MS Risk Blog

Moldova’s Pivot to the West

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Key Judgements:

It is highly likely that President Sandu will be re-elected in upcoming presidential election of 2024. (High confidence)

It is Almost certain that re-elected President Sandu would attempt to join EU, aiming to become a member state within the next 10 years. (High confidence)

It is unlikely Moldova will attempt to join NATO in the next 18 months (Medium confidence)

It is highly likely that Moldova will suffer more intense Russian led hybrid warfare, concerning Transnistria in the next 18 months. (High confidence)

It is realistically possible that direct military confrontation between Moldova and separatist could happen in the next 18 months.

Moldova, a small post-Soviet state, finds itself at a pivotal juncture in its history, grappling with threats from Russia. Moldova has historically maintained a cultural divergence from Russian civilization, showing a closer affinity with Romania. This distinction became blurred with the 18th-century expansion of the Russian Empire, which subsumed the territory of contemporary Moldova, a condition that lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The demographic landscape of Moldova, characterized by substantial Russian and Ukrainian populations, remained unaltered post-independence.

The political environment bequeathed to Moldova was fraught with challenges, especially from pro-Russian elements, leading to the emergence of Transnistria and Gagauzia. These entities have persistently pursued independence, echoing the turmoil in eastern Ukraine and complicating Moldova’s endeavours to align with NATO and the EU.

Moldova, as one of Europe’s least affluent countries, was profoundly reliant on Russia economically, a dependence that exacerbated its economic downturn post-2014 when relations with Russia soured. The advent of COVID-19 in 2020 and the Ukraine conflict in 2022 further debilitated GDP growth, diminished foreign investment, and spurred inflation, which surged to 34% in October 2022, marking one of the highest rates in Europe.

In this context, Moldova has striven to maintain a delicate balance between the West and Russia. Despite Russian machinations aimed at derailing pro-EU policies and the presence of pro-Russian separatists, efforts to enhance ties with the West have been stymied. However, President Maia Sandu, who took office in December 2020, with a robust economic background and substantial connections with the US, has ardently championed pro-EU policies and domestic reforms. The Ukraine crisis in 2022 propelled her to file an application for EU membership a month post-invasion, delineating a definitive stance against Russian encroachments.

This scenario mirrors Ukraine’s existential predicament, suggesting Moldova could be Russia’s next target. Despite the Russian military’s failure to advance in Odesa, a strategic entry point to Moldova, Russia persists in exerting non-military pressure on Moldova. In 2023, Moldovan intelligence disclosed Russia’s illicit funneling of over $55 million to sway local elections. Moreover, pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor has been implicated in orchestrating protests and election fraud.

Russian influence has deeply infiltrated Moldova’s political sphere, evident in the support that figures such as Ion Ceban, the capital’s mayor, have received from ex-FSB officers. The separatist movements in Transnistria and Gagauzia remain a significant concern, with Russia’s interest in these regions noticeably intensifying in recent months. In response, the Moldovan government and its Western allies have undertaken measures to counter these threats, including the suspension of the Treaty of Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, removing military constraints. Also, flooding media reports that pictures President Sandu as the ideal figure for the EU suggest that the narrative to include Moldova as EU member is getting thrust within the EU decision makers.

Amid these challenges, the current administration has pursued pro-EU policies with unprecedented level backed by political victory. The Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), the governing party, garnered 52.80% in the 2021 parliamentary elections. President Sandu’s victory in the 2020 election by a 15% margin, alongside the PAS party’s continued popularity, as demonstrated in the 2023 local elections, underscores a significant political shift. The current administration’s biggest political baggage is economic situation, but the PAS party and President Sandu still maintain public support by driving EU agenda as a main policy.

The 2024 presidential election emerges as a critical moment for Moldova, President Sandu, Russia, and the West. President Sandu’s decision to coincide the EU membership referendum with the presidential election signifies the centrality of EU relations to the electoral discourse. Despite the complex public sentiment on security threats from Russia and the value of neutrality, the endorsement for EU membership is palpable, with 48% support for the referendum and a mere 27% favouring NATO membership, underscoring a widespread desire for economic and political stability amidst a 69% majority valuing neutrality as paramount for Moldova’s security. If President Sandu could maintain her highest approval rate until the presidential election in Fall, it would be possible for her to continue her administration with the support of dominance in the parliament.

Currently, Russia has a very small entry point to Moldovan politics. With more people seeing EU as a better economic partner than Russia, and the sanctions that targeted Russian foreign business, Russia is losing its economic influence within the country. This means Russia is losing its non-kinetic options against Moldova, which eventually lead to a more violent and drastic measure to keep Moldova in line. Russia’s foreign minister publicly announcing to protect separatist Russian in Moldova, and installation of polling station in Transnistria for the Russian presidential election is one of the indicators of Russian desperation.

Within these contexts, the President Sandu’s administration and separatist is in a zero-sum game. It is highly likely that actor would be a driving force of increasing domestic tension. Also, Russia with continuing embarrassment in Ukraine, increasing domestic nationalism and public scrutiny after the presidential election, the Kremlin simply cannot endure another ex-soviet nation to join the West.  In both practical sense and saving President Putin’s face.

Therefore, with the assumption that President Sandu would win in presidential election of 2024, Moldova is highly likely to desperately attempt to join the EU. However, it is unlikely that Moldova will attempt to join NATO simultaneously while pursuing EU membership. It is highly likely that Russian led hybrid warfare against Moldova will intensify to historical levels, but it is unlikely that President Sandu or the public opinion would change its course because of it.

It is realistically possible there would be a direct military confrontation between Moldova and the separatist government, and it is also realistically possible Russian proxy force would intervene in this scenario. However, this confrontation could create patriotic public opinion or demand of neutrality. The shift of public opinion would be dependent on the amount of threat by separatist, reaction of Moldova, Western support, US presidential election and ongoing Ukraine war. These variables would have a direct effect on the parliamentary election in 2025, that would decide the nation’s driving policy.

It is highly unlikely that direct Russian invasion would happen.

This detailed analysis highlights the intricate and dynamic political landscape of Moldova, marked by internal discord, external pressures, and the quest for a balanced and secure future. The impending electoral and referendum processes are pivotal in determining Moldova’s trajectory amid ongoing geopolitical tensions and domestic challenges.

Within this context, it is clear that both the separatist and Moldovian governments is in a zero-sum game. It is likely that the separatist governments of Transnistira and Gagaugia would demand Russian intervention for survival.