MS Risk Blog

Moldavia Towards EU and Russia’s Reaction

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The newly elected Moldavian President Maia Sandu’s policies, internally and externally, are expected to be challenged by Russia’s interest in the region. Notwithstanding the Russian strategic interest, an opportunity is present, and the Moldavian political landscape has the momentum to exploit it. As the Kremlin seeks reassurances that the country will not accede to re-unite with Romania and implicitly with the EU, Moscow will try to follow a patten consistent with its overall strategy towards the West – focusing on disinformation and bellicose statements. Despite Russia’s military prowess posture, President Putin is facing instability all around from the Caucasus to Belarus. As a result, President Putin might be deterred from venturing into a new armed conflict in Moldova, inadvertently opening the possibility for President Maia to implement pro-EU policies. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis might be just the opening that Moldavia needs to swerve free out of Russia’s sphere of influence. Fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Western sanctions, and a low petrol price, Russia’s 2020 GDP growth is projected to contract by 7 percent, an eleven-year low, with a moderate recovery in 2021-2022. Factoring in also the Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal, where Russia must commit new forces, and with a tensed eye on how the Belarus social unrest is developing, the emergence of a new Moldavian conflict is something that Russia will do everything in its power to avoid. The avoidance policy that Russia will embrace will inadvertently create a space for a compromise.

President Maia Sandu’s latest public statement that Russia should withdraw its peacekeeping force from the self-proclaimed Transnistria republic caught Moscow by surprise. The wake-up call ring, from Moldavia’s pro EU leaderships, betrays the Kremlin’s policymakers lack of interest in the matter. Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin Press Secretary, stated that an abrupt departure of the Russian troops will create the conditions for ethnic violence and argued that dialogue must be resumed, and no sudden movements of personnel were advisable. His remark was not as intransigent as Moldavia expected shaping therefore a positive communication channel. Furthermore it can also be translated in a possibility of a phased orderly departure of the military contingent.

Russian-speakers of Transnistria nominally seceded from Moldova in 1990, one year before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, fearing the country might shortly merge with Romania, whose language and culture it broadly shares. The separatist region fought a brief war with Moldova in 1992 and declared itself an independent state, though it remains unrecognised by any country, including Russia. Some pro-Kremlin hawks still fear that Romania may one day try to absorb Moldova, and that President Sandu’s win will inevitably see Russian influence weaken. Moscow keeps about 1,500 troops in the so-called Operative Group of Russian Troops (OGTR) whose mission is to guard the biggest ammunition depot in Southeast Europe, containing about 20,000 tonnes or ammunition left there since the Soviet times. The military presence of Russia in the region has supported the existence of the secessionist regime in the Transnistria region for more than 28 years. In 1999, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops from the region, but it never did. Besides OGTR soldiers, Russia keeps another 500 peacemakers in Transnistria in a trilateral peacekeeping mission with Moldovan and Transnistrian soldiers and refuses to allow this mission to be replaced by a civilian one acting under an international mandate. Moscow and Chisinau have been conducting a dialogue on this with varying success for all 25 years that have passed since the end of the war on the Transnistria. There are several problem points in this negotiation process. It resumes only when political forces friendly to Moscow are in power in Moldova. This was the case in the early 2000s – the Party of Communists headed by Vladimir Voronin was in power, and in four years almost 50% of weapons, equipment and ammunition were removed or destroyed. Negotiations took place in recent years when the socialist Igor Dodon was president in Chisinau. However, when politicians who are pro-European come to power in Chisinau, or when such parties receive a majority in parliament, they traditionally raise the issue of withdrawing Russian peacekeepers from the region, believing that they pose a threat to the security of Moldova, resulting in the Russian negotiation team moving into a frozen state.

This trend, we assess with certitude, to continue, as it favours the Kremlin local strategy of delaying and maintaining a frozen conflict ready to be ignited on its own terms. Moscow propaganda spins around the ideology that it will never abandon its Russian speaking population in the face of Western expansion, which presumably threatens its traditional orthodox way of life. The military contingent underscores this very ideology. The Russian state leverages through this small military force its capability and commitment for its Russian speaking population who was left outside its borders after the fall of the USSR.

All things considered we analyse that the next three judgments will shape the future. First, that Russia does not care about Transnistria per se; its support for the separatist republic has been no more than one of many tools by which to achieve its overall objective of maintaining influence in Moldova. Second, that Russian policy has been primarily reactive, responding to events rather than proactively driving them. And third, that despite its apparent position as the dominant regional power, Russia has had a limited ability to influence events on the ground in both Moldova and Transnistria. This is no longer the year 2014, and Transnistria is not Ukraine or Crimea, neither by its geographical position nor by its strategic and political importance. Russia is surrounded by unstable countries and political crises; the last thing President Putin needs is further problems with the international community. His cautious and prudent approach to the Belarus crisis is proof of this.