Moldovan President Igor Dodon had an informal meeting, on November 3, with Vadim Krasnoselsky, the leader of the Russia-backed separatist region of Transnistria (Europalibera.org, November 4). Dodon is a pro-Russian politician and the de facto leader of Moldova’s Socialist Party (PSRM). The two reportedly met, accompanied by their families. They visited the Tighina fortress, which has been under the separatists’ control since the 1992 war between Moldovan authorities and Moscow-backed troops. This family-type, informal meeting between Dodon and Krasnoselsky was a first-time event. According to Dodon’s Facebook account, the two also celebrated the Russian Federation’s national Unity Day, which Dodon justified by declaring that “Russia is a strategic partner” (Facebook.com/dodon.igor1, November 4).
This event followed a more formal Dodon-Krasnoselsky meeting on October 29, at the Moldovan president’s Holerkani residence. Dodon reportedly addressed the results of the recent Bratislava meeting of the “5+2” format dedicated to resolving the Transnistrian conflict, and praised the Russian “peacekeeping mission” in Transnistria (Facebook.com/dodon.igor1, October 29). Moldova’s Prime Minister Maia Sandu and Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu have expressed more skepticism regarding the current negotiations format (Europalibera.org, October 9), in which Moldova lacks bargaining leverage and is forced to make unilateral structural concessions. In this context, as Moldova’s government essentially puts a temporary hold on Transnistrian negotiations, President Dodon is becoming involved and promoting messages and agendas that resemble those voiced by Russia. By doing so, he is technically falling afoul of Moldovan law—the Constitution allows only the government to promote domestic and foreign policies. President Dodon’s meetings with Krasnoselsky have neither the backing of the prime minister, nor formal approval of the parliament. This legal reality will permit future governments to withdraw from anything President Dodon agrees to, as it is constitutionally contestable. However, Dodon’s actions have the negative effect of artificially maintaining Moldova in the Transnistrian negotiations.
Dodon’s meetings with separatist leaders like Krasnoselsky, along with the bureaucratically hailed but effectively hollow outcomes of the “5+2” negotiations format held under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), are being instrumentalized by the Moldovan presidential office (as well as Moscow) to create a rosy atmosphere and frame Chisinau’s unilateral concessions as positive developments. They are presented as locally emerged and agreed solutions that are politically attractive to European Union diplomats, who are molded in the Brussels consensus culture. The current pro-European prime minister, Maia Sandu, has a weakened grasp on her government, as she conceded control over the Transnistrian negotiations portfolio to a Dodon-appointed minister. It is a wolf-guarding-the-sheep situation, as enthusiastic EU functionaries hail the “breakthroughs” reached between Russia’s two political proxies in Moldova—the separatist leadership in Tiraspol and Dodon’s pro-Russian Socialist Party.
This reflects an ongoing trend in Russia’s foreign policy in the region generally and in Moldova in particular. Until 2017, before the EU started to feel fatigue over its anti-Russian sanctions and measures, Moscow’s strategy was just to block any discussions on the political dimension of Transnistria negotiations. Instead it favored the economic dimension that allowed its proxy in Tiraspol to survive. This strategy evolved, taking more refined and subtle contours. Russia learned that its direct and obvious involvement in various international issues would trigger opposition and increase implementation costs. This was the fate of the so-called Kozak Memorandum, which Russia tried to impose on Moldova in 2003 and which was blocked by the United States and the EU. Russia’s new approach is to develop local political proxies and engage them as legitimate local actors. These can even emerge in leadership positions in the targeted countries, in which case Moscow incentivizes them to promote the Russian preferred policies as their own ideas, taking some sort of ownership over them (see EDM, September 11).
For instance, President Dodon broke the deal with his current ruling coalition pro-European partners to present at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting a jointly-agreed statement (Agora.md, September 27). Instead, Dodon incorporated into his speech elements of Russia’s notorious “New European Security Treaty” proposal, euphemistically framing a request for the West to not challenge Russia’s influence in Moldova.
An almost identical message—avoid creating separating lines in Moldova that would lead to a division of spheres of interest—was squeezed into a draft document that Dodon’s minister responsible for Transnistrian negotiations sent to the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. He claimed the document reflected the Moldovan government’s unified position, which was not the case—the Moldovan prime minister apparently learned about the document’s existence from the media (Deschide.md, October 7). The document was supposed to be signed by all 5+2 format participants, including the EU and the US, as a declaration during the OSCE’s annual meeting in December. The emphasized phrase almost identically reflects Moscow’s diplomatic jargon it regularly deploys to try to convince the West to accept Europe’s East as part of its sphere of influence.
Surprisingly enough for Russia itself, this approach has worked beyond its expectations, as in many instances it is perceived by the West as a locally conceived breakthrough. Not only is there less opposition to such “local” initiatives, they even become encouraged by Western diplomats. This obscure, behind-the-scenes model of Russian control is intensively used not only in the Transnistrian conflict negotiations process, but in Russia’s relations with other countries in the region. For instance, during Putin’s recent visit to Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán emphasized the importance of maintaining sovereignty—a traditional Russian euphemism lobbed at EU members, criticizing their perceived dependence on Brussels—and good relations with Russia (Kommersant, October 31).
As countries affected by regional security challenges learn to rely on US leadership with less frequency and enthusiasm, multiple security vacuums are emerging across the world. This has opened what the Kremlin perceives as windows of opportunity for its own foreign policy and its enduring ambition for global influence. President Donald Trump’s frequently stated desire for a more modest global engagement by Washington leaves countries around the world alone to face regional revisionist players. These weaker countries are forced to bandwagon with those revisionists, as US withdrawal (either actual or simply rhetorical) makes balancing policies more expensive. Without a more robust US presence in Europe’s East, Russia will slowly but steadily re-acquire control over the region. It will achieve this by promoting into positions of power local political proxies and by encouraging the disengagement of influential EU member states.