Moldova is responding with utmost caution to Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine since late February. The Moldovan leadership, which took over not long ago (see EDM, November 17, 2020 and July 13, 2021), is Western-oriented in every sense, deep faith included. But it lacks the means to adopt foreign, security and defense policies that would fully reflect the leadership’s commitment to the Western orientation.
Moldova’s domestic and external vulnerabilities reduce the country’s leadership to an attitude of geopolitical hunkering down. Among those vulnerabilities, the domestic ones are the chief constraints on Moldova‘s foreign and security policies. Apart from persistent structural constraints (see EDM, October 28, 2020), current opinion polls show the leadership’s ratings abruptly down after only a short time in office, and the pro-Russia parties’ ratings abruptly up, thanks to these parties’ exploitation of the ongoing pandemic, economic and energy crises. This, too, compels Moldova’s leadership to steer a cautious course.
The Moldovan government hastened to announce that it would not enact any economic or other sanctions on Russia for the latter’s full-scale war against Ukraine. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially notified Russia’s embassy in Chisinau of this decision from the outset of this war. Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu reminded the public that Moldova had already in 2014 declined to enact sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea and its war in Ukraine’s Donbas. As Popescu correctly explained, Moldova’s current abstention from sanctions represents a continuous policy. Moldova persists with this policy despite Russia’s restrictions on the import of Moldovan agricultural products (TV-8, February 28; Deschide.md, March 1).
Moldova’s development partners (shorthand for the European Union, its member countries and the United States) accept the country’s abstention from sanctioning Russia without objection. They are not known to have recommended otherwise. Moldova is 100 percent dependent on natural gas from Russia and 100 percent on Russian-generated electricity from Transnistria (see EDM, October 28, November 3, 18, 2021). Were Moldova to enact sanctions on Russia, the latter’s countermeasures would conclusively ruin Moldova and compel Western donors to further increase their already significant assistance to keep Moldova afloat.
There is no serious political pressure from below on the Moldovan government to sanction Russia, and every indication of mass reluctance to introduce such sanctions. Alluding to a fringe opinion that favors sanctions, Parliament Chairman Igor Grosu suggested, „Anyone recommending sanctions against Russia should reflect on whether sanctions would have improved our energy security, or would have helped our citizens [who are working] in Russia, or would help deal with the Transnistria situation“ (Ziarul National, March 3).
Nor is Moldova prepared to enact sanctions on Belarus. That country is an important trading partner to Moldova; and it has also, unofficially, provided a gateway to Russia for Moldovan products circumventing Russia’s import restrictions (see above). Moreover, the war in Ukraine has closed Moldova’s direct transit route to Russia, forcing Moldovan exporters to consider using the circuitous route Romania–Hungary–Slovakia–Poland–Belarus for legitimate deliveries to the Russian market.
The Moldovan authorities’ watchwords are peace, calm, consensus in society, stability in the country and around it. On March 1, a traditional Moldovan pastoral festivity, President Maia Sandu, Parliamentary Chairperson Igor Grosu and Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita launched “Moldova for Peace,” a public campaign by all branches of power. The phraseology sounds downright peacenik: “peace is our priority,” “life is stronger than weapons,” “let us pray for clear skies,” “let this season bring peace to Ukraine and the whole world.” Ukraine’s suffering is being acknowledged; the “bombing of houses, schools, hospitals” and the “death of innocent people” is mentioned; but the perpetrator Russia is mentioned only seldom or obliquely (Moldpres, Ziarul National, March 1). This is neither naiveté nor insensitivity, but rather a necessary attempt to de-politicize Moldova’s internal debates on the Russian-Ukrainian war, which could deepen the chronic dividing lines within Moldovan society.
The Moldovan leadership’s current threat assessment holds that the country does not face the risk of Russian aggression at present or in the near term. President Maia Sandu and the government communicate this assessment to the population on a daily basis. The leadership stops short of explaining this assessment, simply offering it to promote calm and confidence.
In fact, the leadership’s threat assessment is based on: a) Moldova sheltering behind Ukraine as a buffer vis-à-vis Russia; b) expectations that Russian “peacekeepers” stationed in Transnistria and the Transnistrian-flagged troops lack the capacity or intention to attack the government-controlled territory; c) the Moldovan authorities’ perceived need to tranquilize the population and prevent panic or competing loyalties from arising; and d) recognizing only as much threat as Moldova has the financial capacity to address, which is close to nil.
This threat assessment will have to change dramatically in the event that Russia pushes its way across Ukraine to Odesa and links up with Transnistria, potentially crossing the Nistru River into the Bessarabian part of Ukraine’s Odesa region, along Moldova’s and Romania’s borders. Such a scenario seemed purely speculative prior to Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, but looks increasingly plausible since February 24. This would mean the end of Moldova’s and Romania’s sheltering behind Ukraine.
For now, Ukraine alone contains Russia’s expansion. No open-source evidence is available of attempts by Moldova or others to prevent that scenario from materializing, or to cope with its consequences. Moldova’s army is weaker in equipment and training compared with Russia’s “peacekeepers” and the Transnistrian-flagged troops. Any security solution for Moldova would have to come from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or certain Alliance member countries (informal coalition-of-the-willing), from the European Union, and neighboring Romania as a member of both organizations.
Moldova is a “permanently neutral” country under its constitution since 1994. Its neutrality is, however, self-declared, without international recognition, let alone guarantees; its neutrality is permanently violated by Russia’s illegal military presence, in spite of Moldova’s appeals for its termination; and it is an unprotected neutrality in view of Moldova’s incapacity to defend itself. This is why Russia insists that Moldova remain permanently “neutral,” albeit with Russian troops in place.
In Moldova itself, it is not only pro-Russia political forces but also a large part of the general population that favors the existing “neutrality.” Support for joining NATO is traditionally confined to some 20 percent of voters; and it stands at 19 percent in the latest opinion survey by the mainstream IMAS polling agency (Deschide.md, February 21).