When the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed, many saw it as a forum for a civilized divorce among Russia and the other 11 former Soviet republics that constituted its membership. Others, however, especially in the Kremlin, viewed it then and now as a framework for maintaining Moscow’s dominance over the region and even as a structure that should serve as the matrix for the reconstitution of a Russia-centric empire. Among those holding this viewpoint is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Consequently, the Kremlin has not held favorable views toward post-Soviet countries that have had an icy relationship with the organization.
Two notable examples of this are Georgia, which had been threatening to leave the CIS and did so after Moscow’s invasion, and Ukraine, which, though it never ratified the basic CIS accord did take part in CIS actions and made use of its provisions. Ukraine withdrew from the CIS after Moscow’s Anschluss of Crimea in 2014. Now, a third country, Moldova, has suspended participation in the organization and announced that it is planning to leave, as its relations with the European Union expand. As of yet, nothing indicates that Moscow is planning to respond with an invasion of a country Russia does not share a border with (unlike Georgia and Ukraine), but it is already clear that the Kremlin is taking measures intended to dissuade Moldova from leaving the CIS.
This situation is particularly fraught as it has become mixed with Russian anger about Moldova’s cooperation with the West in providing aid to Ukraine and Chisinau’s increasingly critical stance concerning Moscow’s full-on aggression against Kyiv. Some of the steps Moscow has taken build on policies Russian officials have long employed in Moldova, including backing demands for greater autonomy or even independence for Transnistria and Gagauzia (see EDM, June 23, September 26). But others are more “hybrid” and include threatening to expel the more than 200,000 Moldovan migrant workers currently in Russia, blocking trade between the two countries—something Chisinau is heavily reliant on—and promoting pro-Russian parties within Moldova (see EDM August 9; October 20; RuBaltic, October 30).
What makes this situation especially dangerous is that Moscow has always viewed any questioning of CIS membership as being part and parcel of plans by those countries to leave Russia’s security orbit and enter into that of the West, especially that of NATO, something Putin is, above all, committed to blocking (Kommersant, May 19). Consequently, although some in the Kremlin have argued against such a linkage and even suggested that Moscow should dismantle the CIS, given that the organization seldom reaches any agreements and that many of its members continue to exploit Russia while freely criticizing the Kremlin (REGNUM, July 29), it is quite unlikely that the Kremlin will back off Moldova’s case. Instead, as Chisinau is advancing toward becoming an EU member state, a road that President Maia Sandu has said will ultimately involve dispensing with membership in the CIS, Putin and his regime are likely to step up the pressure on Moldova, creating serious problems for Chisinau and its Western allies.
The current crisis has been building over the past year but has generally flown under the West’s radar. As recently as October 2021, Chisinau insisted that it had no plans to leave the CIS, though, even at that point, it had developed a reputation in Moscow for either not taking part in some CIS meetings or sending more junior officials, thus insulting the Russian side (Kommersant, December 28, 2021). Then in December 2021, President Sandu raised the possibility that Moldova could join NATO by uniting with Romania if certain conditions were met—remarks that brought a sharp rejoinder from Moscow (Vzglyad, December 28, 2021; December 28, 2021). And just this past spring, as Moldova successfully sought official EU candidate status, ever more voices, including Sandu’s, were heard saying that this would result in Moldova’s exit from the CIS and its inclusion not only in the EU but eventually in NATO as well. Underscoring her point, the Moldovan president suspended Chisinau’s participation in CIS bodies—a move that the Russian government viewed as a first step to a formal departure, similar to the one taken by Georgia in 2009. (RuBaltic, May 20).
Russian anger was further stoked when Sandu told the European Parliament in May 2022 that, in her view, “Crimea is Ukraine, the Donbas is Ukraine, Kyiv is Ukraine, and they always will be Ukraine,” a declaration that infuriated Moscow, which insisted that this statement meant Sandu was violating the neutrality enshrined in the Moldovan constitution. Some in Moldova agreed with Moscow and came out in opposition to the Moldovan leader and her policies, as the Russian government clearly expected. Even so, Chisinau has maintained its course, even increasing criticism of Russia’s moves in Ukraine and opening its territory for the transit of aid to Kyiv (RuBaltic, October 30).
Russia, in turn, has responded with economic steps that have driven Moldova deeper into recession; political ones, including boosting pro-Russian parties in Chisinau and autonomist groups in Transnistria and Gagauzia; and a war of words against Sandu’s government. While some Moldovans may have concluded that they need to slow or even stop any steps that Moscow might object to, others are confident that joining the EU and other Western institutions is the proper course, that their country can withstand Russian pressure and that dispensing with CIS membership is an entirely reasonable step (NewsMaker, May 20).
At present, Sandu and her government belong to the latter camp, but Moscow is unlikely to leave things where they currently stand. The Kremlin will most assuredly apply intensified pressure against Chisinau, which could easily spark a major crisis in Moldova. And the West would find such a conflict difficult, if not impossible, to ignore lest Putin, facing a wave of defeats in Ukraine, win a victory by keeping Moldova in the Russian orbit and preventing Chisinau from following the path of Tbilisi out of the CIS.