Ukraine’s forces are performing better than expected. They have seemingly humbled the once mighty Russian bear. As such, there is a new temptation to press the advantage and reassess long-frozen conflicts all along Russia’s periphery. With the Kremlin on the backfoot, this attraction is wholly understandable.
The temptation is especially strong in Moldova, a small former Soviet state sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania in which true sovereignty has long been fractured by the disturbing presence of a Russian army in the breakaway region of Transnistria. For various reasons explained below, there were initially disturbing signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals might have fixed their own gaze on the country. Some recent incidents of violence in Moldova are reviving these fears.
There is much to admire in little, plucky Moldova – and not just because it has stood up so generously in present circumstances to shelter thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the violence in their own country. That has not been an easy lift for a country sometimes derided as one of the poorest in Europe.
On two brief visits to Chisinau just before the pandemic, I got a taste of Moldova’s many attractions that go well beyond its famous wine industry. The capital has many impressive boulevards, stately buildings with old-world charm, and peaceful parks. Beyond the capital, the cultivated fields spill out in all directions, hinting at the rich soil that has caused various empires to covet this land for centuries.
One could find traces of the geopolitical tussle and fractured identity struggle in Moldova, such as the imposing building in Chisinau housing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but there were few hints of major struggle afflicting the country. Indeed, this seeming backwater had a pleasant feeling of not taking itself too seriously, while simultaneously welcoming myriad identities to coexist in a pluralistic atmosphere.
This has not always been the case. Indeed, Moldova was the scene of short, violent conflict in March 1992. At that time, a civil war seemed to be in the offing, with Russian speakers and Moldovan nationalists coming to blows. The Russian-speaking minority coalesced in the area of Transnistria under the protection of the Russian 14th Army. The charismatic Russian general and later presidential candidate Alexander Lebed won fame in Russia for settling the nascent civil war in a way that protected Russian speakers, thereby creating the rump state of Transnistria and producing the first of many so-called frozen conflicts on the territory of the former USSR. Since then, a reasonably peaceful and stable cohabitation has endured due, in part, to the principle of neutrality that is written into Moldova’s Constitution.
There occurred a legitimate wave of fear in March 2022, as Russian armies appeared to be rampaging toward Odessa, that the Kremlin had the goal of linking Russian territory to Transnistria by conquering all of southern Ukraine, including the entire Black Sea coastline. However, Ukraine’s staunch defense around Mykolaiv, accompanied by the recent sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet's flagship Moskva by a Ukrainian anti-ship missile, appears to have put Russian military ambitions relating to Moldova out of reach for the foreseeable future.
Just when it seemed that Moldovans could breathe a little easier, however, the breakaway region of Transnistria experienced a series of troubling explosions in late April that targeted two radio transmitters and a state security building in Tiraspol, the capital of the unrecognized pro-Russian region. Russian commentators voiced the fear that Ukraine was attempting to open a “second front” against Russia, while experts in the West countered that these might be false flag operations intended to justify Russian military action against Moldova.
The temptation for the West in these circumstances, especially given Russia’s demonstrated military weaknesses, could be to lend Moldova military aid and help it to assert control over the restive pro-Russian region of Transnistria. The U.S. and its allies should avoid this risk-packed idea. Not only might it precipitate the spread of the Ukraine War into Moldova, but it could also lead that country back into the morass of a bloody civil war. While the population in Transnistria leans pro-Russian, many in the rest of Moldova are highly sympathetic to Romania, and Bucharest’s moderation in present circumstances will be critical. Major arms shipments through Moldova and into Ukraine could also be a trigger for escalation.
Even if the Kremlin is unlikely to invade Moldova in the near future due to its trials and tribulations in Ukraine, Russia is still quite capable of raining down death and destruction in the area using its arsenal of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles. The rather volatile Moldova situation presents more risk than strategic opportunity and should be treated with great caution, lest the devastating war in Ukraine spread across Eastern Europe.
Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and a visiting professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @lylegoldstein. The views expressed are the author's own.