Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted policymakers in the region and beyond to examine the chances of Moscow embarking on a similar action elsewhere in the neighbourhood. High on the list of at-risk states is Moldova.
As a former Soviet republic, Moldova regularly finds itself subject to senior Russian figures’ suggestions that the country lies within Russia’s supposed “sphere of influence”. Despite this, Western policymakers and Moldovan officials alike currently underestimate the likelihood of Russian action. This paper describes potential scenarios of Russian aggression in Moldova. It demonstrates that Russia not only intends to undermine the Moldovan state but also that it has the capabilities to do so. The paper sets out three scenarios that Russia could pursue. The first involves a military invasion from Transnistria, with Moscow drawing on the presence on Moldova’s territory of Russian and Transnistrian troops. The second and third scenarios, or variants thereof, would play out below the threshold of conventional war but still meet the Kremlin’s goal of incapacitating the Moldovan state or even acquiring partial or full control of it.
Russia has numerous openings to exploit in Moldova. The country has long been caught between pursuing greater integration with the European Union, on the one hand, and political elements, on the other, that are keeping the country under Russian influence (and which have some popular support). Moldova’s recently acquired EU candidate status may encourage Russia to jumpstart a train of events, perhaps in the name of “protecting” local minorities. Another difficult factor lies in current social conditions in Moldova, with high inflation affecting vulnerable parts of the population. And Moscow has already used gas supplies as a tool to cause problems for Chisinau. Indeed, it is yet to push this issue as much as it could do, with a risk to the Moldovan authorities of heightened social tensions if prices soar further. Moscow also has an opening in the form of Moldova’s existing major exposure to Russian influence operations through traditional and social media.
With war raging next door – still, according to the Kremlin, proceeding as a “special operation” – Moldova can neither look on Ukraine as a convenient buffer nor rely on its future military success. Chisinau can best retain its control of Moldovan territory by rapidly upgrading the EU’s preferred hybrid threat approach, which focuses on “resilience,” to an “active resilience” response. It should work with Western partners to add new, more combative components to its defences.
Policymakers need to understand the logic guiding Russian decision-making on states such as Moldova and take steps accordingly. A good first move would be for the EU to establish, on Moldovan territory, a long-term assistance force under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This mission should work quickly to assess the failings in Ukraine that emboldened Russia to invade and implement these lessons in Moldova, with the accompanying funding and political support to provide a true deterrent. [Continue reading…]