As the standoff continues between Russia and the West over Ukraine, tensions have grown to encompass Ukraine's neighbour Moldova, which like Ukraine has been making efforts to integrate further with the West. Most recently, Russian military exercises held March 25 in Moldova's breakaway territory of Transdniestria (sometimes called Transnistria) have stoked these tensions. Russia has many economåic, political and security levers to employ in Moldova in response to its Western integration efforts, and Russia can use this leverage to destabilize the country, if not derail integration efforts altogether.
Moldova was, after Ukraine, the most logical and likely country to experience a growing competition between Russia and the West over the former Soviet periphery. Moldova has made efforts to build closer ties to the European Union, primarily by working toward signing the EU association and free trade agreements. Moldova initialled these agreements at the November 2013 Vilnius summit, during which former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich rejected the deals, and Moldova is now set to sign the deals in June along with Georgia. The Moldovan government has also supported the western-backed uprising in Ukraine and has been a strong advocate of the Ukrainian government's ambitions to sign the EU agreements.
Russia has been very concerned with these developments. Like Ukraine, Russia's strategic interests require Moldova to remain a neutral country and not a part of the Western alliance structure. Therefore, Russia will likely work to undermine Moldova's Western integration efforts just as it has been doing in Ukraine, and Moscow has several levers it can use toward this end.
Russia is likely to apply the same kind of trade restrictions as it did on Ukraine in reaction to any progress made in Moldova's EU integration efforts. Russia has already periodically cut off imports of Moldovan wine, which make up around 10% of Moldova's GDP. It is likely that Russia would expand such trade restrictions in the event that Moldova signs the EU deals. Given that the EU has already increased its imports of Moldovan wine to offset such pain and that Moldova's economy is very small, with a GDP of only around $15bn, the West could mitigate the effects of such trade restrictions, albeit not completely, especially in other areas such as agriculture and energy.
Politically, Russia has strong ties with Moldova's Communist Party, which is currently in the opposition but the largest single party in Moldova's parliament. While the ruling Alliance for European Integration has spearheaded Moldova's EU integration efforts, Russia still has substantial influence in the country via the Communists and other smaller parties like the Socialist Party of the Republic of Moldova. Moscow can create significant political and social pressure in Moldova by fuelling and supporting protests against the government's EU integration drive, much in the same way that it has complicated the new Ukrainian government's efforts by encouraging protests in eastern and southern Ukraine. While this may not prevent the EU agreements from being signed, it can be a destabilizing factor for the country moving forward, especially in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, which has distanced itself from EU integration.
Russia's most important source of leverage is in Transdniestria (Transnistria). Transdniestria is Moldova's breakaway territory, which has been backed by Russia since its de facto independence as a result of a war during the early years of the post-Soviet period. The territory is not only supported financially and politically by Moscow, but it also hosts around 1,400 Russian troops and other Moscow-aligned troops. The Russian troops in Transdniestria are composed of one battalion of the former 179th Motor Rifle Regiment, and although Russia claims its troops have no heavy equipment in the territory, Transdniestria itself is stocked with tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment from the former Soviet 14th army, from which current Russian units in Transdniestria also hail.
Since the Ukrainian uprising and the subsequent Russian military intervention in Crimea, there have been unconfirmed reports that Russia has been building up and fortifying its military presence in Transdniestria. This has raised fears in Moldova that Russia could intervene militarily to dissuade Moldova from integrating with Europe, with Transdniestria's capital of Tiraspol only around 75 kilometres from the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. However, as in Ukraine, Russia would likely be restrained in direct military intervention, especially since military operations in Moldova would be more complicated than in Crimea given the distance from the Russian mainland and the need to fly through Ukrainian or Romanian airspace to resupply troops in Transdniestria. It is more likely that Russia will use its military presence in Transdniestria as a threat of further power projection for political purposes.
Still, Moldova has very little insulation against the Russian military threat. The country is not a member of Nato and therefore is not a party to the bloc's collective defence treaty. And even Romania, which has historical ties to Moldova and has been the strongest supporter of Moldova's western-integration efforts, has admitted that it is not in a strong position to defend the country in the event of a Russian military intervention. Instead, Romanian President Traian Basescu called on Nato to "reposition its resources" in response to Russia's recent military operations. Furthermore, Russia has the added leverage of potentially annexing Transdniestria in the same way as it did Crimea.
Therefore, Russia's presence and potential military build-up in Transdniestria, combined with its other political and economic levers, will guarantee a difficult and potentially destabilizing situation in Moldova moving forward if Chisinau is to follow through with its EU integration efforts. Indeed, Russia's substantial leverage may be enough to eventually derail Moldova's integration with the European Union completely.
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