Russia’s war in Ukraine and general assault on the European order are impacting Moldova more directly and dangerously than any of Ukraine’s (or, for that matter, Russia’s) other neighboring countries. Chisinau’s firmly Western-oriented leadership took charge, barely one year ago, of the weakest and most vulnerable state and society in Europe’s East. This characteristically Moldovan disjuncture presents Russia with significant openings to capitalize on state weakness and social discontent, destabilize the government and potentially topple it.
Whether Moscow intends to orchestrate a change of regime in Moldova—and if so, to what ends and by what means—are open questions at this point. Russia has, in any case, thrown these queries open for the first time in 30 years since Moldova‘s independence.
Since 1992, the Kremlin has never attempted to install an outright pro-Russia government in Moldova and has refrained from any type of regime-changing intervention there. Russia’s political and economic interests in Moldova were limited and continually diminished over time. Moldova‘s geopolitical value to Russia was well-nigh negligible in its own right, all the more so when 1,000 kilometers of Ukrainian territory separated Russia from Moldova. Moscow never evidenced a serious interest in turning Chisinau into a satellite. Russia’s interests were confined to retaining its uncontested hold on Transnistria, preserving Moldova’s self-imposed neutrality and counting on Chisinau’s incompetent and corrupt leaders to keep the country in a gray zone between Russia and Europe. To perpetuate this state of affairs, Russia made limited investments in Moldova’s Russophile political forces, using them (primarily Igor Dodon‘s Socialist Party in recent years) as a blocking stake in Moldova’s political system, never pressing for a takeover of power but rather for “balance” between the West and Russia (see EDM, July 8, 9, 13, 15, 19, 2021).
Those Russian interests and priorities in Moldova are still in effect today. The other parameters, however, have changed dramatically with the advent of pro-Western forces coming to power in Chisinau, the Russian army‘s offensive in Ukraine creeping toward Moldova’s borders and Russia‘s shift from a policy of “balance” to a winner-take-all policy in Europe’s East. In this new context, the Kremlin’s self-defined interests and stakes in Moldova can be expected to rise commensurately with Russia’s higher ambitions in the region.
Were Moscow to adopt a regime-change policy in Moldova, the baseline scenario would use leftist-Russophile parties to that end. These groups would be expected to channel social discontent into political protests and lead crowds to lay siege to Moldovan government institutions. Activists of those parties have begun rehearsing such actions in Chisinau with small crowds of their own supporters, without a massive base yet (Newsmaker, June 10, July 25; TASS, July 28).
Moldovan authorities must also brace for “hybrid” operations with a military or paramilitary dimension in the event that Russia does embark on regime change. That dimension could come into play if the situation calls for seizing a government building in some “Russian-speaking” enclave and evicting Moldovan authorities from the area. This model was observed in Transnistria in 1991–1992, long before operations began in Donbas in 2014.
Chisinau did not make the necessary preparations for such “hybrid” contingencies during the intervening years. Moldova is also defenseless in conventional military terms. As Ukrainian analyst Artem Filipenko observes, the Ukrainian army has practically become the guarantor of Moldova’s independence and security by blocking the Russian army’s advance toward Odesa and the Moldovan border (UNIAN, June 12).
A Russian breakthrough to Odesa (one of Moscow’s declared military objectives at the outset of this war) would strongly impact Moldova politically and psychologically. The Russian army looming on the border would (even without direct intervention) undoubtedly tip Moldova’s internal political balance in favor of pro-Russia forces. President Maia Sandu seems to be anticipating that effect already: “As the Russian-Ukrainian front line moves closer to our border, internal political forces seek to destabilize the situation. … We brace for all scenarios, including the most pessimistic ones“ (Ziarul National, July 29).
Chisinau’s current leadership is undoubtedly the most dedicated to the country’s interests and most resolutely pro-Western leadership that Moldova has ever elected. Nevertheless, President Sandu, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita‘s government and the parliamentary majority of the Action and Solidarity Party (Moldovan acronym, PAS) are experiencing a dramatic fall in their popularity ratings amid intractable economic, energy, financial, heath and refugee crises. Inflation is running at a rate of 32 percent (annualized) as of July 2022, up from 29 percent in June (Noi.md, July 28). The war in Ukraine has also cut off Moldovan agricultural producers from the Russian and Belarusian markets (both of which the government had been seeking to access without regard to ideological considerations before the war). Moldova is currently receiving no foreign direct investment, and the government finds itself compelled to spend all its meager resources on consumption rather than development. International grants and loans are keeping the country—and, with it, the pro-Western government—afloat for the time being.
For their part, the Russophile and corruption-ridden opposition parties capitalize on all these crises. They exonerate Russia of all responsibility for stoking these multiple predicaments, blame them on the Moldovan government and its Western partners and are surging in all Moldovan public opinion polls, well ahead of PAS at this point. They are trying to force snap elections later this year.