Ukraine Crisis Sparks Anxiety in Moldova 

Moscow holds the strings of the de-facto authorities in Transnistria and controls critical gas supplies.

Ukraine Crisis Sparks Anxiety in Moldova 

Moscow holds the strings of the de-facto authorities in Transnistria and controls critical gas supplies.

The crisis in Ukraine has raised concerns in neighboring Moldova, which is continuing to accept a steady stream of Ukrainian refugees.
The crisis in Ukraine has raised concerns in neighboring Moldova, which is continuing to accept a steady stream of Ukrainian refugees. © Council of Europe

As Moldova continues to accept tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, the ongoing war presents Chisinau with a range of potential military, political and energy consequences.

Moldova shares a state line of over 1,200 kilometres with Ukraine, including the border segment of Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria.There, the Russian Federation maintains between 1,500 and 2,000 troops in the strip of land bordering Ukraine on the left bank of the Dniester River.

The region has been de-facto out of the control of the central Moldovan government since a July 1992 ceasefire between newly independent Moldova and Russia ended a five-month war with Russian-backed forces.

Russian soldiers are split between peacekeepers installed in the region after the end of the conflict and the Operative Group of Russian Troops (OGRT).  OGRT's primary duty is to guard the Soviet-era ammo depot in Cobasna, one of the biggest in eastern Europe, housing an estimated 20,000 tonnes of ammunitions.  These troops are in a rotating system doing both peacekeeping and guarding. 

Besides Russian troops, the paramilitary forces across Tiraspol’s defence force are estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 people. 

Militarily, Moldova is far weaker. Its army numbers about 6,000 soldiers, including staff personnel, and defence expenditure accounts for about 0.4 per cent of its 11.9 billion US dollar GDP. 

Decades of sparse investment have left troops with Soviet-era military equipment and neither large ground hardware nor aviation. The forces in Transnistria, on the other hand, can count on both warplanes and tanks.

The government, however, maintains that Moldova is not part of the Russian Federation’s strategy on Ukraine.

"We must be vigilant, disciplined, mobilised, but without panic. At the same time, it is pretty clear that the illegal presence of Russian troops on the territory of Moldova is a risk. But I bet that the Ukrainian people will resist," said Oazu Nantoi, a deputy with the pro-European governing Action and Solidarity Party.

He believes that sanctions will take effect, and "the war will not reach us, and the time will come to resolve [the Transnistrian] issue peacefully and turn this page".

Political analysts are less optimistic, noting that an escalation of the security situation in Moldova is not totally off the cards.

On February 26, the breakaway territory’s de facto leader Vadim Krasnoselky indicated that Tiraspol was not involved in the conflict in Ukraine, refuting Kyiv’s allegations of increased Russian military activity in Transnistria towards Ukrainian territory.

“Russia is involved on the eastern front for the time being. They have two main targets and two strategic directions,” said Ion Tabarta, an analyst with the Chisinau-based IDIS Viitorul think-tank. “The first is to occupy Kyiv and impose a puppet government… the second is going to Crimea, where they want access to water resources from the mainland.”

The future military impact on Moldova would much depend on the results of the Russians in these two directions, he continued. If operations developed in the Odessa region, the Russians would try to move further towards the Danube river mouth.

“In this scenario, there is a danger that some territories, such as the southern autonomous region of Gagauzia in Moldova, would be separated too. On the other hand, small republics like the Bugeac region could be created under Russia's patronage, as such Russian plans existed in 2014,” Tabarta said. 

For analyst Mihai Isac, Transnistria-based Russian troops and local paramilitary forces act as a counterbalance to the Ukrainian forces. 

“Kyiv is forced to keep troops near Transnistria, which could have been used in other fronts,” he told IWPR, arguing that the region was a secure base for the Russian secret, foreign and military intelligence services - primarily against Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, but not only. 

“If the Russian army reaches [Transnistria’s border with Ukraine], this region will be an important base of operations against all of Ukraine,” he warned. 

And then there is the political front. Most pro-Russian political parties are lying low, including the powerful Socialists Party (PSRM). 

On February 28, former Moldovan president and de-facto PSRM leader Igor Dodon said that there was no reason for Chisinau to get involved in the conflict in Ukraine.

“I believe that as long as we maintain the status of a neutral state, as long as we do not allow military equipment and weapons to be delivered to the neighbouring state through Moldova, through our airports, [our country] will not be involved… Therefore, we must maintain our neutrality,” Dodon stated. 

Its constitution defines Moldova as a militarily neutral state. Pro-Russian parties want Chisinau to cut military ties with the West, including training or peacekeeping international missions.

For Valeriu Pasa, a political analyst with the Chisinau-based think-tank WatchDog Community, the pro-Russian parties are on thin ice.

"First, their support from the citizens decreases… the population is shocked, and they realize how big the lie is regarding the whole idea of bringing Moldova closer to the Russian Federation”, he told IWPR, adding that opportunism played a role in their actions.

“Leaders like Dodon and Ion Ceban [the capital’s mayor] do not themselves believe in the aggressive propaganda of the Russian Federation,” Pasa said. 

Another element is the country’s energy security. An open confrontation with Moscow would jeopardise vital supplies as Moldova is 100 per cent dependent on Russian gas. Last September, Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom choked Moldova’s gas levels, pushing the government to seek emergency supplies from European countries, including neighbouring Romania, before reaching a deal in late October.

"It is hard to say. Maybe [we will face problems] next winter if there will be severe infrastructure damage due to the war,” former presidential advisor on energy, Sergiu Tofilat, told IWPR. “Otherwise, we will not have problems in Moldova. It is important not to bombard power lines or pipelines.”

He argued that Gazprom could not turn off the gas supply, because this would leave Transnistria without key support.

The region’s budget relies largely on Chisinau as the central government pays for the energy produced by the Moldovskaya GRES power plant, the country’s largest, which is located on the territory of the breakaway region. The plant is owned by Russia’s energy holding Inter RAO. 

The electricity is produced with Russian gas delivered by Gazprom. However, the Tiraspol regime stopped paying for Russian gas deliveries more than 15 years ago and accumulated a historical debt of about eight billion US dollars. 

“There could be problems with Moldavskaya…such as reducing electricity production or shutting down power lines,” Tofilat said. “This could be a risk. Moldova needs to see how it can manage it.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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