By William Tucker
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost most of its footholds in Europe. Excluding Belarus, Moscow does have a few toeholds in Ukraine and Moldova, but that is hardly enough to satisfy Russia’s appetite for security.
The frozen conflict in Ukraine’s east has provided just enough instability that Ukraine will suffer for years, thus preventing it from ascending to the European Union or NATO and infringing on what Moscow considers a key element in their sphere of influence. Russia does not have to control Ukraine outright to achieve its political ends; it just needs chaos.
Unfortunately, the same can be said of the small nation of Moldova, one of the poorest nations in Europe. Moldova has oscillated between pro-Russia and pro-Western camps since regaining its independence, but the level of corruption by pro-Russian factions in the nation seems to have sparked yet another turn towards the West.
Will Moldova Turn toward the West?
The incumbent President and his pro-Russian allies in Parliament are not going quietly, however. Parliament moved to take away control of the nation’s intelligence service from the President before Maia Sandu, the next President, takes the reins.
Protests quickly materialized in support of the new president, and the call was issued for new parliamentary elections. With Moldova’s intrinsic divisions, it will face a challenge in removing Russian influence, regardless of who controls the government.
Moldova: A Quintessential Borderland
As a small nation in the middle of a strategically important landscape, Moldovan independence has been hard to come by. Competing empires of millennia past have fought for this piece of real estate. Though the empires of old have fallen, their successor states retain the same strategic outlook as their predecessors.
Though it is nominally independent, Moldova has struggled to remove Russian influence from its borders, while some political parties in Romania would like to reunite the Moldovan and Romanian nations. Ethnically, Moldova is about three-quarters Romanian, while the breakaway region of Transnistria (Left Bank of the Dniester) remains quite loyal to Moscow and hosts about 1,500 Russian troops.
There is also the special administrative region of Gagauzia, home of the Moldovan Gagauz people that have often discussed the prospect of their independence, which could provide a potential lever against the homogeny of the Moldovan state. These are significant divisions for a small nation, but clearly demonstrate the different rulers who have claimed dominion over Moldova in the past and left their mark.
History is perceived differently in a borderland, as there is no escape from the past. To quote authors Andrzej Stasiuk and Yuri Andrukhovych from their book “My Europe,” “Historical destiny placed Eastern European between Russia and Germany. Hence, the most popular form of the East European travelling is to escape either from the Russians to the Germans, or from the Germans to the Russians.”
While we cannot consider a nation to be a traveler, the idea of embracing one power to escape another is quite familiar in a borderland, with Moldova and its neighbors employing this strategy frequently. Today, Moldova remains politically divided and that division extends to the EU-Russian divide.
But the EU is not a military power, though many EU member states are also in NATO. Russia, however, is a single political entity with a history of patronage (or domination if you prefer) over Moldova.
Moldova’s incoming President has called for the removal of Russian troops from Transnister and is pushing for closer ties to the EU. Moscow quickly rebuked the call to remove the troops with a veiled threat, claiming that removing the troops would lead to instability. Russian troops in the region are not peacekeepers; they are there to ensure Russia retains a toehold in a region of strategic importance.
The Consequences of Any Destabilization in Moldova
If Moldova were to destabilize due to either internal issues or Russian interference, Romania has a vested interest in the outcome. With Ukraine under pressure from the conflict in Donbas and the loss of Crimea to Russia, any Russian intrusion into Moldova puts a hostile force on the banks of the Prut River, which doubles as a Romanian border.
Romania may be a NATO member, but there is doubt that the alliance would take on Russian subversion. Yes, NATO’s Article 5 guarantees collective defense in military matters, but it offers little protection from intelligence operations designed to tear apart a nation politically or economically.
Taking Moscow’s view, the loss of Moldova to the West would potentially move NATO troops to the border with Ukraine and directly threaten what Russia considers a buffer region between itself and Europe. Russians believe that they cannot lose Ukraine to the West, and though they can deal with an independent Ukraine and Moldova, they simply do not want these two nations to integrate and form a large military alliance. If Moldova cannot find balance between Russia and the West by maintaining the status quo, it runs the risk of losing its independence, not through invasion, but through subversion.
Moldova’s Economy Makes It Vulnerable to Russia
Moldova has economic problems that leave it vulnerable to Russian influence. Most of the nation’s energy comes from Russia, and most Moldovan wine — a top export — goes to Russia. Moldova is trapped on both ends economically, but Romania may have the ability to replace Russia as the energy exporter of choice.
Though Romanian energy production is not quite there, energy exports to Moldova would increase Moldova’s ability to maneuver, but would not remove the threat completely.
As long as Russia has an interest in moving westward and as long as the West moves to counter Russian strategical moves, small nations in strategic areas will fall prey to greater powers. Such is the fate of borderlands.