Analyses

The army of the Republic of Moldova is underprepared to repel a Russian attack. How did it come to this and what needs to be done?

Humvees of the national army participate in a parade during Moldova's Independence Day celebrations in the Great National Assembly Square in Chisinau, Moldova, 27 August 2016.
© EPA/DUMITRU DORU   |   Humvees of the national army participate in a parade during Moldova's Independence Day celebrations in the Great National Assembly Square in Chisinau, Moldova, 27 August 2016.

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The war in Ukraine has sparked a great of deal of concern in the Republic of Moldova, where the people have seen just how vulnerable the country is in case of a Russian attack. Neglected for years due to underfunding, incompetence or for the sake of neutrality, the army seems underprepared to efficiently defend the country. The West is trying to lend a helping hand and has promised to deliver military equipment.

The Moldovan army consists of only 4 gunships and 10 tanks, none of which are known to be operational

For 30 years, successive governments have put the endowment and training of the army at the bottom of their to-do list. Whereas in some cases this can be attributed to the lawmakers’ lack of vision or to underfunding, there were Cabinets that deliberately left the army in a precarious state, playing into the kind of narrative promoted by Russian propaganda in Chișinău, according to which the Republic of Moldova doesn’t need an army, and that in its 30 years of existence “no one attacked the Republic of Moldova.”

However, the Russian invasion in Ukraine has reshaped the regional security paradigm, and the Republic of Moldova found itself right outside the conflict area, with an undertrained army, facing a shortage of military equipment and having to deal with public concerns about a possible attack from Transnistria.

With an annual budget tantamount to 0.4% of its GDP, the equivalent of 47.6 million USD, the Moldovan army is ranked 94th in a top of the world’s 142 armies published by globalfirepower.com. The ranking measures the military capabilities of countries at global level. The Republic of Moldova has a total of 6,000 servicemen, including auxiliary staff.

For their most part, these are active personnel, not professional contractors. The likelihood of endowing the army with state-of-the-art equipment is slim, against the backdrop of a serious economic crisis currently facing the country at a time when global energy prices have increased dramatically, and Moldova is reliant on Russian gas imports. This has generated a string of price hikes and has prompted inflation to soar to 27%.

Apart from the 6,000 active servicemen and technical staff, the Republic of Moldova can also muster an additional 12,000 reserve troops and 1,000 paramilitary forces, raising its total military strength to 19,000. Still, technical equipment remains the most serious issue. According to Globalfirepower, the Republic of Moldova has only 4 gunships, which are de facto listed just in official records, while their level of operability remains unknown. Moreover, official records also list 10 tanks and 381 armored vehicles, 25 rocket projectors and 69 towed artillery systems.

On the other side of the Dniester, the separatist army of Transnistria has an estimated military strength of 7,000 equally undertrained servicemen, but also 1,600 Russian troops who are charged with keeping the peace in the area, and the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF), which is illegally stationed under the guise of guarding the munitions depot in Cobasna.

The OGRF and the “peacekeepers” are de facto one and the same army, rotating on a periodic basis in-between missions. Even though the majority of these Russian troops is represented by citizens from the separatist region, there is a core of 100 servicemen that train soldiers from Transnistria according to the professional standards of the Russian army.

Veridica has already discussed the fact that the armed forces of Transnistria are endowed with exclusively Soviet equipment, inherited from the USSR’s 14th Army. During the events of 1991-1992, Transnistrian troops withdrew a large number of weapons and equipment from 14 units of the Soviet army, according to the “Militarnyi” Ukrainian magazine.

According to official documents of the 14th Army command, 13,000 low-caliber weapons, 20 million live rounds, 19 tanks, RPG-7 grenade launchers, anti-tank RPG-18 and RPG-26 grenades, communication equipment, over 50 armored transporters, dozens of mortar systems, etc. were captured at the time. As it later turned out, these are mere estimates, and when the 14th Soviet army was decommissioned, Transnistrian troops actually inherited a larger amount of weapons.

The West wants to arm the Republic of Moldova, Russia has set its eye on Transnistria

Even if the army was never a priority for any of the successive governments in Chișinău, the war in neighboring Ukraine has changed the status quo. At the end of last month, in a speech marking Army Day, president Maia Sandu said the Republic of Moldova will invest additional funds in the army, despite being a neutral state.

“A strong and well-equipped army provides the country with maneuverability, confidence in its own forces and strategic options. Accordingly, we have to go to greater financial and logistical lengths in order to build up a professional, modern and well-supplied army”, Maia Sandu said on the sidelines of an event marking 30 years since the establishment of the General Staff of the Moldovan Army in Chișinău.

Furthermore, the discussion about providing the Republic of Moldova with weapons has gained further momentum in the West, admist an overall surge in Russian aggression in the south of Ukraine. During hist visit to Chișinău on May 4, European Council president Charles Michel said the EU will help consolidate the resilience of the Republic of Moldova, helping this country cope with the effects of the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

“Last year, we announced support of €7 million for equipment for the medical and engineering needs of the army under the European Peace Facility. And this year, we plan to significantly increase our support for Moldova by providing its armed forces with additional military equipment”, Charles Michel said.

In turn, the head of British diplomacy, Liz Truss, told The Telegraph in an interview that the United Kingdom has kicked off talks with its international allies in order to deliver modern weaponry to the Republic of Moldova with a view to protecting it from the threat of invasion by Russia. “I would want to see Moldova equipped to NATO standard. This is a discussion we’re having with our allies”, Secretary Truss said.

In the case of both statements made by Western officials, the pro-Russian forces from the Party of Socialists in the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) reacted, opposing any and all shipments of weapons, even for defensive purposes, each time invoking Moldova’s neutrality. This “ostrich” tactics to avoid problems by ignoring them only serves Moscow’s interests in Chișinău. The Foreign Ministry in Chișinău responded to the Socialists’ provocation in a statement that recalled the Peace Partnership, insisting that the Republic of Moldova is a neutral country.  

In fact, Russia has openly announced its intention to attack the Republic of Moldova as well, in the event it succeeds in capturing Odessa.

Russian General Minnekayev, the deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, told defense industry leaders during a meeting at the industrial military compound in Ekaterinburg on April 21, that Russia wants to take “full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine”. This will allow Russia particularly to support the pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria.

“Controlling southern Ukraine means securing a land corridor to Transnistria, where we have noticed such cases of persecution of the Russian-speaking population”, general Minnekayev said. His statement is the key to understanding Moscow’s plans for Moldova.

Security experts: right now, the Republic of Moldova is incapable of fighting off an aggression

Veridica has talked to a number of security and defense analysts and experts about how exactly the Republic of Moldova would fare in the event of a hypothetical confrontation with Russia, either direct or by proxy.

Natalia Albu, the director of the Center for Strategic Research of the Institute for Judicial, Political and Sociological Research (ICJPS) and an associate university professor at the “Alexandru cel Bun” Military Academy in Chișinău, says that, first and foremost, citizens should prepare how to react in various crisis situations as a result of ongoing developments. “This is meant to keep panic in check and prevent people from taking rash decisions”, the Moldovan expert said.

In turn, the director of the Center for NATO Information and Documentation (CID NATO) in Chișinău, Elena Mârzac, warned that, in addition to external risks, there are a number of variables regarding Russian supporters in the Republic of Moldova.

“Military risks overlap with security risks at home. And by that I refer to the Russian fifth column, represented by the pro-Russian opposition in Moldova. We’re talking about dividing society with messages conveyed by pro-Russian politicians who actively promote the idea that the Republic of Moldova should keep away from the conflict and distance itself from any other actions that could have a negative impact on its national security”, Elena Mârzac said, arguing that this clash of opinions at society level makes it difficult for authorities to support Ukraine as well as to consolidate the country’s defense capabilities.

The Moldovan expert went on to say that the Republic of Moldova currently needs to develop its deterrence military capabilities, and this can only be achieved with support from the West. “We can use all possible platforms at our disposal, we need to strengthen our military diplomacy, as well as to improve our communication with our citizens, to explain the current situation in order to dispel their confusion, because this is precisely the reason behind our domestic strife”, Elena Mârzac added.

On the other hand, military expert Claudiu Degeratu from Romania believes that the Republic of Moldova has a limited range of options if forced to repel a combined attack of the Russian and Transnistrian forces.

“From the point of view of a military scenario where the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) in Transnistria launches a military operation not just on land, but also on air, involving both artillery and gunships, the Republic of Moldova is incapable of dealing with anything but a positional type of war, meaning a series of actions undertaken by Russian forces without transgressing the demarcation line – the Dniester. In the event of mobile warfare, when enemy forces cross the river, things will get complicated. The Republic of Moldova is not prepared to deal with such actions”, the military expert warned.

Security expert Dumitru Mînzărari believes that Moscow’s proxy politicians in Chișinău are not the real security risk for the Republic of Moldova, as certain security advisers to Moldovan decision-makers have suggested. 

“Rather, I believe the Russian aggression might entail bigger risks – first a more likely indirect risk, then a less likely, although not negligible, risk. In the context of the war in Ukraine, the pressure has shifted on the Russians to produce results. And considering France, Germany and Italy seem to have changed their position and are pushing Ukraine to negotiate, the risks for Moldova are further escalating.

There are two drawbacks to such a scenario, which political leaders are indirectly responsible for: Ukrainian forces in the region of Odessa will never sanction a Russian intervention, while the regime in Tiraspol will refuse to get involved in a Russian operation. What is certain is that Transnistrian lawmakers would rather sit out a Russian invasion in Moldova, but the issue is they have no leverage to stop Russia, in case Moscow turns up the pressure”.

Mînzărari went on to say that, in the event a conflict breaks out with Russia, Moldova stands a chance only if it defends itself.

“Moldova might be able to repel a Russian invasion with a (two or three times) smaller military force. Ukraine has provided an example as how to prepare for such a scenario, in addition to military practice. Then, due to its geographic location, the number of Russian forces that might be ordered to attack Moldova would be small. We were able to see that the Russians failed to mobilize enough troops to mount a successful offensive in the case of Ukraine. Which means that, if the Russians send some 10,000 soldiers to the Republic of Moldova, some 3 or 5 thousand Moldovan servicemen might be able to fend off the attack, with the right preparations”, Mînzărari added. 

Nevertheless, the expert warns that Moldova lacks this kind of preparation at the moment, and decision-makers in Chișinău have deliberately refused to take action in this respect.

“Such preparations take a while to put in place, requiring concentrated efforts over the course of at least 6 to 12 months in order to deliver tangible results. For this reason, preparations should have started right after the Russians attacked Ukraine in February. The effort should include training part of the population in order to organize territorial resistance units that should support the active armed forces”, the military expert concluded.

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9 minutes read
  • For 30 years, successive governments have put the endowment and training of the army at the bottom of their to-do list. Whereas in some cases this can be attributed to the lawmakers’ lack of vision or to underfunding, there were Cabinets that deliberately left the army in a precarious state, playing into the kind of narrative promoted by Russian propaganda in Chișinău, according to which the Republic of Moldova doesn’t need an army, and that in its 30 years of existence “no one attacked the Republic of Moldova.”
  • Even if the army was never a priority for any of the successive governments in Chișinău, the war in neighboring Ukraine has changed the status quo. At the end of last month, in a speech marking Army Day, president Maia Sandu said the Republic of Moldova will invest additional funds in the army, despite being a neutral state.
  • The discussion about providing the Republic of Moldova with weapons has gained further momentum in the West, admist an overall surge in Russian aggression in the south of Ukraine. During hist visit to Chișinău on May 4, European Council president Charles Michel said the EU will help consolidate the resilience of the Republic of Moldova, helping this country cope with the effects of the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
  • Natalia Albu, the director of the Center for Strategic Research of the Institute for Judicial, Political and Sociological Research (ICJPS) and an associate university professor at the “Alexandru cel Bun” Military Academy in Chișinău, says that, first and foremost, citizens should prepare how to react in various crisis situations as a result of ongoing developments. “This is meant to keep panic in check and prevent people from taking rash decisions”, the Moldovan expert said.
  • Military expert Claudiu Degeratu from Romania believes that the Republic of Moldova has a limited range of options if forced to repel a combined attack of the Russian and Transnistrian forces.
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