Putin’s advancing war fuels a struggle over Moldova’s future – POLITICO

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CHIȘINĂU — The sun is shining and retirees are dancing to old Soviet tunes blaring from an outdoor speaker. The war raging just across the border in Ukraine seems far away.

But it threatens to tear Moldova apart.

“I love this city,” says Catelina, a 24-year-old shop assistant, looking out over the capital’s green park. “But who knows what will happen tomorrow. After Ukraine, we might be next.”

Moldova is in a precarious position. Largely encircled by Ukraine, it has a potential powder keg to the east: Transnistria, a breakaway region controlled by pro-Russian separatists with the help of some 1,500 Russian soldiers.

The contested region has remained virtually unchanged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, even down to the hammer and sickle flag. Moscow says its troops are staying to keep the peace in the narrow strip of land along the Dniester River. Chisinau accuses them of illegally occupying the area. The international community wants them to leave the territory of Moldova. Nobody moved.

That might change.

Two weeks ago, one of Russia’s top generals declared that “gaining control of southern Ukraine will provide a gateway into Transnistria” and that “the Russian-speaking population there also faces oppression.”

Since then, officials in Tiraspol, the capital of the self-proclaimed separatist republic, have sounded the alarm over alleged attacks on government buildings and said they had foiled drone strikes by “Ukrainian terrorists”. Analysts say the reports could be part of a false flag campaign aimed at dragging the region to war.

“What started as concern quickly turns into panic,” said Igor Munteanu, a former career diplomat who served as Moldova’s ambassador to the United States and now heads the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives in Chisinau.

“There are statements from the Russian side that make it clear that Moldova is a target and there may be plans for an invasion from Transnistria,” he added. “But society is divided on what to do – Ukraine warns we’re next, while our leaders insist the best thing to do is placate Moscow by staying out of the war.”

Standing on the fence – for now

So far, the Moldovan government has resisted calls to join the EU and Western allies in imposing sanctions on Russia and exporting arms to Ukraine, citing its constitutional obligation to remain neutral.

In practice, however, the country may be forced to choose between East and West – and the country is divided on which path to take.

A poll conducted in April by research center CBS-AXA and seen exclusively by POLITICO before publication found that 46 percent of Moldovans polled said they viewed the Russian invasion as an “unjustified attack,” but 18 percent believed the Russian invasion was wrong Leaving the Kremlin to believe that this is a “liberation of the country from Nazism”. One in five also said Moscow is only defending Ukraine’s Donbass region — where Russian-backed separatists have been battling Kiev’s military for years. This means that almost half of Putin’s argument for war is persuasive.

A soldier checks passengers entering the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria on April 28, 2022 Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s a huge split in the middle,” Munteanu pointed out. “This is the legacy that comes from being part of the Soviet Union – and from Russian propaganda.”

Despite this, the country elected Maia Sandu, a US-educated economist, as president in 2020, handing her pro-EU center-right party a clear majority. During the election campaign, Sandu promised to be “the president of European integration,” a contrast to the two-pronged foreign policy of her predecessors.

Now, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, her dream is closer than ever. Last Thursday, the European Parliament endorsed a non-binding resolution welcoming Moldova’s application to join the EU. But as the second poorest country on the continent, Moldova’s EU accession would be a long road, requiring the government to strengthen the rule of law and make significant reforms.

Nevertheless, the EU is courting Moldova. European Council President Charles Michel landed in Chisinau last week to meet with Sandu and pledge the bloc’s support.

“Moldova is particularly affected by this war in your neighborhood,” he said, promising to significantly increase shipments of military equipment to the country.

Hours after the press conference, however, the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs cleared that the “aid does not and will not cover deadly weapons” – a move many saw as a way to avoid a direct confrontation with Moscow.

farewell to neutrality

Some in Moldova argue that an influx of deadly weapons is just what the country needs.

“We need guns, we need ammunition, we need drones and anti-tank weapons,” said Viorel Cibotaru, a veteran Liberal Democratic Party politician who was the country’s defense minister until 2015. “The EU must help us strengthen our military capabilities and get rid of our Soviet legacy.”

Cibotaru told POLITICO the invasion of Ukraine created an urgent need to resolve the Transnistrian standoff once and for all.

“This is not a conflict between our citizens – we have more Russians here in Chisinau than in Transnistria,” he said. “It’s not about ethnicity or religion – the difference is that Russian soldiers are open there while their spies and proxies are covert here.”

After campaigning for Sandu, Cibotaru, who became the first Moldovan to train as a lieutenant colonel in 1999 at the NATO Defense College, said his country had been caught between two opposing forces for too long.

“We are not just a buffer zone – we are in the heart of Europe – but right now we are being turned into the Gaza Strip,” he said. “And as a result, our young people lose confidence and move abroad.”

More than a million Moldovans already have EU passports, he noted – a high number in a country of 2.6 million people. “What else can we do to be European?” Cibotaru wondered.

Others see Moldova’s EU bid, submitted by Sandu in March, as a test case for former Soviet republics still working to break free from Russian influence.

“In the past, there was a business-as-usual attitude about Moldova having a separatist conflict in Transnistria,” said Vlad Lupan, Moldova’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “Telling us that we cannot join the EU until it is resolved is basically telling Moscow that it can simply organize a separatist conflict to block the integration of nations into the EU.”

That challenge, he argued, is now largely over as the war in Ukraine draws attention to Moldova’s future both at home and in Brussels. Ukraine has similarly pushed for accelerated EU membership even as it fends off Russian invaders.

“But to quote a Russian proverb,” said Lupan, “until there is thunder, no one prays to be saved from the storm. The question is whether these reforms can be implemented before it is too late.”

The ties that connect

Not everyone is so unconcerned about Moldova turning its back on its historical ties to the east. Vladislav Sobacinschi, a 23-year-old student from the northern town of Singerei, considers Russian, not Moldovan, to be his first language, and both parents have lived in Moscow for work.

“When the war in Ukraine started, I was very concerned that it might spread,” he said. “The fact that most people here have a pro-Western attitude means that our relations with Russia have deteriorated to this level.”

Meanwhile, a poll by Chisinau-based research firm Date Inteligente released in March found that around 60 percent of Moldovans support EU membership, which would offer significant economic and migratory benefits, but up to three-quarters oppose abandoning neutrality and the NATO military alliance to join

Other reservations also need to be overcome. Moldova relies on Moscow’s state energy giant Gazprom for almost all gas imports and has accumulated around $7.8 billion in debt with the company.

At the end of last year, Gazprom threatened to turn off the taps if the outstanding bills were not paid. Only after signing a new deal obliging Chișinău to continue pumping supplies to industrial complexes owned by Russian oligarchs in Transnistria did she relent.

“In this way, the Kremlin subsidizes the separatists, enriches its own elite and tries to maintain influence in Moldova,” lamented Munteanu, the former US Ambassador to Moldova.

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The headquarters of the Operative Group of Russian Troops in Tiraspol, the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria | Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

It is unclear how Moldova could get out of this situation. Munteanu pointed to the Iași-Chișinău gas pipeline, which connects Moldova with Romania, an EU member. In theory, the project could help reduce Moldova’s dependence on Russian gas, but it has been little used since construction was completed last year.

is there a choice

With Gazprom raising prices and Kyiv urging European nations to stop sending cash to Moscow, boosting EU imports may be Moldova’s only choice – economically and politically.

Putin’s invasion has already drawn support from the international community in other ways, as Moldova is home to some 95,000 refugees from Ukraine, including a large number of women and children.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot compared to the 1 million that Poland has taken in, but Moldova is a small country with a relatively weak state,” said Lars Lonnback, who heads the UN’s International Humanitarian Aid Organization as the head of the migration mission. “Considering how fragile it is, it’s barely holding up.”

And in Moldova, there are fears that Russia could use its May 9 holiday – a militaristic celebration of Nazi Germany’s defeat – to stage a provocation in the country’s disputed region.

Natasha Kuhrt, a war research expert at King’s College London, said such speculation – perhaps even more so than actual military activity – is a core piece of the Kremlin’s playbook. It is an instrument intended to intimidate Moldova into neutrality.

“Because Transnistria is cut off and Ukraine is able to shoot down their planes, their troops cannot be reinforced or resupplied, so it’s hard to imagine them launching an offensive,” she said. “Instead, they sow fear.”

However, that fear may simply drive Moldova west, just as it drove Ukraine into the EU and Finland and Sweden into NATO.

In other words, it could just be another unintended consequence of the Kremlin’s war.

https://www.politico.eu/article/putin-war-russia-ukraine-moldova-transnistria-border-separatists/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Putin's advancing war fuels a struggle over Moldova's future - POLITICO

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