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Russia’s next target? Why the West can’t allow Putin to seize Moldova

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Maia Sandu, president of Moldova, addresses the United Nations.

As the Ukraine War grinds on and Russia remains on the back foot, the Kremlin seeks to stir trouble elsewhere. Moldova once again is near the center of high geopolitics: Moscow seeks to drag the country back into its orbit and, once it completes its war in Ukraine, to absorb it into a renewed Soviet empire.  

Despite Ukraine’s successes, the U.S. and its allies must remember the importance of all of Eastern Europe, including Moldova. Moscow’s recent bullying demands a strong response, a new, robust security and political framework that counters Russian predation. 

As November began, Moldova expelled a Russian diplomat after a Russian missile, attacking a target in Ukraine, was shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. The weapon landed in a small Moldovan village, causing little damage but much consternation. 

The incident is part of a far broader pattern of behavior. It indicates the Kremlin’s long-term strategy in Eastern Europe, its ambitions beyond Ukraine, and its willingness to remain locked in confrontation with the West until victory is achieved. 

Moldova is as integral to post-Soviet revanchism as Ukraine. As the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, the Kremlin lost direct control of its European possessions. The Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine receive most attention for obvious reasons: The Balts were Russia’s most obvious imperial possessions, being non-Russophone conquests, while the Belarusians and Ukrainians were (in Russia’s telling) wayward Russians who had forgotten their Slavic identity. 

Yet Moldova is an integral geopolitical part of Russia’s collapse. The Soviets created modern Moldova’s predecessor, the Moldovan SSR, in 1940, covering around two-thirds of the Romanian-Ukrainian region of Bessarabia. Moldova was not a nominally independent Warsaw Pact member like Romania, Bulgaria or Poland but, instead, a Soviet possession. As the USSR dissolved, Moldovans sought political protection and searched for their heritage. The Moldovan language is functionally identical with Romanian, albeit typically written in Cyrillic due to Russian rule, while Moldovan history and culture are thoroughly linked with Romania. Hence, there was a distinct possibility that Moldova, rather than declaring independence from the USSR, would unite with a post-Soviet Romania instead.  

The Soviets had no interest in this eventuality. Romania, despite the poverty the Cold War-era Ceausescu regime’s economic policies generated, had structural strengths, including a substantial merchant fleet and legacy industrial equipment. Combined with Moldovan power generation capacity, and perhaps with Ukrainian and Bulgarian populations and agricultural production, this could have created a coherent bloc that post-Soviet Russia would struggle to dominate.

The Soviet solution was to divide the country. In 1990, Soviet Transnistria was created, almost certainly with support from Soviet intelligence. Although Moldova declared independence rather than joining Romania, Soviet Transnistria declared independence too; although it remains formally a part of Moldova, it is a de facto Russian proxy. 

Transnistria provides Russia with two clear benefits. First, it offers Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) a forward base to conduct European operations. Transnistria is policed by neither Moldova nor Ukraine, meaning FSB activities within it are entirely unmonitored. Second, and of supreme relevance to Moldova, Transnistria contains almost all the former Moldovan SSR’s power-generation capacity; Moldova purchases around 70 percent of its power from Transnistria — which purchases oil and natural gas from Russia. Hence, Moldova’s orientation towards Europe, historically speaking, is tempered by geo-economic realities. 

Moldova’s president, the European-oriented Maia Sandu, has provided strong rhetorical support to Ukraine. This is only logical: Moldova remains the Kremlin’s logical next target, with Transnistria bordering “Novorossiya” — “New Russia,” Putin’s term for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine partially seized by Putin in 2014 and expanded upon in his current invasion. Russia’s initial invasion in February sought to leave only a small Ukrainian rump state centered on Lviv and conquer the rest of the country up to Transnistria. Russia’s subsequent move would have been to take Transnistria and, within a few years, force Moldova’s absorption into a new Russian bloc through energy blackmail. 

The Kremlin may be on the back foot in Ukraine, but it retains agents throughout Europe and has tools capable of influencing Eastern Europe. Thus, Moldova’s orientation is central to Western strategy. 

Beginning in the summer, Russian-aligned Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor reportedly financed or encouraged protests against the Moldovan government, accusing it of being pro-Western and responsible for Moldova’s worsening economic situation. In October, Ukraine halted planned gas deliveries to Moldova, given Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure; on Nov. 1, Transnistria halted its energy exports to Moldova. Romania has agreed to step in and support Moldova, pledging to provide some 90 percent of Moldova’s electricity needs — but this will take time, and Russia could conceivably destabilize the situation further by using Transnistria to cause further mischief in Moldova. 

Moldova’s status — torn between West and East — is tenable for Russia. A pro-Western Moldova, however, would fundamentally modify the strategic balance. Moldovan NATO and European Union affiliation would provide the West with another supply route into Ukraine; full Moldovan participation in the Western camp would bolster NATO-allied Romania and Bulgaria’s ability to defend themselves against future Russian predation. 

The Moldovan question demonstrates that the U.S. and its allies must think beyond Ukraine. Eastern Europe, and particularly the Black Sea coastline, are of equal importance strategically, even if they are not actively resisting a war of Russian conquest. The U.S. has an opportunity to solidify a southeastern European bloc that can serve as a bulwark against Russian aggression; three steps are imperative. 

First, the U.S. should expand its energy support for Romania’s energy industry. It already has extended support to Romanian nuclear power. But it must fund new reactors, and particularly Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), more quickly than planned. The United Kingdom’s SMR industry may be a useful partner.   

Second, the U.S. should increase its rotational forces in Romania and expand links with Moldova’s armed forces. If the worst occurs and Moldova must respond to a Transnistrian contingency, it will be crucial to have U.S. support in place in advance of a conflict.

Third, and most critical, the U.S. should start discussions between Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova on a non-EU, perhaps non-NATO, political-security arrangement. Romanian, Bulgarian and Moldovan interests lie with the Atlantic community, not solely the European continent; Europe, particularly Germany, has little interest in supporting southeastern Europe in a struggle against Russian expansion. 

Hence, a new political dialogue — in time coupled with training arrangements, military integration and perhaps a formal alliance mechanism — would secure regional interests. 

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags Eastern Europe Federal Security Service FSB Maia Sandu Moldova post-Soviet revanchism Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russian war in Ukraine Transnistria Vladimir Putin

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