Why we should be cautiously concerned about Moldova
BY WILL KINGSTON-COX
A monument of a Soviet-era tank in Tiraspol, Moldova - the capital of the Transnistria region
A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian President and longstanding ally of Vladimir Putin, was photographed giving an operational military brief in front of a battle map. The map’s inclusion of the Transnistrian region of Moldova gives appreciable cause for concern. Any Russian incursion into Transnistria would plunge Moldova into an existential crisis. The incontrovertible parallels between Ukraine and Moldova suggests that the polity in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, foresee Putin’s war machine reaching their soil too.
Nonetheless, the threat of this happening can be stalled, even avoided, as Ukraine continues to frustrate Russia's miscalculated and faltering invasion. It is thus an uncertain situation for Moldova.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the brief Russo-Moldovan war, pro-Kremlin Transnistrian separatists have waged a low-level insurgency against Moldova in its easternmost region. There are distinct similarities here with the causes of conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Both Moldova and Ukraine are former Soviet states; neither are member states of NATO nor the European Union; both have large Russian-speaking minorities in their eastern regions; and both have been subjected to Russian-backed separatist insurgencies.
Since 1995, the Transnistrian government has garrisoned a 1,500 strong Russian task force, under the auspice of a “peacekeeping mission’’, in its capital Tiraspol. This task force, the official line goes, is there to protect the Cobasna arms depot, which houses over 22,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition and military equipment. Is this a convenient smokescreen? Not entirely, but it is wholly reasonable to believe ulterior motivations exist.
Moldovan anxieties surrounding the presence of Russian “peacekeepers” are sure to be aggravated by the size and scope of the Transnistrian paramilitary forces, who are estimated to have a total of 10,000 active troops. For comparison, the Moldovan army has a mere 6,000 troops who are active and ready for deployment. Such numeric imbalance gives credence to Chisinau’s concerns.
Moreover, if Putin were to invade Transnistria, the Moldovan army would soon—irrespective of any heroic endeavour—succumb. With no direct NATO or EU support to rely upon, Moldova can do no more than hope the Russian invasion of Ukraine is thwarted, so that Russia is incapable of pursuing an incursion into their country as well.
Meanwhile, the socioeconomic impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine upon Moldova has the potential to be seismic. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Before the Russian invasion, the government estimated that it could accommodate up to 15,000 Ukrainian refugees. Since the invasion commenced, over 250,000 Ukrainians have entered the territory, with more than 100,000 settling there.
With a population of just 2.6 million, Moldova has therefore seen a 4 percent increase in their existing population - the highest influx in any nation. As the senseless terror rages against Ukraine, it is only rational to assume these numbers will increase. For a nation stricken by political instability and poverty, and so incapable of accommodating such a volume of refugees, the question arises as to how will they will cope. Indeed, their burden will only worsen should Odessa become subject to Russian attacks.
A port city some eighty kilometres from the Ukrainian-Moldovan border, Odessa is of strategic importance to Putin's invasion. At the time of writing, the city is yet to be subject to besiegement. That said, if Russia does attempt to occupy it, a humanitarian corridor to Moldova would be the most natural route formed. With a population of over one million, an inevitable attack here may push the country to breaking point. Further, there is also the possibility - as Lukashenko’s map hinted - that the Kremlin’s military operation could utilise Transnistria as a base for the invasion of Odessa from the north. Russia could then potentially annex the region, similar to what it has done in the Donbas and Crimea.
Nonetheless, any concerns over Moldova must be tempered. The Russian invasion has hitherto failed to achieve its initial strategic goals. It has miscalculated the tenacity and heroic resolve of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland, and has seen desertions among its ranks. This may make an incursion into Moldova militarily illogical, and perhaps increasingly unlikely.
Yet this does not dismiss worries. Moldova would probably be unable to repel a Russian incursion into Transnistria, exacerbated by no guaranteed NATO or EU support. If Odessa is besieged, the country will be incapable of accommodating such an inflow of refugees. For this alone, we must remain cautiously concerned about Moldova.
Image: Flickr / Quixioticguide