Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Moldova Warning: The Next Target for Russian Destabilization

By Franklin Holcomb, Kathleen Weinberger and Greg Steinhelper

Key Takeaway: Moldova has recently overtly signaled its intention to integrate more closely with Western structures, particularly the European Community and NATO, and its neighbor Ukraine. Russia sees such possible integration as a threat to its strategic goal of reasserting itself within the borders of the former Soviet Union. As a result, Russia could move to destabilize Moldova prior to its October 30 elections by stirring social unrest or even escalating to civil conflict or civil war as a means of justifying intervention by Russian forces in Transnistria. If pro-Russia actors can destabilize the Moldovan government and slow Moldova’s pursuit of Euro-Atlantic integration, Russia will have successfully undermined a third member of the former Soviet Union (prior targets include Georgia and Ukraine) as it sought western integration.

Moldova faces escalation by Russia and Russian-proxy forces in response to its increasingly overt advances towards EU and NATO.  The Kremlin perceives Moldova’s pursuit of integration with the west as a threat to Russia’s grand strategic objectives of regaining control of lost territory within the former Soviet Union and reestablishing itself as a global power. Russia may choose to destabilize the Moldovan government, particularly before its October 30th elections, in order to stop Moldova’s efforts to integrate with the West. Russia can achieve this through use of pro-Russia political parties within Moldova, overt political pressure, and its conventional and proxy military forces in Transnistria. Russia caused civil discontent in and ultimately invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 as they pursued similar goals.

The Republic of Moldova is a politically and ethnically divided country in which Russia maintains a high degree of political influence as well as conventional military forces.  Moldova, formerly the Romanian province of Bessarabia, was created by the Soviet Union in 1940 and gained its independence in 1991. The Russian separatist region of Transnistria declared independence from Moldova in 1990. Russia’s 14th Army intervened on the side of the breakaway groups in 1992 and has maintained a presence in the Transnistria region since the conflict froze. Russia justified the intervention as a means to protect the self-determination of Russian “compatriots.” Pro-Russia parties with close ties to Russian leadership continue to operate in Moldova. These movements have wide support among Russian speakers and those dissatisfied with current corruption and low standards of living in Moldova.

Russia and its proxy forces in Transnistria have issued a number of threatening warnings to the Moldovan government, signaling the Kremlin’s intent to alter Moldova’s paths towards NATO and the EU.  Russia reaffirmed its support of ethnic Russians in Transnistria, a narrative Russia also advanced prior to invading Georgia and Ukraine, and warned Moldova against cooperating with its neighbors Ukraine[1] and Romania[2] prior to the July 08-09 NATO Summit in Warsaw. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin conducted[3] an official visit to Moldova from July 05-July 07, his first visit since 2014. He warned Moldova that if it were to pursue unification with NATO member Romania, Transnistria would seek full independence. He added that Moldova “had better let Transnistria go amicably” and emphasized that Russian forces deployed in support of the Transnistrian separatists would “fulfill their duties until the end.” Rogozin justified Russia’s continued support for Transnistria by claiming that “our compatriots, our citizens, our brethren” live in the region. He announced that Russia would expand[4] its ties to Transnistria in coming years, signaling Russia’s long-term interest in supporting the separatist region. The leader of Transnistria Yevgeny Shevchuk accused[5] Moldova of violating its neutrality by expanding cooperation with NATO July 05th. He also accused Romanian aircraft of frequently violating[6] Transnistrian airspace to “photograph military facilities.” This explicit warning about alleged Romanian activity in Moldova and Transnistria from Russian proxy forces is a Russian warning to Moldova over its close relationship with Romania. The majority of Moldovans share deep cultural and linguistic ties to Romania and there have been efforts from both sides to reunify the states.  The narrative of Romanian interference in Moldova as preparation for reunification may be used by pro-Russia actors as justification for destabilizing activity in Moldova.

Moldova has been increasingly overt about its intention to integrate further with the western structures and break away from Russia’s grip after Rogozin and Shevchuk made their warnings.  Moldova has crossed four potential Russian redlines in the past two weeks.

  • First, Moldovan Minister of Defense Anatol Salaru called on NATO at the NATO summit to support the removal of Russian forces from Transnistria, calling instead for a multinational civil mission. This move by Moldova is not only a clear signal to Russia that it will not follow Moscow’s mandates about its foreign policy, but also that it is willing to go so far as to request support from NATO. This is likely to be seen as highly provocative by the Kremlin.
  • Second, the Moldovan government took decisive steps internally to limit Russian influence following Russia and Transnistria’s warnings. The Moldovan parliament adopted[7] amendments to a bill in its first of two rounds of voting that would severely restrict Russian controlled and Russian language media broadcasts in Moldova on July 07. The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced[8] the “unfriendly move” and warned that it would monitor the situation “closely.”  The bill would pose a serious threat to Russia’s domination[9] of the information space in Moldova if implemented.
  • Third, Moldova continued its outreach to Ukraine based on the shared goals of integration into the Euro-Atlantic community and common security concerns. President of Moldova Nicolae Timofti met[10] with leading Ukrainian and Moldovan statesmen while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin met with his Moldovan counterpart on July 12 after Rogozin and Shevchuk issued their warnings. Leaders at both meetings discussed[11] the common goal of pursuing integration into the EU and Euro-Atlantic community and the shared threat posed by the Russian occupation of Donbas and Transnistria. Moldova announced that it would end trade restrictions with Ukraine following the meeting on July 12 in order to develop “harmonious” relations with Ukraine.
  • Fourth, Moldova and Romania, a NATO member state, continued to strengthen their close relationship. The Romanian ambassador to Moldova promised continued economic assistance for the struggling Moldovan government and reemphasized Romania’s support for Moldova over crisis regarding Transnistria on July 14th. Prominent leaders,[12] including the former President of Romania on July 08, and political movements in both countries have called for the reunification of the two countries. These movements are opposed by pro-Russia Moldovan parties who accused the U.S. of orchestrating a plot to reunify the two countries in order to provoke conflict between Russia, Ukraine, and the West.

Russia maintains the grand strategic objective of asserting dominance over the former Soviet Union, particularly over non-NATO and non-EU states like Moldova. Russia’s forces in the separatist region of Transnistria provide Russia with valuable terrain near NATO’s eastern border and threatening Ukraine in which they have the opportunity to expand their military infrastructure and troop presence. Russia prioritizes the strategic value of its garrison and proxy forces in Transnitria, which allows Russia to easily exert pressure the Moldovan government and threaten Ukraine’s western border. The Transnistrian border is less than 50 miles from Ukraine’s key port-city of Odesa, allowing Russia to directly threaten and continue to support destabilizing pro-Russian[13] forces within the city. Moldova’s overt steps towards western structures and its efforts to solidify alliances with its neighbors threaten Russia’s ability to apply military pressure in the region.

Russia may choose to escalate social tensions before the October 30 presidential election in order to topple the current pro-western Moldovan government. Moldova’s government would likely collapse in face of widespread social pressure. Russia could attempt to use its soft power assets including the pro-Russian “Party of Socialists” and “Our Party” to mobilize mass protests, similar to the protest movement which stormed the Moldovan parliament on January 21st. This would destabilize the fragile Moldovan government and likely lead to snap elections. Snap elections would likely result in the greater empowerment of pro-Russia parties in the Moldovan government which could derail the country’s efforts to integrate with western structures.

Destabilization in Moldova could be easily be escalated by President Putin to civil conflict or civil war. Russia could use such clashes to justify intervention by Russian “peacekeeping forces” currently deployed in Transnistria in order to restore stability. Overt Russian military activity in Moldovan territory outside Transnistria is especially dangerous, as it could pull in various regional actors, including NATO member states. Moldova’s regional partner Ukraine may intervene in support of pro-western Moldovans in order to support its vulnerable neighbor and secure its western border. Ukraine would perceive a collapsed Moldova and an empowered Transnistria with an active, combat effective Russian garrison as a direct military threat to its western flank.  Ukrainian forces clashing with Russian or Russian proxy forces in Moldova could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine and be used to justify Russian overt retaliation against Ukraine. Romanian intervention to end the crisis on its eastern border and support its compatriots could involve NATO in the conflict. Many NATO members would likely oppose supporting Romania in order to avoid escalation with Russia. States with large Russian minorities such as Latvia and Estonia would interpret Russia’s actions in Moldova as clear signaling about its intentions within the former Soviet Union. These countries, likely be backed by other Eastern European states, would likely call for support of Romania.  This could threaten the integrity of NATO should Romania call for support using NATO Article 5.

President Putin retains the ability to rapidly escalate in Moldova in order to halt its efforts to integrate with the west. Continued or heightened rhetoric from Russian officials and media calling for support of Russian compatriots would likely precede Russian action in Moldova. Events that trigger public or international outcry against the Moldovan government, such as sudden revelations of corruption or gross misconduct within Moldovan government, would indicate that Russia may be laying the groundwork for mass protests aimed at toppling the Moldovan government. Russia would likely couple street protests with overt military pressure on the Moldovan and Romanian governments in order to prevent action against Russian provocations. Increased Russian military activity in Transnistria and the western Black Sea, or sudden Ukrainian deployments to the Ukrainian-Transnistrian border would indicate that Russia is preparing to attempt to pursue this course of action. Widespread protests across the country from all political groups would likely indicate that Russia has managed to generate sufficient outrage against the government to lead to its implosion. Russia would signal its intent to overtly intervene in the crisis by surging military activity in Transnistria and continuing its narrative of having a responsibility to support Russian speakers amidst deadly clashes as it did in Ukraine in 2014, Georgia in 2008, and Transnistria in 1992. Russian escalation in response to Moldova’s efforts to pivot to the west poses security risks for Moldova, Ukraine, and NATO.

[1] “Russian deputy PM warns Moldova of possible provocations by Ukrainian radicals,” TASS, July 6, 2016, http://tass(.)ru/en/politics/886642
[2] “Russian official: Moldova may lose Transdniestria due to rapprochement with Romania,” TASS, July 8, 2016, http://tass(.)ru/en/politics/887032
[3] “Russian deputy prime minister Dmitrii Rogozin comes to Moldova for a two-day visit,” PUBLIKA(.)MD, July 5, 2016, http://en.publika(.)md/russian-deputy-prime-minister-dmitrii-rogozin-comes-to-moldova-for-a-two-day-visit_2625001(.)html
[4] “Russia adheres to its guarantor of peace status on Dniester – deputy PM,” TASS, July 6, 2016, http://tass(.)ru/en/politics/886651
[5] “Transdniestria leader accuses Moldova of stepping up cooperation with NATO,” TASS, July 5, 2016, http://tass(.)ru/en/world/886438
[6] Ibid
[7] “Russian Foreign Ministry slams Moldova’s intention to toughen broadcast law,” TASS, July 11, 2016, http://tass(.)ru/en/politics/887569
[8] Ibid
[9] “Freedom House report: Press freedom in Moldova remains constrained by partisanship,” Moldova(.)org, June 18, 2016, http://www.moldova(.)org/en/freedom-house-report-press-freedom-moldova-remains-constrained-partisanship/
[10] “Moldovan foreign minister meets Ukrainian counterpart,” MOLDPRES, July 12, 2016, http://www.moldpres(.)md/en/news/2016/07/12/16005628
[11] “Nicolae Timofti Meets With Former Presidents of Ukraine and Moldova,” Tribuna, July 12, 2016, http://tribuna(.)md/en/2016/07/12/oaspeti-de-rang-inalt-la-presedintie-necazul-ii-uneste-pe-oameni/
[12] [“Basescu proposes a referendum on the unification of Romania and Moldova”], Deschide Stirea, August 16, 2015, http://deschide(.)md/ro/news/romania/18181/B%C4%83sescu-propune-un-referendum-privind-unirea-Rom%C3%A2niei-cu-RMoldova(.)htm#
[13] “Ukraine Says It Uncovered Plot to Create People’s Republic in Odessa,” The Moscow Times, October 28, 2014, http://www.themoscowtimes(.)com/articles/ukraine-says-it-uncovered-plot-to-create-peoples-republic-in-odessa-40821