Ukraine’s War Is Killing Another Country

How Moldova’s fate has become tightly tied up with its neighbor’s.

Paul Hockenos | 28 March 2024
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In the crowded labyrinth of the open market in downtown Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova, a babble of languages ripples through the throngs of traders hawking a bewildering array of fresh produce, cheap textiles, electronic wares, and much more. A customer may broach the terms of a deal in, say, Ukrainian, and get an answer in Romanian, or propose a price in Romanian and be answered in Russian. Among themselves, the traders from across this diminutive country of 2.5 million, wedged precariously between its outsized neighbors Romania and Ukraine, communicate in other tongues, too.

Moldova is a multiethnic country that wears its patchwork diversity on its sleeve. Particularly in urban centers, the majority Romanians live very much together with Ukrainians, Russians, and the Turkic Gagauz. But the war in Ukraine has completely upended the tenuous status quo that existed before February 2022. The war’s outcome, whether in Ukraine’s or Russia’s favor, has existential consequences for the tiny country nursing aspirations of joining the European Union.

Political convictions in Moldova have long spanned the gamut from aspirations of greater Romanian nationalism to Soviet nostalgia, from pro-Russia patriotism to civic pride in an independent, EU-embedded Moldova. This fractured landscape is also reflected in the country’s geography. Since the first days of its independence in 1991—when the Soviet Republic of Moldova jettisoned Soviet authority and declared statehood, basically for the first time ever—the Republic of Moldova itself has been fractured.

A breakaway, Russia-kowtowing enclave called Transnistria established itself east of the Dniester River—complete with about 1,500 Russian troops that remain there today—while the Gagauz minority, courted by Moscow and Ankara, staked out broad autonomy in the south.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first priority is to stop Moldova from joining the EU and integrating with the West, especially since the EU boosted Moldova to candidate status shortly after the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war. But his aspirations may be far wider. Last week, Russia drew the ire of Moldovan authorities by setting up polling stations in Transnistria for its roughly 200,000 residents to vote in the Russian presidential elections held from March 15 to 17. It was a move that harks back to the initial steps taken to absorb occupied territories in Crimea and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine into Russia itself.

“Everything is at stake for Moldova now,” said Alexei Tulbure, the director of the Moldovan Oral History Institute.

If there’s one thing that just about all of Moldova’s peoples agree upon, regardless of political ideology, it is that they have next to no agency to affect the fate of their country—and ultimately, the fate of their own futures. “Moldovans breathe quietly,” according to a Ukrainian saying, mocking the country’s helplessness.

“It’s in the back of our minds,” said Alina Radu, the founder of the independent weekly Ziarul de Garda, of the possibility of the country losing its territory, or autonomy, to Russia. She compared the threat that the country now faces to the first months of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, when the Russian military seemed to be on the doorstep of the nearby Ukrainian city of Odesa. Transnistria’s armies seemed to be preparing to lend Russia a hand there. Had they been successful, all of Moldova could have come under Russian domination.

The staging ground for any future assault on Moldova is still likely to be Ukraine. Putin regularly confirms that Odesa is a military priority and has recently stepped up missile attacks there. It is a development that Moldovans are watching with trepidation. It’s one that Moldova’s allies in the West should be watching, too.

Even over its grinding first decades—marred by civil war, raging corruption, abject poverty, and mass emigration—Moldova’s prospects weren’t as starkly imperiled as they are today. Unlike most Ukrainians—who declare that victory over Russia is the only possible outcome—Moldovans have thought through worst-case scenarios.

“If Ukraine is defeated and Russia carves out a land corridor to Transnistria, Moldova will effectively cease to exist as an independent county,” Radu explained. “If they cross the Dniester River to occupy Moldova proper, then most of the population could well flee to Romania and points in Europe.” Her entire editorial staff has fixed plans to relocate to offices in the Romanian cities of Iasi and Bucharest, she said.

This certainly, at the very least, would put an abrupt end to Moldova’s EU and NATO aspirations, which is  Washington’s primary concern. Upon signing a security cooperation deal with France on March 7, Moldovan President Maia Sandu—a 51-year-old Romanian-speaking graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government—told French President Emmanuel Macron that “our shared security is at stake. If the aggressor is not stopped, he will keep going, and the front line will keep moving closer. Closer to us, closer to you.”

Were Russia to take Moldova, it would open a second frontier with direct access to an EU member state. The United States is obviously aware of this threat and upped its defense assistance to Moldova from $3 million in 2022 to more than $30 million today. The United States and France also provided the country with hundreds of millions to shift its energy supply westward.

Ukraine, according to many Moldovans, including Sandu, is fighting for Moldova’s independence, too. “We’re very grateful to Ukraine,” said Ludmila D. Cojocaru, a historian at the National Museum of History of Moldova in Chisinau. “At the moment, it is the guarantor of our freedom.”

On the other hand, “if Ukraine pushes Russia back,” said Radu, the editor, “the Russian troops will have to leave separatist Transnistria, and it will dissolve.” As far as she is concerned, the peoples of Transnistria—hostages, she called them, to the criminal clique controlling the territory—would be more than welcome to join the Moldovan state in full. As for the alleged gangsters who have lorded over the region for 30 years, they will face justice—if they’re naïve enough to hang around, she said.

Until Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Moldova’s overwhelming geopolitical preoccupation was with the self-styled Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (PMR)—recognized as a state by no country in the world, not even Russia. Since a brief but bloody civil war in the region that took an estimated 700 lives in 1992, a hard-nosed, Russian-backed mafioso cartel named Sheriff Holding Co. has turned the vertical sliver of land into an entirely captured, one-party authoritarian state that conducts lucrative black-market business from the eastern bank of the Dniester.

The 90-minute minibus trip from Chisinau to PMR’s capital city, Tiraspol, passes a steady flow of traffic in the opposite direction: This workforce, which possesses Moldovan passports, can no longer find employment in Transnistria since its business to the east was cut off abruptly when Ukraine slammed shut the border last year, a body blow to the Sheriff cartel. At the Dniester, a solitary, AK-wielding Russian Army soldier stands in front of a makeshift border, not unlike Checkpoint Charlie in the divided Berlin.

Two flags fly from the checkpoint: the Russian flag and a green-and-red PMR flag that sometimes—but not all the time—sports a hammer and sickle in the upper right-hand corner just as had the flag of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. In the empty, deafeningly quiet streets of Tiraspol, the only image more prevalent than the bust of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is the Sheriff logo with its Wild West-inspired star. (“Sheriff” was the nickname of Moldovan police officer Viktor Gushan, who is one of the former Soviet sphere’s wealthiest oligarchs.)

The conflict between Transnistria and the Moldovan state, which never ceded sovereignty over the eastern bank territory, remained largely frozen for years despite international diplomacy to initiate a thawing. As long as the matter remained unsolved, Sheriff’s honchos padded their coffers and Moscow maintained a forward pawn that kept Moldova off balance; through propaganda and puppets, Russia influenced Moldova’s internal politics to the extent that until 2021, all but one Moldovan government reflected positions largely in line with Moscow, much as did in Ukraine until 2014. Interestingly, until the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine had sided largely with the Transnistrian ruling clique, business and Russian reinforcements flowing over the Ukraine border while Moldova remained tightly in check.

But now it is the Transnistrians who are on the back foot—and not sure how to play it. The narrow lick of land suddenly finds its greatest ally far away, and its residents are well aware that Ukraine could occupy it within a week, AnatoliiDirun, a former Transnistrian politician, told me. Resupply from Russia is blocked by Ukraine. The PMR made a feeble cry to Moscow for help on Feb. 28, but stopped short of calling for it to intervene.

In fact, the gangsters of Transnistria are petrified and thus playing both ends against the middle: Russia and Moldova proper. All of the region’s trade now runs through Moldova proper—and most of that carries on to the EU through Romania. More Transnistrians than ever before work, study, and learn Romanian in Moldova proper, part of a deft strategy by Sandu to integrate Transnistria back into Moldova.

“Transnistria’s leaders are trying to be prudent—as they don’t have much of a choice,” OazuNantoi, a member of the Moldovan Parliament who belongs to Sandu’s party, told Foreign Policy.

And yet, the Transnistrian government, in league with the Gagauz and pro-Russian forces in Moldova proper, remains beholden to Moscow and gladly lends it a hand in chipping away at the Moldovan government’s sovereignty.

The fact is, said Alexei Tulbure, an ethnic Ukrainian and the director of the Moldovan Historical Institute, Moldova is an easy target. It remains a very weak state, he noted, and thus wide open to tampering. “We had hoped that the war would consolidate Moldova the way it did Ukraine’s population, bring us all onto the same page. But this didn’t happen,” he said. Polls show that about a quarter of the country is still pro-Russian.

Russia’s chief means to destabilize its targets are bought votes, propaganda, cyberwarfare, and political parties. There are a handful of Russia-friendly (some also Russian-financed) parties that toe Putin’s line to one degree or another. For most of Moldova’s recent history, a combination of these parties had held power. The propaganda is “very strong and very toxic, and it rings like it’s straight from Moscow,” said Mariana Aricova of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting office in Chisinau, whose job is to monitor and counter the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns.

The Russian campaigns to topple the Sandu government have picked up pace as the Moldovan presidential election, scheduled to take place in autumn along with a referendum on EU membership, grows nearer. And the Sandu government has responded as if its life depends on it, even by banning one of the pro-Russian parties and shutting down six television channels for alleged misinformation.

But “it didn’t really change much because the banned party has regrouped under a new party, and the Russian message gets out through other channels, like the Internet,” Aricova said.

Above all, Moldovans fear being squashed in a power struggle in which they have no say. Many observers see a slow, gentle reintegration of Transnistria into a federally structured Moldova as a first step in the right direction—Sandu’s chosen path. The Sandu government is seizing the moment as a unique opportunity to reconnect with Transnistria—and from there, to bring the entire country, as one, into the EU. The carrots of cross-border employment prospects, full Schengen Area travel rights, European structural and investment funds, minority rights guarantees, and higher wages could be enticing to everyone—save, of course, Transnistria’s criminals.

In terms of a proven mentor, there’s none better than Romania, which has surged to become Eastern Europe’s second-largest economy after Poland. The question is whether Sandu can pull this off without shattering the fragile country in the process. But then, the war raging next door might just take care of that for her.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press)..

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.