The Russian bombardments on Ukraine also alerted the authorities in Chisinau after, on several occasions, fragments of rockets fell on the territory of the Republic of Moldova. The incidents showed how vulnerable the Republic of Moldova is from a military point of view, without an anti-aircraft defense and with an army of only six thousand people. But the biggest danger to the security and stability of the state seems to come from elsewhere – from the informational space controlled by Russia and from some politicians who enjoy, openly or secretly, the support of Moscow.
Russia's military threats to the Republic of Moldova, from missiles to a possible invasion
The massive missile attack launched by Russia on Ukraine on January 14, 2023, has affected the Republic of Moldova as well. Fragments of a rocket were discovered by the border police near the town of Larga, in the north of the country, close to the border with Ukraine.
This time, the fragments also contained the missile's warhead, which was later destroyed by soldiers by means of a controlled explosion.
The Chisinau authorities did not specify what kind of missile it was and who launched it - Russia or the Ukrainian anti-aircraft.
It was the third incident of this kind on the territory of the Republic of Moldova. The first was registered on October 31 last year near the town of Naslavcea, also in the north of the Republic of Moldova, when apparently fragments of a Kalibr missile destroyed by the Ukrainian anti-aircraft, fell near that village. The blast destroyed the windows of several houses.
The second incident occurred on December 5, near the town of Briceni, also located in the far north of the Republic of Moldova. This time, missile fragments were discovered in an orchard near the town, also following a missile attack on Ukraine.
It is very likely that these incidents occurred due to Russian missiles aimed at the Novodnestrovsk power plant, located on the Dniester, just a few kilometers from the border with the Republic of Moldova.
Mention should be made here that on October 10, three Russian missiles flew over the airspace of the Republic of Moldova, which Russia refused to admit.
Against the backdrop of the latest incident in this series, the one on January 14, the President of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, condemned the brutal war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, emphasizing that it directly affects the Republic of Moldova.
Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița also condemned Russia's missile attack on Ukraine in the same terms:
“There is no political, historical and even more so moral justification for killing civilians and attacking the infrastructure that ensures the survival of the population. I express my deep indignation at the new massive attack on Ukraine. I express my indignation for the lack of respect for the sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova, its airspace being flown over again today and the remains of a missile falling in the vicinity of Larga town, in the Briceni district. I express my support for the heroic Ukrainian people and our support for the victims of Russia's barbaric attack”, Gavrilița wrote on Facebook.
Russia has not commented on the missile incident reported near Larga.
However, it is worth noting how the Moscow media, Radio Sputnik in particular, reported on Natalia Gavrilița's statement regarding this incident. The Russian press wrote that Gavrilița was outraged by the lack of respect for the sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova, specifying that the statement was made in the context in which, near the border with Ukraine, the fragments of an unidentified missile were discovered.
Not a word about Russia. In general, when one reads the news, one gets the impression that the authorities in Chisinau are outraged by Kyiv’s, not Moscow’s actions, though the latter is clear in the statements made by the Moldovan officials.
Some experts, such as the former Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuță, believe that the January 14 incident should be regarded as a new alarm signal for the Chisinau authorities.
According to Marinuță, the Republic of Moldova is on the war maps of the Russian Federation, and the risks are high as long as the fighting continues in Ukraine.
In the opinion of the former Defense Minister, missile fragments falling on the territory of the Republic of Moldova no longer represents a singular incident, but a constant threat. The Chisinau authorities should start acting and prepare the economy, the military and the reserve forces, as well as the civilians, in case the situation escalates, Vitalie Marinuță believes. He also believes that, against the background of the intensification of Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian towns, the Republic of Moldova risks being the victim of incidents with even more serious consequences.
The same opinion is shared by security expert Ion Leahu, who drew attention to the fact that Russia still has a great capacity for war:
“Russia, having a huge economy, and until recently colossal revenues from the sale of crude oil and gas, will be able to afford a war economy for a long time to come, an economy that produces missiles, projectiles and tanks. In this situation, if Ukraine manages to resist, then we can resist too. But if Russia defeats Ukraine, our prospects are bleak”, Ion Leahu stressed.
Increasing the defense budget does not solve the Republic of Moldova’s security issues. A potential integration into NATO is also being discussed in Chisinau
Chisinau remains vulnerable to Russian missiles flying over or falling on its territory, as the Republic of Moldova has no anti-aircraft defense. At the recent Economic Forum in Davos, Maia Sandu asked the Western allies for anti-aicraft defense systems. “We understand that Ukraine is a priority and should receive these systems, but we hope to receive some as well”, she said.
Air defense, along with the strengthening of the military capabilities of the Republic of Moldova, remains an open issue, which began to be seriously discussed only after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, on February 24, 2022.
The Republic of Moldova currently has one of the weakest armies in the world. According to the Global Firepower 2023 index, it ranks 143rd out of a total of 145 countries.
The current government in Chisinau is probably the first that, since the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Moldova in 1991, takes seriously the reform of the National Army. The military budget for 2023 was increased by almost 70% compared to 2022, up to 1.7 billion Moldovan lei, i.e., over 83.3 million euros, which accounts, though, for only 0.55 % of the Gross Domestic Product. However, it remains the largest military budget that the army of the Republic of Moldova has ever had.
Despite this increase, experts believe that the respective funds are insufficient to cover the needs of the national defense system.
Strengthening the military capabilities of the Republic of Moldova seems impossible without the help of external partners. Chisinau understands this very well and tries in every way it can to get the support of some NATO countries, although, according to the Constitution, the Republic of Moldova is a neutral state.
The National Army has recently received the first three Pirahna III armored vehicles from a batch of 19, donated by the German government under a 2021 agreement.
Previously, the United States also donated Humvee armored vehicles and trucks to the National Army, currently used by the military of the Republic of Moldova in national and international exercises.
However, given that Ukraine managed to stop the Russian army, and even pushed it across the Dnieper, forcing it to leave the occupied Kherson at the beginning of the invasion, the Republic of Moldova does not appear to be in imminent danger of being attacked by Moscow's troops .
In a statement in late December last year, President Maia Sandu said that “...... for the time being, it is important to say that there are no imminent dangers for the Republic of Moldova due to the courage of the Ukrainian army [...] Today we can say that the danger is further from us than it was six months ago”.
The new context also led to the resumption of discussions regarding a potential integration of the Republic of Moldova into NATO, an Alliance that could truly ensure its security. Such a step would be relatively difficult, because it involves removing the neutrality provision from the Constitution, which would be quite difficult. Moreover, it is not enough for the Republic of Moldova to ask to be admitted into NATO - on the one hand, the request must be approved by all allies, and on the other, Moldova must meet a set of criteria that the Alliance requires from its members. Anyway, the very fact that Maia Sandu has admitted that there are talks underway in Chisinau on whether the Republic of Moldova should be part of a bigger alliance is significant enough. The fact that Maia Sandu avoided saying that the alliance in question was NATO (the only one of its kind currently relevant in Europe) shows how sensitive the topic is.
The biggest danger – the information space and the politicians supported by Russia. Pro-Russians are positioning themselves for the 2023 local elections
While from a military point of view, the Republic of Moldova seems to be relatively safe as long as the Ukrainian troops manage to prevent the Russian army from advancing to the West, things are not the same from a political or informational point of view.
It is likely that, in the coming months, Russia will try to further its interests through loyal politicians, old and new, who have played or will play Moscow's game, especially in an election year like this one, 2023. In the fall of this year, local elections will take place in the Republic of Moldova, which should be seen, as some experts say, as a general rehearsal for the 2025 parliamentary elections.
In fact, the pro-Russian opposition - the one declared as such but also the one that does not openly identify in this way - has started to become very active in the information space of the Republic of Moldova. The Shor Party (led by the controversial politician and businessman, Ilan Shor, also on the US sanctions list, who declares himself to be staunchly pro-Russian) has been increasingly present on social media. The new party of the mayor of Chisinau, Ion Ceban, the National Alternative Movement, was also registered. Ion Ceban, who left the Socialist Party, although avoiding to openly support Russia, appears to have previously received support from political advisers close to the Russian government, according to the US authorities.
More recently, another controversial political figure - Renato Usatii - has announced that he is returning to public life, after announcing his retirement in 2021. The first thing he did at the press conference in which he announced his comeback was to harshly criticize the pro-European president Maia Sandu and praise Ion Ceban.
The Republic of Moldova remains extremely vulnerable in terms of information as well. Even though the authorities in Chisinau have recently suspended the broadcast license of six TV stations, close to the Socialist Party and the SHOR Party, which were rebroadcasting Russian television programs, Moscow's propaganda is still strong enough in the Republic of Moldova.
Data from the Public Opinion Barometer, a survey made public in early December last year, confirm it. Almost 22% of the respondents to the survey could find good reasons for Russia's invasion of Ukraine and just over 36% believed that Ukraine was the right side in this war. 22% said neither side was right, and 18% didn't know how to answer. This is the picture, although those who support the war waged by Russia have access to more information, other than the fake news promoted by the Kremlin, and can find without restrictions information about the horrors committed by the Russian troops in Ukraine.
Russian and pro-Russian propaganda tries to be increasingly present on social media, which is exactly where the authorities in Chisinau cannot intervene too much, especially since the Internet has currently become one of the main sources of information in the Republic of Moldova and is catching up with television.
Therefore, it is expected that as the election date is drawing near, this propaganda will move up a gear, an then more, and will focus not only on the war waged by Russia in Ukraine, but especially on slandering in every way possible the current pro-European government in Chisinau. At the same time, Moscow will probably try to promote its people to the top of as many town halls as possible (of course it will not do it openly!), so that at the decisive moment, i.e. the parliamentary elections due in 2025 at the latest, they intervene in the favor of pro-Russian political forces or, under certain conditions, try and destabilize the situation domestically, right before the general elections. Such a precedent was created in the autumn of last year, when the Shor Party, supported by the communists, decided, taking advantage of price increases and the worsening of the economic situation, to organize large-scale protests, which, however, failed because they did not enjoy popular support and could not gather more than 4,000 – 5,000 people.
Therefore, it is expected that in the coming months, in addition to the missiles flying over of falling on its territory, the Republic of Moldova will have to face much subtler, but more dangerous attacks, coming from the information space, which could compromise its European prospects, as well as the support coming from the West, without which Chisinau couldn’t face the multiple crises it has to face today.