Explainer: Moldova is in a Pickle
Understanding Moldova's options with war at its doorstep
Welcome back to “Explainers” at Moldova Matters! It’s been a long time since we’ve used this format but it’s high time we take a look at Moldova’s security and economic situation in light of the war in Ukraine. This article is an attempt to organize many ideas and themes covered in the Weekly Roundups and Quick Hits in order to take a look at Moldova’s options as its neighbor continues to fight a desperate war against Russian aggression. This isn’t opinion but does represent the subjective analysis of this author.
Moldova is in a Pickle
In its “Class of 2022” Politico named President Maia Sandu as one of the most important leaders to watch in Europe this year. While the list was compiled months before the war they presciently called her “The Tightrope Walker” stressing Moldova’s precarious position between Europe and Russia. In this article we’ll try and explain just how this tightrope looks and what options Moldova has, and doesn’t have, to address the threat of war.
To start, we should assume a baseline reality. If there is the opportunity, Russia will expand this war to Moldova. This is well outlined in the recent article from CEPA titled The Kremlin’s Next Targets? Georgia and Moldova. Before this war began many people didn’t believe it would ever happen. I would argue that they did not listen to the words being spoken by Mr. Putin and his surrogates. In the same way we should listen now as Russian politicians, media personalities and openly voice support for an expanded war that includes bringing Moldova and Georgia back into the fold. As we discussed recently, the military situation is such that any immediate fears of actions against Moldova are off the table - for now. At the same time it’s critical to realize that there are 4 non-NATO countries in this region. Belarus is effectively occupied. Ukraine is at war. Moldova and Georgia are highly exposed.
Early in this war a friend explained it to me this way. If Odessa is taken Moldova will be presented with 2 options. The “Kozak Plan” or the “Shoigu Plan.” The Kozak Plan refers to the Kremlin’s previous 2006 proposals to “federalize” Moldova in such a way as to give Moscow a permanent control over the Moldovan government. The Shoigu Plan refers to Russian Defense Minister Shoigu’s current operations in Ukraine. Effectively Moldova would face an offer of surrender or war.
So with a clear threat what are the opportunities and constraints Moldova faces? Unfortunately, it is far more of the later.
We’ll tackle this issue in 4 parts, Military / Security, Economic, Domestic Politics and International Relations.
Part 1: The Military Situation
It is important to first realize that the Moldovan military is very small. It has around 5,000 active service personnel and a very limited amount of aging Soviet-era equipment. The military has around 3 tanks, a few hundred APCs and around 60 Humvees. The air force has a small number of operational helicopters and a few MiGs (none of which fly). Technically, there is a pool of around 70,000 reservists but in reality most are citizens who went through a mandatory training of a few days in order to “check the box.” If there was a war much of the actual fighting would fall to local police forces just like in the 1992 Transnistrian war.
This force would struggle to oppose Transnistria alone with 2,000 Russian regulars and around 10,000 - 15,000 Transnistrian troops. None of these forces are well equipped or well trained. We’ve seen in the last month the *massive* deficiencies in the Russian Army in Ukraine and the forces in Transnistria are far from their best. At the same time, given Moldova’s military weakness it wouldn’t take a lot and Russian forces are less than 40 km from the capital right now.
On paper at least, geography favors Moldova. The Nistru river separates territory controlled by the Chisinau government and Transnistria / Ukraine. This is a large river that is in theory a defensible border.
Unfortunately, that is not the reality. As part of the settlement of the 1992 Transnistrian war Russian “peacekeepers” control all the bridges. At either end they have a small number of troops, at least 1 armored vehicle and dug in positions. Even if Moldova wanted to blow the bridges they would need to take them first.
This is made even more complicated because "Trans-Nistria” isn’t actually constrained to the other side of the Nistru river.
As you can see on the map above there are 2 pockets highlighted in orange and purple. In orange you see the Dubasari peninsula. This is territory on the Transnistrian side of the river that is controlled by the Moldovan government. Moldovan elected officials are in charge of towns and villages and the Moldovan police are in charge. At the same time, the Russians control the bridge. So you need to drive by the Russian army in order to get to these towns.
In purple we see the city of Bender (Tighina). This city is on the Chisinau side of the river but is controlled by the Transnistrian “government” and occupied by Russian troops.
Adding to these issues, the part of Ukraine south of Moldova is extremely sparsely populated. Should Odessa fall Russia will consolidate control here very quickly. There is no river or geographic boundary providing any possible defense of this region from forces advancing from Ukraine. Further, much of the border is the autonomous region of Gagauzia which we will discuss more below.
Put simply, Moldova is massively outmatched militarily and has zero helpful geographic defensive lines. If the country were to fight it would have to focus on a defense of the capital. A former Prime Minister once noted as much in an interview saying that the country’s military strategy was to hold Chisinau for 12 hours until help arrived. If help didn’t come then the army would have to capitulate. We’ll dig into what help might (not) come below.
Part 2: Economic Warfare
We have discussed in Moldova Matters many many times the precarious situation Moldova is in regarding energy. The country gets around 100% of its natural gas and upwards of 75% of its electricity from Russia or Russian controlled Transnistria. Many times the Russians have threatened to cut off this energy if Moldova is somehow acting in an “unfriendly” manner. This could absolutely be used in a time of war to literally turn out the lights and heat in Moldova. But more critically, it can be used before any real threat of war if the Kremlin perceives Moldova as acting in a way that violates Russian interests. Many people have written about the fact that Moldova hasn’t joined sanctions against the Russian Federation. More than any other reason, energy is why.
Theoretically, Moldova can receive electricity from Ukraine which is now connected to the European grid. But this power still flows through Transnistria so it can be interrupted at any time. There are also direct connections to Romania for gas supplies but this pipe is not adequate to service 100% of Moldova needs. Further, Moldova has no gas storage facilities or strategic reserve. Even if a workaround could be found (and it’s a big IF), the prices in Europe right now for energy are 4-5x higher than Moldova gets from Russia. This price shock would create massive domestic political instability.
*Clarification - In the original version of this article it only noted that the flow of gas from Romania is not adequate to cover 100% of Moldova’s needs. More specifically, the pipeline can cover 100% of the need in the warm summer months but only 60% of the need in the winter months.
None of this is by accident of course. Successive Russian-aligned governments in Chisinau (most recently under former President Igor Dodon) have made sure to delay or outright scuttle attempts to connect Moldova to Europe for energy.
In summary, Russia has “captured” Moldova politically because of energy supplies. It wields massive political leverage that could be used to destabilize the country or collapse the economy at any time.
This is part of the reason that Moldova has not moved to block Russian propaganda channels in the country more forcefully. Such a move would likely trigger a harsh Kremlin response. So Russia is already able to leverage its energy dominance to weaken Moldova’s internal cohesion.
Part 3: Domestic Politics
President Sandu and Prime Minister Gavrilita command a strong majority in Parliament with 63 seats in the country’s 101 seat legislature. This is short of the 67 seat majority required to change the constitution but is otherwise a massive political block in a country that rarely has one party in control. That said, the opposition Socialist and Communist parties, as well as the criminal / oligarch “Shor” party are closely aligned with Russia. The opposition has been careful with their words so far preferring to say “we shouldn’t burn bridges with Russia,” rather than outright supporting the war. At the same time, it is clear that there is an organized political group ready to take power should the Kremlin peacefully or violently impose its will here.
Another aspect of this issue is the heavily pro-Russian autonomous region of Gagauzia. The Bashkhan (governor) of Gagauzia has been very careful with her words during the war and has recently shown a strongly pro-European face to the west. At the same time, this region borders Ukraine in the south of Moldova and represents a population that is perceived by Moscow (correctly or not) as a potential bridgehead in the country.
Moldova is militarily neutral. This is written into the country’s constitution and is a fact supported by a very large majority of citizens. While joining the EU is strongly supported by a majority of the population there is no such support for NATO membership. Politically, this is a tool used by the opposition Socialist party to oppose any attempts at strengthening the military or seeking beneficial alliances. If Moldova announced tomorrow that it was buying Javelins the Socialists would decry this as a violation of neutrality and Russian owned press would push this line constantly.
Some would note, correctly, what a ridiculous misunderstanding of neutrality this is. Switzerland and Finland maintained their neutral status for many years by being Militarily very strong. In both countries military training is compulsory and in Switzerland it is required that your service rifle is within easy reach even as you sleep. Successfully neutral countries are “porcupines” that threaten would-be aggressors with high costs. Meanwhile, the Socialists press for bills “confirming neutrality” that essentially require total disarmament. This is not neutrality but preparations for surrender by the Pro-Kremlin political forces in Moldova.
Due to all the constraints mentioned so far, little can be done about this. The Government feels it must simply maintain the status quo in order to keep energy flowing.
Another key element of the domestic political situation is social cohesion in Moldova. In 2014 Ukraine began the process of creating a civic identity whereby Russian and Ukrainian speaking citizens were all part of a single idea called “Ukraine.” Moldova has not had such a shift with language and ethnic politics featuring regularly in every election campaign. The PAS Party under President Maia Sandu made the biggest inroads in this area in the past 2 years with a consolidation of the public around an anti-corruption and anti-oligarch program and without any of the usual dog-whistles about language - but this process is still new in Moldova.
Arguably the single most uniting event in Moldovan history is this war. People all across the country have come together to support and care for the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians transiting and living in Moldova. Because most Ukrainians speak Russian and almost all that come from Odessa in the south speak Russian as their native language this means that Moldova’s Russian speaking population has increased by around 5%. In a way this has the potential to defuse many old arguments about language and has united people in support of humanitarian relief.
At the same time, all these processes are new and the old ways die hard. The fact is that whatever new social cohesion is being built most if not all Moldovans *believe* that the country is not consolidated enough to face a crisis like Ukraine does today. Should Russia make political demands amounting to surrender or intervene militarily the rally around the flag effect will be dwarfed by the number of people heading for the exits. Rumors swirled in the early days of the war that Moldova would declare martial law and prevent people from leaving. I responded to these each and every time saying that this is never going to happen because the government knows full well that there is no way that they could impose it. Ukraine told men to stay and fight and they did. This was not done at the point of a bayonet it was accomplished by a national desire to resists. Moldova does not have the possibility to do something similar.
Part 4: International Isolation
If Moldova is directly threatened it will need international help to face the crisis. But Moldova has no such relationships. Yes, it has a strong partnership with the US and EU which will help economically, financially and to a limited degree in energy security. What Moldova does not have is security and military relationships that could deter Russian aggression.
For many years Moldovan governments have see-sawed between east and west. Constitutional Neutrality has constrained military cooperation and domestic politics has constrained proactive political moves to deepen relationships with security partners.
The one country that could conceivably provide Moldova with security guarantees is Romania. The long, brotherly, relationship between the 2 nations as well as simple facts of geography mean that Romania is the most likely partner. Unfortunately, since the early days of the war my contacts have indicated that Romania is firmly indicating that they will not protect Moldova. This mirrors public statements by Romanian authorities who clearly state that they are prepared to defend any NATO ally but have no such plans for Moldova. Even if Romania wanted to help, it is likely that its NATO partners would bring heavy pressure too bear to keep Romania out of Moldova. Any expansion of conflict that involves a NATO member is against the alliance’s policy and this restrains Romania - even *if* they wanted to provide Moldova guarantees.
In terms of security alliances, this pretty much just leaves one option - Ukraine. But Moldova is hoping for guarantees to keep it out of war not to draw it into one. So while the neighbor to the east would almost certainly welcome a mutual defense pact that is not on the table.
Now it’s possible that something clever could be figured out here. The CEPA article linked above advocates for the US and NATO to begin providing security assistance to Moldova and Georgia now in the form of javelins and air defenses. It is possible to imagine this being done in such a way as to allow Moldova to “porcupine” without threatening Transnistria. Possible, but not likely. Another interesting option would be for Moldova to court another small, neutral country as a partner in training and equipping Moldova’s military. Ireland, Switzerland, Singapore, Finland, are all small nations with historically dangerous neighborhoods that maintain tough militaries as a guarantee of their neutrality. Perhaps Moldova could approach one such country to develop training of the local military without appearing to go to NATO or another major power. Perhaps, but also not likely. Moldova’s historical isolation and lack of bilateral relationships has left it with very very few options.
So What’s Next?
As we’ve said before in Moldova Matters, it’s very accurate to say that Ukraine is fighting for the independence of Moldova. Politically, Militarily, Economically and in terms of international friends, Moldova is in a pickle. The government has a strategy of focusing attention on the humanitarian crisis and hoping that Russia doesn’t get close enough to bring the war here. Hope is not a strategy, but as we can see from this article it may be all Moldova has. In this crisis, the government has extremely limited agency and largely will be forced to react to the moves of others rather than be proactive themselves.
Did we miss anything? Do you have an idea or opinion that isn’t covered here? Mention it in the comments! I’ve been thinking through this problem pretty much non-stop for months and I would welcome some new ideas if I’ve missed something. Frankly, the conclusions here are depressing but they reflect the reality of the situation.
David I know we are all so grateful for your careful and patient understanding and explanation of what’s going on in this little country that is still so alive for all of us…
Superb read, thank you. I have learned more about Moldova in this article than I learnt the rest of my entire life!