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Russia and the Moldovan Crisis: Blunting Democracy in the Near Abroad

April 20, 2023
Galina Isayeva

Official visit of the President of the Republic of Moldova Maia Sandu to Kyiv, January 12, 2021. Meeting with the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi.

For months, the former Soviet republic of Moldova has scrambled to foil efforts by Russia to destabilize the country. In February, Ukrainian President Zelensky revealed that Ukraine had intercepted Russian plans to overthrow the Moldovan government. On February 13, Moldova’s President Maia Sandu confirmed she was aware of the potential coup and blamed Russia for anti-government protests in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. Another Russian plan, confirmed by Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Rechan, involved overtaking the Chisinau airport and flying Russian troops into Transnistria, a breakaway region with a majority Russian-speaking population.

More recently, a consortium of journalists uncovered a leaked Kremlin document dating to 2021 that describes a comprehensive ten-year plan to steer Moldova’s political and economic development toward Moscow. The core objective: to seed a negative portrait of the European Union and NATO, assure a strong presence of pro-Russian groups, and ultimately tilt the country back into Moscow’s orbit. To achieve these goals, the report says Russia will use nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Russian-dominated regional and international organizations as points of influence and leverage.

Russia’s efforts to destabilize Moldova’s Western-leaning democratic political system are part of a longer-standing conflict for influence over the countries of the former Soviet bloc, which are working toward closer association with Europe—including Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Putin hopes to coopt and coerce these states through Russian-leaning institutions. Will these countries’ democratic political institutions thrive or be weakened by secessionist and Russian threats?

Moldova’s Frozen Conflict with Russia and Alignment with the West

Russia has a long history of meddling in Moldova, which shares a border with Ukraine. Along that border runs the narrow sliver of the Transnistria region. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, as Moldova was considering closer ties with Romania, a Western-leaning democracy that is now a member of NATO and the EU, Russian speakers in Transnistria sought independence to retain their historic connections to Russia. With the help of the Soviet 14th Army, Transnistria resisted Moldova’s attempts to establish control over the region. In June 1992, a battle in Bender between Moldova and Russian forces resulted in around a thousand deaths. Russia and Moldova negotiated a ceasefire to end active hostilities, but the conflict has been frozen ever since. At least 1,500 Russian troops remain stationed in Transnistria, and Russia exerts significant influence on Moldova with support for pro-Russian parties, control over the media and gas supplies, and destabilizing cyberattacks.

Russia has also sought to steer Moldova as a whole into its orbit and away from the West.

During the Transnistrian crisis, Moldova was encouraged to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an organization meant to replace many of the Soviet Union’s functions, such as border security and market integration. Although Moldova did join the CIS, in 1997 then-Moldovan President Lucinschi helped to establish GUAM, an organization of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova—all reluctant CIS members and at high risk of Russian subversion. GUAM coordinated the policies of the small group of more democratic former Soviet states to counterbalance Russian interests in the CIS. Together, the democracies within CIS have been able to refrain from signing agreements within the CIS and have successfully undermined Russia’s efforts to control the democracies in the CIS. Though a small organization without any great powers, GUAM was surprisingly effective, confirming Russia’s fears that democratic organizations like the EU would disrupt its influence over small democracies.

Back to Moldova: like a flytrap, the more Moldova struggled against Russia, the longer Russian pressure continued. In 2003, Russia proposed the Kozak Memorandum (officially, the Russian Draft Memorandum on the Basic Principles of the State Structure of a United State in Moldova), which would have “solved” the Transnistrian issue by creating a federal system in Moldova and reserving a portion of seats in the central legislature for Transnistrian representatives. The proposal would have given Transnistria veto power over most legislative acts, and then-Moldovan President Voronin refused to sign it.

Not surprisingly, the Ukraine war has created strong incentives for Moldova to deepen its ties to the West, particularly the EU. Last June, it secured EU candidate status alongside Ukraine. The road to membership is long and requires that Moldova meets the Copenhagen criteria, which includes having a functioning market economy and stable democratic institutions. Moldova faces significant constraints in this regard: its democracy is fragile, it is still dependent on Russia for energy, corruption is widespread, Russian media disseminates propaganda, and Transnistria could be used to destabilize Moldova or open a second front against Ukraine. These constraints have been purposely developed and exacerbated by Russia over the past thirty years to prevent exactly this scenario: Moldova joining the EU to prevent Russian incursions on its sovereignty. The EU and the United States are working to address many of these vulnerabilities, but with Russia occupied by the war and the West unified in support of Ukraine, there is an opportunity to do even more.

Moldova in Regional Context

Moldova is not an isolated case. Across the former Soviet space, Putin has repeatedly sought to deter countries from aligning with the West, while encouraging them to participate in organizations that Russia leads. Initially, the CIS was supposed to be the central organization that would facilitate Russian control over its small democratic and autocratic neighbors. Under Putin, attempts to use international and regional organizations as a means of control expanded to include the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, which focused on molding member states’ security policy and economic policy, respectively, to Russia’s preferences.

Russia has also used coercion to attempt to violently persuade its neighbors to capitulate to Russian preferences. In 1993, Georgia was a budding democracy that had refused to participate in the CIS and aimed instead to follow the Baltic states toward the EU. To prevent this, Russia destabilized and informally occupied the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In part to limit Russian pressures, Georgia joined the CIS. Nonetheless, Russia subsequently invaded the country in a short war in 2008 after the country’s politics took a further democratic—and pro-Western—turn. The conflict between Russia and Georgia is ongoing.

In Ukraine, following the successful democratic movement to oust Viktor Yanukovich in 2013–14 (the so-called Euromaidan protests), Moscow supported pro-Russian secessionists in the Donbas region and annexed Crimea outright. A central issue in the protests against Yanukovich was his scrapping of an association agreement with the European Union in favor of membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. With his ouster, Ukraine finalized the Association Agreement with the EU and civil society was bolstered—a huge win for democracy—but the country endured nearly a decade of low-level conflict leading up to the 2022 Russian invasion.

Even autocracies such as Belarus, which has long been ruled by a pro-Russian autocrat, Alexander Lukashenko, are harassed by Russia. In 1999, Russia used oil and gas subsidies and financial support to pressure Belarus into giving up its sovereignty and merging with Russia under a so-called “Union State” treaty. The country has been under sustained pressure to support Russian objectives ever since, including with respect to the war in Ukraine. But democracies, ultimately, are a bigger threat to Russia, and so face greater Russian pressure to comply with its demands.

Although Russia hasn’t been successful in completely reclaiming its near abroad, Putin’s efforts have made it difficult for countries to maneuver toward the West. Moldova cannot join NATO with Russian troops stationed in Transnistria and constantly faces the possibility of Russian-backed domestic unrest. Georgia has recently experienced sharp internal divisions over a proposed law that would limit access to the country for foreign NGOs, a policy pushed by Russia that would constrain Georgia’s ability to join European organizations were it to be passed. Ukraine has been unable to join the EU with its territorial integrity fractured by the conflict that began with the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.

Western Policy Toward Moldova

What have the United States and EU done to support Moldova? To assist Moldova’s transition to democracy, the United States has provided financial assistance for economic growth, civil society development, and military training. Both the United States and the EU have helped to fight corruption and support news media in Moldova that attempt to counter Russian propaganda (Moldova banned Russian news media after the invasion of Ukraine). The EU also helped address many of the country’s energy security concerns by facilitating the supply of gas through Romania and connections to the EU electricity grid. Though more support is needed to strengthen energy infrastructure, this removes a significant part of Russia’s leverage.

Ultimately, Moldova and the EU need to confront the issue of Transnistria and the fact that Russia still has troops stationed on Moldovan territory.

While Moldova would like to see Transnistria fully re-incorporated into Moldova, past negotiations between Russia and Moldova on the issue have been unsuccessful. After slow progress in 2005, negotiations mediated by Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (with the EU and US observing) were paused until 2012. After limited progress in 2016, the talks stalled again in 2019 and are unlikely to be attempted again soon.

So long as Transnistria remains under the authority of an ever more aggressive Russia, Moldova will require additional security support. Further militarization is counterproductive, but police and security cooperation is necessary to prevent Putin from exploiting his advantage to harm either Moldova or Ukraine. So far, Moldova has only received three armored personnel carriers from Germany, out of 19 promised. The EU has pledged non-lethal aid such as cyber-defense as part of $720 million in aid. Ukraine remains a priority, but Moldova needs significant further security assistance as well as air monitoring and air defense systems.

Over the long term, the United States, EU, and Moldova should talk about ways to convince Transnistrians that reintegration with Moldova is beneficial. Transnistria currently benefits from cheap gas and support for Russian-language speakers from Russia. For integration with Moldova to be attractive, there need to be clear material advantages. Moldova already allows Transnistria to register businesses in Moldova in order to export goods to the EU. The EU ascension process has increased trade between the EU and Transnistria and helped facilitate energy supplies for Moldova through Romania. Moldova or the EU will have to bear the cost of providing cheap energy to Transnistria; otherwise, Transnistria will have significant incentives to remain loyal to Russia. Higher trade and alternative sources of cheap energy might be enough to sway the business elite in Transnistria to support integration with Moldova.

Integration of Transnistrians will also require Moldova to think about how Russian speakers are treated. Russian is still the dominant language in Transnistria, and language laws are a sensitive topic in Moldova. Officials will have to grapple with how to assure Russian speakers and ethnic minorities that they are welcome and will be supported in Moldova. These are not insignificant issues, but failure to craft a strategic alternative will only leave Moldova vulnerable to Ukraine-style destabilization.

The Bottom Line

The trend of Russian anti-democratic subversion can be stopped. The struggle between Russia and the West is likely to continue in the region for decades, but Western organizations like NATO and the EU are capable of supporting democracy and opposing Russian autocracy. The invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder that placating Putin only emboldens him. Until Moldova and other countries in the region have the safeguard of NATO or EU membership, they will continue to be stuck in Russia’s orbit.


GALINA ISAYEVA is a PhD student at UC San Diego’s Department of Political Science. She studies interstate coercion and international organizations with a focus on post-Soviet states.

Photo credit: The Office of the President of Ukraine