How Vulnerable is Moldova to a Russian Invasion Through Its Only Port?
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 101
Moldova is a landlocked country, but unbeknownst to many, it has an international port on the Danube that is accessible to seagoing vessels. The Port of Giurgiulești (some 130 kilometers from the Black Sea) presents large economic opportunities as well as significant security vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities increase as the security situation in the region worsens. On July 17, after almost two decades of negotiations, Ukraine finally agreed to allow Moldovan customs and border police onto its checkpoints along the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border (Europalibera.org, July 17). In response, Tiraspol threatened to escalate the conflict with Chisinau (Novostipmr.com, July 17). Subsequently, Moldova’s government banned Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin from landing in Moldova on a military plane en route to Transnistria. Rogozin was further annoyed by the Moldovan parliament’s almost traditional call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist region, prompting him to issue a veiled threat by comparing the current situation in Moldova to that of Georgia prior to the 2008 war (Timpul.md, July 21). All the while, Russian soldiers in Transnistria were practicing crossing the Nistru River, which divides the separatist region from Moldova proper (Mil.ru, July 20). Ironically, during the same time, Moldovan soldiers appear to have been barred yet again by their own government from taking part in a major international exercise, “Sea Breeze 2017,” which could have included a scenario of defending the Giurgiulești port from an enemy takeover.
The Giurgiulești port became possible following a 1999 land exchange agreement with Ukraine, which offered Moldova 430 meters of Danube shore. Following the opening of an oil terminal in 2006, the Moldovan government had high hopes for the port to help reduce the country’s energy dependence on Russia (BBC News, February 21, 2006). Yet, even after the opening of terminals for passengers, grain, vegetable oil and cargo, the port’s economic output failed to meet expectations. Instead, it became a source of scandals beginning with the lease agreement of the port’s general investor and operator ICS Danube Logistics LLC, the controversial practice of foreign vessels registration, including of Iranian vessels under international sanction, and strained relations with Ukraine as Moldovan-flagged vessels continued to anchor in annexed Crimea (Anticoruptie.md, April 1, 2016). Nonetheless, both the government and the private port operator continue to have grand plans for the port and the surrounding free economic zone. However, poor infrastructure connecting the port to the rest of the country, as well as the narrow shore strip and shallow waters in that portion of the Danube, make a future port extension project a tall order (Canal3.md, November 29, 2015).
Despite its strategic economic value, the port presents growing security vulnerabilities for Moldova. Following the annexation of Crimea, the security situation in the Black Sea region changed dramatically. Since Ukraine has moved S-300 missile systems to the Odessa region to better protect its airspace (Kyivpost.com, March 31, 2016), this also puts Russian aircraft, flying in and out of Transnistria, in danger of getting shot down. Furthermore, after Ukraine closed Russian resupply lines for its military contingent in Transnistria in 2015 and Moldova began arresting and deporting Russian military personnel en route to the separatist enclave (Publika.md, May 22, 2015; Prime.md, October 12, 2016), the Giurgiulești port remained a potential entry point for Russian soldiers trying to evade the higher scrutiny at Chisinau Airport. Yet, the port also represents a soft target for a full-scale Russian intervention. Authorities seem to be aware of the risk, as evidenced by the “Strong Border 2017” joint exercise carried out by Moldova’s Information and Security Service (SIS) and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in the port of Giurgiulești (SIS.md, May 29). Nonetheless, Moldovan leadership is sending mixed messages when they repeatedly fail to meet their commitments by reneging on major joint exercises with NATO partners, including the most recent “Sea Breeze 2017.”
Undeniably, the Russian Black Sea Fleet poses a major threat to Ukraine (see EDM, July 13) as well as to Moldova. Therefore, it is all the more striking, given Moldova’s modest defense capabilities, that it would back away from such a valuable opportunity to enhance the interoperability of its forces with NATO partners and strengthen maritime security in the region through multinational exercises such as “Sea Breeze.” The decision appears to be yet another concession by Moldova’s nominally pro-western government to the country’s pro-Russian president, who, despite serving a largely ceremonial role, has been allowed to use red tape to repeatedly ban the army from participating in military exercises abroad (Deschide.md, April 26). With an outdated national defense strategy and failure to appoint a defense minister for seven months so far, it is another example of the perplexing reality of Moldovan politics, devoid of strategic vision and oblivious to the security risks facing the country.
Admittedly, in the still unlikely scenario that the Transnistrian army (5,000–7,000 soldiers) and more than a thousand Russian troops in the separatist region would move against either Moldova or Ukraine, the support of potential “little green men” could be critical. Given the high risk of an air offensive, the port of Giurgiulești remains the only option, especially since this strategic asset is largely defenseless, apart from a couple of unarmed small patrol vessels. Only one motorized infantry brigade of about 600 active duty soldiers stationed in Cahul would stand in the way of a potential invasion. To make things worse, the supposed “little green men” would likely face little resistance from the mostly pro-Russian population of the Gagauz autonomous region. Finally, today’s international context is even less conducive of any western support than it was in the 2008 war in Georgia. Given Moldova’s lack of any bilateral or multilateral defense agreements, the careless attitude of Moldova’s government toward its NATO partners and its cavalier attitude toward Russia are bewildering.