Many might wonder why the West should bother concerning itself with Moldova. After all, it is one of the poorest nations in Europe, a former Soviet republic about the size of Maryland that is nestled between Ukraine and Romania. But the answer has less to do with Moldova and more to do with its neighbor to the east. Russia's geopolitical plans and intentions for the region, and how those plans clash with the Western vision for an open society in Eastern Europe, have important implications for the United States and Europe. There are significant political, economic and strategic issues at play.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's 2005 remarks about the fall of the Soviet Union provide some useful context. The comments are oft-quoted, but they are worth reading in their entirety to better understand Moldova's precarious situation, and why it is important beyond Moldova's borders. Putin said:
"First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory."
One can imagine Putin having tea in the morning on the balcony of his dacha outside of Moscow, looking strategically out over the borders of the Russian Federation, pondering his next steps to ensure the re-establishment of Russia's great power status. First, he observes the established borders of Russia proper, territory he already controls, the post-Soviet borders he inherited from his predecessors, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin has made no secret that he is not entirely pleased with this inheritance: His quote above is a rare moment of unadulterated truth. Putin would rather gaze out across a Russia that includes several if not all of the Central Asian republics, the Baltics and Ukraine.
Looking a bit farther afield, Putin can see the borders of NATO countries, which are similarly established: Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the rest of the alliance. These nations Putin views as direct threats to Russia. And then there are the regions in between these two sets of borders: Georgia, Ukraine and the tiny country of Moldova. (Belarus does not fall into either category, since Minsk remains essentially under Moscow's control, albeit somewhat restively. For now at least, Putin does not have to worry about it.) These countries, which uncomfortably straddle the great ideological and physical divide that separates Russia from Europe and the West, are key states in what the Kremlin sees as its most important geopolitical struggle: Russia vs. NATO.
Responding to NATO
Putin has long stated that NATO is a threat to Russia and has indicated that many of Russia's actions in the region are the result of "NATO aggression." There have been lengthy academic discussions as to whether or not NATO made assurances to Russia that the alliance would not seek to expand in Europe in the post-Soviet era. Leaders of NATO countries say they neither made such a commitment nor implied it, and Russian leaders claim the opposite. Some believe NATO's expansion was a historic mistake, forcing Russia to respond and setting the tone for poor relations for decades. Others consider the expansion a historic success, spreading freedom and democracy — however flawed — to countries denied them during most of the 20th century.
It can indeed be argued that NATO expansion has exacerbated Russia's mistrust of the West and caused Russia to attempt to build a buffer zone between its borders and those of NATO countries; it can also be argued that this is a Russian-manipulated storyline to shift blame and responsibility onto the West for Russia's actions in the region since the end of the Cold War. The Kremlin understands the West's penchant for second-guessing itself, and its possible feelings of guilt and responsibility for threatening Russia when Russia was down and out. Perhaps the West should not have been so triumphant, so arrogant after the fall of the Soviet Union, the argument goes; it's just not very sportsmanlike. Russia itself suffers no such illusions and has tried to increase its influence and territory in the region, citing NATO as its motive. Whether Putin really sees NATO as an imminent military threat or simply a convenient reason for expansion is not at all clear.
In one sense, the entire argument is moot: It is difficult to believe that even if NATO had given assurances it would not expand, the Kremlin would have simply taken these assurances at face value and done nothing. Such blind acceptance of Western promises is certainly not in keeping with the Russian approach to foreign affairs, an approach developed over several centuries.
Whether Putin really sees NATO as an imminent military threat or simply a convenient reason for expansion is not at all clear.
Setting aside for a moment the still hotly debated question of whether NATO enlargement triggered Russian aggression in post-Soviet spaces, or whether Russia always intended to expand de facto control over what Putin considers his sphere of influence, it is clear that Russia has been working to exert and consolidate control in those regions where neither Russia nor NATO countries dominate. It began with the first round of "frozen conflicts" in the early 1990s in the South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Transdniestria. Next came the war with West-leaning Georgia in 2008, which resulted in Russia minting a new brand new country, South Ossetia. The fact that none of these "republics" were ever recognized by more than a few countries is beside the point: The Kremlin had already achieved its goals.
After Georgia came Crimea (perhaps more easily than Putin expected), which Russia now claims as its own. And most recently there has been the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. While the jury is still out as to whether the Kremlin originally thought it could use Crimea as an example and simply annex eastern Ukraine as well, at the very least Putin can guarantee that Donbas will be another frozen conflict, if he so chooses. While Russia is paying an economic price for Crimea and Donbas, it seems that Putin believes this to simply be the price of doing business. The Kremlin also knows that Europe will not extend sanctions indefinitely, despite the fact that Crimea will remain part of Russia indefinitely and that Russia's support of separatists in eastern Ukraine will have a long-term impact.
Putin Turns His Gaze Toward Moldova
This brings us back to Moldova. As Putin continues to extend Russian influence and, if possible, outright control in the non-NATO areas around Russia, Moldova is very likely his next move on the chessboard. Adjacent to both Ukraine and NATO member Romania, Moldova lies in a neighborhood that is of great importance to Putin. The proximity of Romania will prove challenging to Moscow, but conditions are right in Moldova for the Kremlin to begin to use its security services. Putin hopes to achieve either a pro-Moscow government in Chisinau, or at the very least, another frozen conflict — or perhaps simply expand the already extant frozen conflict in Moldova's Transdniestria region. Indeed, there is evidence indicating these activities have already begun. This planning is straight from the Ukraine playbook, which Putin implemented so easily and without much Western intervention.
Why is Moldova the next logical step for Putin? First, Moldova was part of the former Soviet Union, and some Russian-speaking Moldovans are nostalgic for the days of stable prices, jobs, pensions and above all, stability. Of course, there were all the other things the Soviet system supplied as well, including underemployment, low wages, the unavailability of many consumer goods, authoritarian rule and so on, but faded memories of these hardships will not stand in the way of pro-Moscow sentiment among some Moldovans, especially the older ones. Where there is a pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking populace, Russia has an overriding interest, according to Putin's worldview.
Where there is a pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking populace, Russia has an overriding interest, according to Putin's worldview.
Second, there is corruption on a grand scale in Moldova, which offers the Kremlin a foothold. The widespread perception that the current and recent governments (which are nominally Westward leaning) are under the control of local oligarchs, exacerbated by the unsolved theft of a billion dollars from Moldovan banks, provides fertile ground for propaganda and influence measures by the Russian intelligence services, which are arguably the best in the business at that kind of operation.
Third, Moldova is extremely poor, a situation Russia has sought to worsen by imposing what amounts to economic sanctions by severely limiting trade. As Russia has done with other countries in the region (Georgia comes to mind), Moscow exacts an economic price when a country begins leaning toward the West. The Kremlin sees an opportunity to leverage all of these factors in its favor. Russia hopes for a new, pro-Moscow government (perhaps resembling Russia's relationship with Belarus); its own ironic version of a color revolution or perhaps a Moldovan spring. Alternatively, a frozen conflict would also accomplish Putin's geopolitical goal of keeping Moldova from joining the European Union, or even worse, NATO.
The Danger of Doing Nothing
Romania, with its deep historical, cultural and linguistic ties to Moldova, has taken the lead on trying to keep Moldova tracking toward the West. There are several reasons for this, some more sublime, and some more practical, from Bucharest's point of view. It is clearly in Romania's national interest to have Moldova on its side in the struggle between East and West, Russia and NATO. Bucharest has not missed or ignored Russian expansion in the region, and Romania would like to have its own buffer against Russia. There are also (more than likely) lucrative economic and business ties between the elites of the two countries. And again, given the region, it seems likely that not all ties are entirely transparent. The two nations also share many cultural connections, with most Moldovans speaking Romanian and sharing ethnicity. Romanians and Moldovans can make a case for strong ties between the two nations, which arguably share greater commonalities than Moldova and Russia.
And it is important to listen to Romania. It has successfully emerged from its authoritarian past, and it has led the way in establishing a business climate that has attracted more foreign investors than almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe. Romania is also the largest and most robust economy in the region. Of course, political and economic transparency is not perfect, but Bucharest is trending upward. If Russian meddling were to extend from Moldova into neighboring Romania, the economic and political fallout would be significant.
Romania might also make the argument that Western democracies must take stronger action to ensure that Moldova continues to move toward Europe, before it suffers the same fate as Georgia and Ukraine. Moldova must tread carefully, because Moscow's modus operandi when it sees countries like Moldova moving toward Europe is to create instability from which the country in question cannot easily or quickly emerge. This has the effect of slowing or in some cases stopping planned ascension into NATO and EU bodies, a key goal of Russia's. It is likely that Moldova's signature on an association agreement with the European Union in 2014 has already triggered Moscow's planning and intelligence operations on the ground.
Nevertheless, Bucharest's arguments would not be entirely self-serving, let alone focused on its own security. Romanian leaders could reasonably be asking: What will it take to stop Russian expansion in the region? When will nation states in the region be allowed to freely choose their own alliances? How can Russia be stopped from doing in Moldova what it did in Crimea and Ukraine? Do Europe and the United States believe there are enough economic sanctions available to stop the Kremlin from taking action in Moldova? Will there be yet another international refugee crisis when ethnic Romanians begin to flee Moldova in the face of increased Russian aggression? Won't this in turn have a negative impact, not just on the Romanian economy but also on all the U.S. and European companies that have invested there? These are all reasonable questions.
So when the question is asked, "Is Moldova really that important?" or more pointedly, "Why risk further conflict — perhaps armed conflict — with Russia over a place most Americans and many Europeans cannot locate on a map?" the answer must take into account both geopolitical and economic factors. Yes, most in the West would argue that giving Moldovans a chance at democracy and an open society is worthwhile. Of course, countries in Europe should be able to decide for themselves whether they wish to integrate, economically and politically, into the European Union and the West. Yes, Romania is right to be concerned about Russian attempts to manipulate the situation in neighboring Moldova. The economic impact on Moldova — and, more important, on NATO ally Romania — would certainly be serious. But where the West really needs to focus is on the message it would send to Russia if Europe and the United States took no action at all. Just as in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin would inevitably interpret that answer as a weakness to be exploited.