Will Russia Trample into Moldova?
The prospect that the Russian Armed Forces might simply extend a conventional invasion of Ukraine into Moldova seemed a paranoid fantasy less than a month ago. As the world now observes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to trample Ukraine, seemingly refusing to accept the nineteenth-century emergence of national identity in an echo of Vladimir Lenin’s reason for territorial administration reform 100 years ago, the fate of Moldova now looms heavily on geopolitical imaginations.
In many ways, Moldova is much like Ukraine. Moldova is not a member of either the NATO alliance or the European Union despite years of aspiration to join. The current Moldovan leadership has a strong pro-Western orientation. Both are former Soviet republics with Russian-backed separatist regions where uninvited Russian troops are garrisoned for dubious peacekeeping purposes. Corruption addles the prosperity of both countries so severely that Putin has cited it as reason to doubt each country’s claim to deserve statehood.
Yet for all these similarities, Ukraine looms significantly larger in Moscow’s attention. Over 2014-2021 the Russian government met with Moldovan officials, signed agreements with the Moldovan government, and issued statements about Moldovanpolicy a total of 234 times according to official sources; the analogous figure for Ukraine is more than ten times that at 2,507. Russian trade in goods with Moldova in 2020 is slightly more than one-tenth that with Ukraine at $1.3 billion vs $10 billion respectively. Whereas the Soviet Union placed many strategic industries and promoted various leaders from the Ukrainian SSR, the Moldavian SSR was always considered a backwater.
Ukrainians, like Russians, are Eastern Slavs with a similar but distinct language. As has been noted frequently by Russian propagandists and observers alike, the origin of the modern Russian culture emerged on contemporary Ukrainian territory. By contrast, Moldovans are very closely related to Romanians, with many claiming that Moldovans are ethnic Romanians and should re-join the Romanian state as they did in 1918. The Soviet Union annexed modern Moldova in 1945, reprising the Tsarist annexation of the lands beyond the Prut River in 1812.
Modern Moldova’s status bedevilled much of modern Russian-Romanian relations. The nineteenth-century Romanian state emerged as a union of the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, the latter centred on the city of Iasi in contemporary Romania. Officials in Bucharest still occasionally denounce the Russian detachment of the contemporary Izmail Raion of southwestern Ukraine during the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War as the original fault in the bilateral relationship.
Though the 1877-1878 war saw the emergence of both Romania and Bulgaria as fully independent states from the Ottoman Empire, only the liberation of the latter is celebrated by modern Russian diplomats as a story of historical Russian glory. During the communist era, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s use of any diplomatic opportunity to extract promises and gifts from the Soviet Union bred a culture of disdain among Soviets toward Romania.
"During the communist era, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s use of any diplomatic opportunity to extract promises and gifts from the Soviet Union bred a culture of disdain among Soviets toward Romania."
As the Soviet Union liberalised under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Moldavian SSR debated a language law declaring Moldovan – debatably either a subdialect of or the same thing as the Romanian language – the official language of the republic. Considering the general aversion of the Soviet Slavic populations for Romanians and the increasing unrest of the union binding the SSRs, the minority Slavic population of Moldavia SSR proclaimed a breakaway republic of Transnistria in 1990 for the sliver of the SSR east of the Dniestr River. As the stability of the Soviet Union wavered over the following year and especially as neighbouring Ukraine increasingly united under nationalist (i.e. anti-Unionist) leader Leonid Kravchuk, Transnistrians feared the possibility of their country being annexed to Romania with a concomitant imposition of Romanian language and culture on their homes. This resulted in a series of clashes and a relatively low-intensity conflict over 1990-1992 in which Russian and Ukrainian officers and volunteers, especially from the Soviet 14th Army, assisted the Slavic Transnistrians in establishing de facto independence.
Since 1992, the Russian Federation has maintained an armed peacekeeping presence of around 1500 troops in Transnistria, officially declaring that a spectre of inter-ethnic violence necessitates its perpetuation. Surrounded by Moldova and Ukraine, Transnistria has since remained a relatively peaceful frozen conflict but has intermittently declared an intention to ultimately be annexed to Russia. The legitimacy of such declarations is difficult to establish as Transnistrian elections and referenda are subject to allegations of rigging, lack of international oversight, and frequent boycotts by anti-separatist factions. Nevertheless, the status quo of pro-Russian separatism remains relatively stable in the small territory.
In southern Moldova another small pro-Russian, anti-Romanian quasi-separatist region Gagauzia exists. However, whereas Transnistria broadly supports Russia both for cultural and anti-Romanian nationalist reasons, the Gagauz people oppose Romanian nationalism primarily out of fear of having another foreign nationality imposed upon their relatively small community. Russia occasionally reaches out specifically to Gagauzia and Putin’s particular brand of demi-internationalist pluralism is more appealing than perceived Moldovan nationalism, but this region’s population lacks the innate cultural affinity with Russia present in Transnistria.
"Since 1992, the Russian Federation has maintained an armed peacekeeping presence of around 1500 troops in Transnistria, officially declaring that a spectre of inter-ethnic violence necessitates its perpetuation."
Nevertheless, Russian interest in Transnistria has wavered over the years. Between 2014 and 2018, Russian government websites only issued 52 statements about Transnistria vs 116 about Moldova. Since 2019, Russian mentions of Transnistria have increased but largely due to increased Russian Ministry of Defence publications about improved amenities and cultural activities at a relatively unglamorous and backwater peacekeeping posting. Indeed many of these publications specifically reference taking children of Russian servicemen to old Soviet military museums or other pro-Russian patriotic activities to ensure continued solidarity with Russia. In recent years, when the so-called President of Transnistria visits Moscow, he is typically only received by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister responsible for former Soviet space affairs, though high-profile Russian officials do infrequently visit Tiraspol.
In the unrest of 2014, a power vacuum briefly emerged in southern Ukraine amidst uneven support for the Euromaidan revolution. Concerns emerged that Russia might foster anti-Ukraine separatism across a region linking Russia’s Rostov Oblast to Transnistria. However, as the separatist movements and Russian intervention in the Donbass became ever more violent, especially after the 2 May 2014 Odessa protest violence, this fear of the reformation of Novorossiya faded with whatever pro-Russian sentiment that had existed to that time and Transnistria again receded into a geopolitical footnote only addressed by specialists.
However, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine reopens the question of the fate of Moldova and Transnistria. Moldovan defence capabilities are but a shadow of Ukraine’s and would stand little chance stopping a Russian offensive against the country. At the time of writing, it seems clear the Russian offensive intends to take Odessa, which would almost certainly result in Russian troops at least temporarily creating a land link all the way from internationally-recognized Russian Federation territory to Transnistria. As neither a NATO nor EU member, Moldova has no formal Western security guarantees to preserve its independence. In short, Moldova’s survival seems a mere dependent variable of Putin’s whims in 2022.
Yet though these factors certainly appear to cast Moldovan sovereignty under a dark shadow, there is reason to believe that a continuation of the 2022 invasion across Moldovan territory is not foreordained. The most important reason is simply the relative unimportance Moscow ascribes to Moldova relative to the other Eastern Slavic nations of Belarus and Ukraine. For example, according to the most recent data, the population of Belarus is roughly 3.6x that of Moldova (9.3 million vs 2.6 million respectively) but the quantity of Russian government messaging about Belarus according to the same methodology described above over 2014-2021 is 6.67x that about Moldova (1,560 vs 234 respectively). Thus, though the Transnistria question will almost certainly loom large in the coming weeks and months due to international recognition of the region as a de jure part of Moldova, the bulk of Moldovan territory may simply insufficiently important for the Russians to bother about it. Russian trade turnover with Moldova in 2020 at $1.3 billion ranked just below Russian trade with Slovenia and just above Morocco, though Russia is Moldova’s second-largest trade partner behind only Romania.
Whatever comfort such disinterest might bring, the possibility of the Russian invasion rolling into Moldova must still be considered. Few supplemental consequences short of military intervention remain for the West to apply against Russia if it does attack. Furthermore, if Russia is already going to infringe upon Moldovan sovereignty due to proclaimed Transnistrian popular will, Putin may perceive the costs of acquiring the remainder of the ersatz SSR turned pro-Western nuisance as a mere rounding error. Alternatively, so long as it is redrawing maps of Europe anyway, Moscow may simply propose that Transnistria be incorporated either into Russia or whatever pro-Russian territorial entity is being established in the Odessa area in exchange for Romania regaining rump Moldova. Though such a settlement would be unlikely to be formalized amicably directly between Moscow and Bucharest, it may yet be tacitly accomplished. Under such a scenario, Gagauzia may enter some relationship with the pro-Russian entity or else become a source of Russian leverage inside NATO and EU member greater Romania.
Putin’s decision to invent and claim justification in arbitrating which states threaten Russia by seeing phantom Nazis in charge of a government opposing his vision raises the dire prospect of war resuming its historical place as just one of many tools of statecraft available to wield. Nationalism has dissolved the map of Europe into 44 countries, none of which can singularly match the resources and military might of the Russian Federation. If the Russian government wishes to act as a new imperial policeman just as it imagines the United States doing, there are many nations which oppose Moscow’s policies which may be attacked next if no alliance is ready to defend it. Moldova has no formal alliance to defend it and as such its sovereignty will probably shortly be further infringed than it has since its emergence as an independent country in 1991. A sentence this author would consider ridiculous a week before the time of writing sums up the problem: the vicissitudes of Putin’s whims alone will determine the shape of Moldova within the next month.
Written by Nicholas J. Myers
Edited by Wade McCagh