Moldova Shows Modest Revisions on National Defense and Security

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 107

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the President (then Prime Minister) of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, at NATO Headquarters in 2019 (Source: NATO)

A key debate has emerged in Moldovan and European media surrounding how the European Union’s granting of candidate status to Moldova has affected the republic’s national security and regional affairs. Usually, this issue is referred to in the context of undermining the effective resolution of the Transnistrian conflict and upsetting Russia, consequently attracting political or military aversion within Moldova. Internally, similar arguments—including Moldova tuning up its foreign policy to better integrate with that of the EU—are used by Russian political proxies and Russian-funded media outlets to frighten the population with the risk of a Russian invasion and to threaten the government.

However, official EU candidate status has already produced considerable benefits for Moldova’s national security. For instance, on July 11, Moldova and the EU agreed to launch the EU Support Hub for Internal Security and Border Management in Moldova (, July 11). The hub will reportedly focus on combating firearms trafficking, migrant smuggling, human trafficking, terrorism and violent extremism, as well as countering cybercrime and drug trafficking. This is a significant qualitative improvement and scaling up of the existing EU operational presence in Moldova, which has mostly been grounded in the EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine. This increased presence will assist Moldova in addressing some of its most severe internal security capability gaps, including risk assessment, planning, capability generation and operationalization. Due to its poor quality of governance and substandard technical expertise, Moldova’s advancements in these areas are predominantly superficial, representing Potemkin villages rather than substantial reform. Nevertheless, the impact of this initiative strongly depends on the EU’s ability to accurately identify strategic gaps, requiring a thorough understanding of realities in Chisinau.

Triggered by Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, the EU is also offering Moldova some €40 million ($40.28 million) in military assistance via its European Peace Facility funding mechanism (, June 30), created in 2021. While this instrument allows the EU to provide partners with lethal military equipment—for the first time in its history—Moldovan authorities have rejected this option. Instead, they have preferred to focus on logistics, mobility, command and control, cyber defense, unmanned aerial vehicle reconnaissance and tactical communication equipment.

Since 1994, when Moldova joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, Chisinau has received assistance in most of these areas from the United States, in particular. Therefore, Moldova’s partners in the EU and US should consider the history of defense assistance from the West to Moldova and ask the pertinent questions on the rationale behind assistance requests. These calls are not always made with the proper assessment of Moldova’s real defense needs, which requires an analysis of the country’s risks and vulnerabilities, as well as the optimization of its national defense potential.

Ukraine—while still a tragedy—triggered a wake-up call for Moldovan authorities, in terms of the need to adjust their assessment of the risk of foreign aggression and of the optimal military strategy given that risk. Moldovan authorities joined the NATO Defense and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative (DCBI) in 2015, which was supposed to bolster Moldovan capabilities in these regards. Yet, despite the fact that the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine—and later its 2022 re-invasion—provided strong evidence of the utility of armor and firepower in fighting Russia and its proxies, Moldova did not act accordingly. In fact, as part of the DCBI, Moldova agreed to establish a light infantry force structure, which completely ignores the lessons already learned by the Ukrainian military in 2014. Data shows that during the fights in Donbas against both Russian proxies and regulars, Ukraine’s light infantry experienced the most casualties, lacking the protection of armor and proper capabilities for suppression of enemy firepower. Moreover, Ukraine has a huge advantage that Moldova lacks: due to its extensive territory, Ukraine can trade space for time. Moldova is unable to apply this strategy, and its most optimal approach is to use aggressive and devastating firepower to prevent an invader from gaining terrain.

Even in the face of ineffective reforms, hope remains that Moldova will revise its Potemkin village approach to national defense and security. For example, it is starting to revise its earlier stance on lethal weapons assistance. Furthermore, the Moldova Armed Forces seemingly plan to acquire light infantry weapons, reportedly for its peacekeeping units (, July 8). Due to its geographical size, the most optimal strategy for Moldova is to build a small but deadly defense force, design an effective reserves system, and be public and vocal about its unyielding resolve to use them. This provides the best means to optimize the quality and level of deterrence that Moldova can generate while outside NATO. The only obstacle to achieve this goal is Moldovan authorities themselves, as the country’s partners have been forthcoming with various assistance opportunities. For instance, NATO has moved to further support PfP countries (including Moldova) in countering hybrid challenges and upholding political independence, as committed to at the recent NATO Madrid Summit (, July 5).

The EU and NATO increasing their support and commitment has helped Moldova’s authorities revisit their national defense and security approaches, which, until recently, had been reduced to veiled bandwagoning with Russia. This became particularly clear after February 2022. At the time, following the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, the Party of Socialists—the main Russian political proxy in Moldova—exploited popular fear and confusion to threaten possible Russian retaliatory measures if Moldova response. The party also used disinformation and manipulation to convince the population that Western military assistance was meant to bring Moldova into the war.

Regretfully, Moldovan authorities failed to effectively communicate and explain to the populace what an effective defense and security policy would be for Moldova in the face of the Kremlin’s re-invasion of Ukraine. They failed to clarify that a stronger military decreases the risk of foreign aggression, as it increases relative costs for the aggressor—partially because the Moldovan government fundamentally misunderstands this concept. Even so, EU candidate status opens for Moldova significant opportunities to more tightly engage with its partners in the EU and to jointly implement the important lessons that the war in Ukraine has provided in terms of cultivating effective deterrence and defense capabilities.