereby also reducing their diplomatic ability to announce Russian intentions and threaten sanctions. The West should not make the same mistake again with Moldova.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not represent common positions. ECFR publications reflect the views of their respective authors only.

Comments are closed.