It was a remarkable gesture by Joe Biden. The US president asked his Moldovan counterpart Maia Sandu to attend a February 21 meeting in Warsaw with representatives of the nine Central and Southeastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), even though her country is not yet looking for membership.
During a speech, Biden addressed Sandu directly: “I am proud to stand with you and the freedom-loving Moldovan people,” he said. “Give her a round of applause.”
His actions underline a serious situation. Sandwiched between Ukraine and northwestern Romania, the Republic of Moldova has long feared Russian aggression, with military threats from Moscow becoming increasingly belligerent in recent times.
Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin overturned a 2012 decree in which the Kremlin had guaranteed Moldova’s sovereignty. Shortly before, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had warned that Russia was trying to oust Moldova’s pro-European leadership. Moscow replied on February 23 that it was actually Ukraine that was planning a military intervention in Moldova.
What’s all this saber chatter about? Why has tiny Moldova, with a population of just 3.5 million, become a subject of increasing interest as the war in the neighboring country continues?
The strategic importance of Transnistria
Moldova was the first country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in which Russia supported separatists, leading to a bloody war that lasted several months in 1992. The result was a frozen conflict, with pro-Moscow forces seizing Transnistria, a narrow strip of land in eastern Moldova that has been home to many Russian speakers for more than three decades. Some 2,000 Russian soldiers are still stationed there, despite Moscow guaranteeing a withdrawal of its troops from the area in 1999. The largest arms depot in Europe is also located near the village of Transnistria, with some 20,000 tons of ammunition and military equipment. from Cobasna.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, Transnistria has become strategically more important than ever before. Not only could Russia open a western front in Ukraine from there, but it could also fuel domestic chaos in Moldova, sparking a crisis on NATO’s southeastern external border.
Smuggling routes blocked
The separatist forces in Transnistria would probably have an interest in such a scenario. In recent decades, they have financed themselves, among other things, with massive smuggling operations that also ran through Ukrainian territory. However, since the start of the war, Ukraine has closed its border with Transnistria, which is now facing economic collapse.
Sandu and her pro-European government adopted a cautious attitude of solidarity with Ukraine after the outbreak of war, with a view to avoiding confrontations with Moscow. But the EU candidate country has been seeking closer ties with the West since the fall, when Moscow continued to cut off gas supplies to Moldova and supported opposition parties in their attempts to destabilize the domestic political situation.
An end to neutrality?
Moldova has therefore rapidly started to source its energy from countries other than Russia. There is also now an open discussion about whether or not to change the neutrality status, which is enshrined in the constitution. An upgrade of the virtually unarmed Moldovan army, which received its first Piranha armored vehicles from Germany a few weeks ago, is also on the table.
At this point, the country was barely able to defend itself, even against the separatists in Transnistria, who probably have dozens of main battle tanks and other heavy military equipment, along with large stockpiles of ammunition. Ukraine has therefore offered to provide military aid if Moscow and the separatists provoke a conflict. But any suggestion that Ukraine is planning a military intervention in Moldova is preposterous and, at best, a pretext for the Kremlin to justify its belligerence. Ukraine can certainly manage without allocating its military resources to a second front.
One thing that Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved in the region is to force Moldova to resolutely break away from Moscow’s stranglehold after three decades of ambivalence. The shift has garnered support beyond symbolic gestures like Biden’s in Warsaw: Romania, popularly known as Moldova’s “big brother”, already shares language, culture and a long common history with its tiny neighbour, offering increasing support in achieving economic independence from Russia.
This article originally appeared in German.