Date: 17/02/2023, 17:00
Who’s involved: Moldovan Government, Moldovan President Maia Sandu, Russian Government, Ukrainian president Zelensky, separatist movement in Russian-speaking Transnistria, European Union
On 09/02/2023 during a meeting with members of the European Union in Brussels, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine intercepted plans by Russian secret services to destabilize Moldova. According to Zelensky, the intercepted documents contained information on “the who, when and how of the plan to break the democracy of Moldova and establish Russian control over the country.”
On 10/02/2023, a Russian missile launched from the Black Sea violated Moldova’s airspace.
On 10/02/2023, just hours after the Russian missile was launched, the Moldovan prime minister Natalia Gavrilita resigned after 18 months in power. She claimed her resignation was due to the economic turmoil caused by the war’s spillover effects. Dorin Recean replaced Gavrilita as the new prime minister of Moldova. Recean previously served as Maia Sandu’s defense and security adviser. In a statement, he declared that he will continue Moldova’s journey toward EU integration and promote regional security.
On 13/02/2023, Moldova’s President Maia Sandu accused Russia of planning to sabotage and destabilize the Moldovan government, with the aim of bringing down the Moldovan leadership and preventing Moldova from joining the European Union. According to Sandu, the Russian plan involved citizens of Russia, Montenegro, Belarus, and Serbia entering Moldova to initiate protests in an attempt to “change the legitimate government to an illegitimate government, controlled by the Russian Federation to stop the EU integration process. [...] The plan included sabotage and militarily trained people disguised as civilians to carry out violent actions, attacks on government buildings, and taking hostages,” Sandu told reporters. The accusations were not backed with evidence. Russia denied the accusations.
On 14/02/2023, Moldova temporarily closed its airspace because of a presumed air balloon that entered its territory. The government did not specify what happened to the balloon or where the balloon originated. However, Moldova’s quick decision to close its airspace shows that the country is highly alert for possible threats.
Moldova has had a pro-EU government since 2020, led by President Maia Sandu. Since the Russian invasion in February 2022, Moldova has backed Kyiv.
Moldova separates southern Ukraine from NATO and EU-member Romania, giving Moldova strategic importance to the war in Ukraine as a buffer zone between NATO and Russia.
Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has a small army of 6500 soldiers. Because of its long shared border with Ukraine, the country depends on Ukrainian air defense. However, due to the war, Moldova requested help from Western countries to strengthen its air defense capabilities in January 2023.
Along the Moldova-Ukraine border is the breakaway region of Transnistria, which split off from Moldova in 1992 - although other countries do not recognize it. This region is mainly inhabited by Russian-speaking people and Russia has about 1500 soldiers stationed there.
Moldova is facing severe spillover effects of the war in Ukraine. Missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure cause power blackouts and energy shortages on a regular basis, and the energy crisis has led to high inflation. Missile debris landed on Moldovan ground a few times and Russian missiles have violated the Moldovan airspace multiple times since the start of the war.
Given that the new prime minister Recean is a former defense and security advisor, it is likely that Moldova will pursue a tougher defense strategy than under his predecessor. Recean will also likely tighten relations between the EU and Moldova.
Even though in the initial phase of the war in Ukraine it was feared that Moldova would fall victim to the expansionist aggression of Russia, it is not likely that Moscow will act in open conflict against Moldova anytime soon, for several reasons:
Invading Moldova will bring Russia closer to NATO territory, increasing the likelihood of an incident that might catapult NATO into war. This is not in Russia’s interests for as long as it does not hold a clear military advantage.
For a successful military attack on Moldova, the Ukrainian city of Odesa is a key element for Russia. However, not only has this city not seen any major conflict since the start of the war, but it has also bolstered its defenses against invasion, mining and fortifying defensive positions. Taking this city would require Russia to either push the frontline to the city, which is very unlikely, or execute a successful amphibious assault on the city and then hold the beachhead while part of their troops moves into Moldova. This scenario is very unlikely too.
An airborne assault on Moldova also is improbable, because the Russian air assault (VDV) has already suffered significant losses in the war. Additionally, an airborne invasion would require crossing heavily defended NATO or Ukrainian airspace. If somehow Russia were to successfully do this, the constant supply needed for their troops would face the same issues over and over again.
It is likely that Russia might attempt to install a pro-Russian government in Moldova at the expense of the current pro-EU government. Russia has tried to destabilize foreign governments before, such as during the 2020 U.S. elections when Russia used ‘troll farms’ to reach millions of American voters.
Gaining control over Moldova is of strategic importance for Moscow as the country serves as a buffer zone between Ukraine and NATO-member Romania. However, it appears that NATO is strengthening its relationship with Moldova. During a NATO meeting in Bucharest in November 2022, officials of NATO member countries promised support to Moldova and offered help with security and defense training in light of Russian pressure on the country. Albeit unlikely at the moment, this may lead to Russian retaliation, if Moscow feels threatened by NATO’s perceived expansion eastward.
Even though the Russian destabilization plan for Moldova is still unclear, it is expected to focus on promoting or installing a pro-Russian government in Chișinău. In addition to being an advantage for Moscow, this would benefit a significant group of Moldovan citizens living in the self-declared statehood of Transnistria. Moscow strongly supports the de-facto government of Transnistria and Russian forces are already present in the region. However, the good relationship between Transnistria and Russia does not mean that support for Russia is widespread in Moldova, or that the plan would easily remain in place if successful. The Russian plan to install permanent forces in Transnistria in 2004 was highly contested by many Moldovan citizens and led to protests within the country. If the suspected Russian plan to destabilize Moldova succeeds, it is likely that it will be highly contested and lead to social unrest. This will not only result in increased tensions within Moldova but would also further hurt the already troubled relationship between Russia and the West.
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