Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unnerved Chișinău. Many talk about the risk the Republic of Moldova could be Moscow’s next target, something which Russian propaganda also suggested. On the other hand, the Republic of Moldova could also seize this opportunity to definitely break away with Russia and accelerate its integration into the Western world.
The war in Ukraine has brought to light the countless problems the Republic of Moldova is struggling with
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, recently said that, should Russia succeed in occupying Ukraine, the war would go on. “Poland, Moldova, Romania and the Baltic States would be next in line, if Ukraine loses its freedom”, the Kyiv leader warned.
Still, it’s hard to image Russia would attack Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia in the current context, considering these are all NATO member states. This would mean the entire North Atlantic Treaty Alliance would get involved. At the same time, since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has revealed its serious military vulnerabilities.
The Republic of Moldova, on the other hand, is a completely different matter. We’re talking about a small country that, since it proclaimed its independence in 1991, has permanently oscillated between East and West. This is a country that is military neutral, but which has Russian troops stationed on its territory, in the breakaway region of Transnistria, which is currently outside the authority of the government in Chișinău.
The war in Ukraine has brought to light the numerous problems the Republic of Moldova has or will have to deal with as a result of the Russian invasion in the neighboring country. At the same time, the war has also created a series of opportunities that have never before presented themselves to Chișinău, and which the authorities need to capitalize on in order to consolidate the country’s energy, economic, information and cybernetic security.
Risks created by the war in Ukraine, from a Russian aggression to an economic crisis
The biggest risk stems from the Russian military aggression. Should Russia succeed in breaking the defenses in the Mykolaiv and Kherson provinces and eventually reach Odessa, Russian troops might just as well invade the entire territory of the Republic of Moldova. In a more positive scenario, it might just settle for taking Transnistria.
Evidence in favor of the fact that the Republic of Moldova was included in Russia’s original war strategy is the map Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, showed to his generals in one of the briefings he had with his staff at the start of the war in Ukraine. The map in question showed the direction and routes the Russian forces would follow, and one target was the Republic of Moldova. More specifically, an arrow outlined the movement of Russian units towards the east of Moldova, which is also where Transnistria is. So, it is unclear if Moscow wanted to capture the entire country or just the separatist east.
Since it is not a member of NATO or any other military alliance, and because it cannot rely on a professional and efficient army, the Republic of Moldova would not be able to resist a Russian invasion, and would be occupied really fast. This is the biggest threat targeting Chișinău right now.
Other risks have to do with energy security. Moldova’s only gas supplier is the Russian company Gazprom. In case Gazprom cuts gas supplies, for one reason or another, Chișinău would have to buy gas on the free market, which would entail considerably higher costs. The same happened in October last year, when Gazprom stopped selling gas to the Republic of Moldova, and the latter had to purchase natural gas from various European suppliers at prices that would have been unsustainable for household users, had the government not partially subsidized them.
The same goes for fuel, which in addition to natural gas, was the object of repeated price hikes. On top of that, the economic fallout from Covid only made matters worse. Soaring prices were reported all over the world, not just in the Republic of Moldova. The effects, however, could be catastrophic for one of Europe’s poorest countries.
Furthermore, in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova has lost access to Eastern markets. One of them is Ukraine, a country that due to the war with Russia has changed its priorities. But other markets are Russia and Belarus, which were the traditional targets of fruit exports from the Republic of Moldova, in addition to other goods. The Republic of Moldova has not joined international sanctions against Russia, but due to trade routes getting blocked because of the war, transportation costs have skyrocketed, which has curbed the profitability of trading with Russia and Belarus.
Despite this new economic crisis, Chișinău authorities also had to deal with a large number of refugees that reached the Republic of Moldova, fleeing the war. Starting February 24, over 400 thousand Ukrainian refugees have entered the Republic of Moldova, of whom 100 thousand have remained in the country. The figure accounts for nearly 4% of Moldova’s total population. Sheltering them has put immense financial strain on the authorities.
Another vulnerability is information security, and the impact of Russian disinformation and propaganda on Moldovan society. There are still many Moldovan citizens who support Russia in its war against Ukraine. A survey conducted by Magenta Consulting in early March shows that 20% of respondents “side with Russia”. Admittedly, 51% of participants said they support Ukraine.
Even so, judging by the findings of the aforementioned survey, the fact that a fifth of the population supports an aggressor state that can invade the Republic of Moldova at any point in time represents a major risk.
Therefore, securing the information space should become a priority for Chișinău authorities. Some steps have been taken in this respect. Shortly after the war started in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova banned the rebroadcast of news or analysis programs aired in states that did not ratify the European Convention on Transfrontier Television, Russia in particular. The ban was temporary at first, then the authorities decided to make it permanent. Moreover, a number of websites spreading Russian propaganda were also closed down.
However, this is hardly enough. Russian propaganda has become a genuine instrument of war which Moscow uses primarily against its own citizens. The overwhelming majority of Russians supports the invasion of Ukraine, whereas the approval rating of the Kremlin leader, Vladimir Putin, has gone up again, after reporting a constant drop in recent years.
This instrument of war is also used against the Republic of Moldova. Chișinău authorities should step up and combat it efficiently in order to marginalize its effects. An encouraging signal in this respect was the law adopted by the Moldovan Parliament that banned the symbols of the Russian aggression in Ukraine – the letters Z and V as well as the so-called ribbon of Saint George.
Opportunities created by the war: the break with Russia, the shift towards the West and fast-tracking EU integration
Despite the fact that the Republic of Moldova is now the second most affected country by the war in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion also provides Chișinău with a number of long-term opportunities.
The first and most important of them is moving away from Russia’s orbit and reorienting economic, financial, energy, information and cultural policies towards other states, primarily Western countries, including Romania.
This would boost the European integration process, and it seems Brussels too finally understands that countries in the EU’s eastern vicinity, countries like the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, are very unlikely to remain in the free world unless they are welcomed in the community bloc. A high-ranking official in Brussels recently pointed out that these countries will either become part of the EU, or will get swallowed by Russia, which, unless it is driven out of Ukraine, will certainly not stop here and will continue to move further westwards.
The EU’s change of attitude actually favors the Republic of Moldova. We have seen how Chișinău authorities have already submitted their official request to join the EU, and were sent the questionnaire they need to fill in so that Moldova should be given candidate status. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Republic of Moldova will become a member of the EU any time soon, but it is for the first time that Moldova’s European integration prospects represent a genuine possibility. Chișinău should turn Brussels’s change of perspective to its own advantage and accelerate the process of acceding to the community bloc in every way possible.
Similarly, Moldova should also ramp up its efforts to join the European energy market. Early action has already been taken in this direction. The Iași-Chișinău pipeline was built and rendered operational, which ensures the interconnection of the Republic of Moldova and EU natural gas grids, and which might also provide the necessary gas supplies (although not for Transnistria) in case Gazprom cuts gas deliveries. Additionally, the Republic of Moldova, much like Ukraine, has managed to connect to European electricity networks. Admittedly, the route transits Ukraine, which would significantly increase the price for electricity deliveries from the European Union. Still, it would secure Moldova’s electricity input in case the Cuciurgan Power Plant suspends its deliveries to the Republic of Moldova. The power plant is located in Transnistria and is controlled by a Russian company. For a higher degree of security, Moldovan authorities should also accelerate the process of building a high-voltage power line linking Isaccea to Vulcănești and then Chișinău. Contruction works have already started and the project is expected to connect the Republic of Moldova to Romania’s power grid.
At the same time, exports that until now were bound to Russian and Belarussian markets, will now have to be redirected to other markets. Prior to the war, large quantities of apples produced in Moldova were bought by retailers from Romania. Moldovan exporters should not settle for European countries, but must also seek to reach markets outside Europe, such as Egypt or Jordan, which could show an interest for Moldovan fruit and grapes.
The consequences of the war make Russia less appealing in the long run
These opportunities must be tapped into really fast, and the process of European integration must be accelerated as much as possible. Moldovan citizens, in particular those that feel nostalgic about Moscow, should now understand that the die has been cast and that Russia will never return to its pre-war status for many years to come. Moldovans will no longer be able to go to Russia to work and make a living, since as a result of war-related sanctions, Russia will be impoverished. Russian products lose their competitiveness, in the absence of access to advanced technologies. The international community will never look at Russian culture the same way after all the atrocities the Russian army committed in occupied towns and villages in Ukraine.
Therefore, the only solution for the Republic of Moldova is European integration, and it looks like, this time, not just Chișinău, but also Brussels is seriously considering such a prospect that ultimately depends on just how far Russia will advance in Ukraine.