By: Franklin Holcomb and Catherine Harris
Key Takeaway: Eastern European security could be seriously undermined should the closely contested October 30 elections in Moldova lead to civil strife. Clashes between pro-western and pro-Russia movements in Moldova are likely. Russian President Vladimir Putin supports the pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon, who is leading in the polls, in an effort to both undermine what he perceives as the threatening expansion of the EU and NATO and increase Russia’s control over former Soviet states. Dodon and his Party of Socialists have a high chance of winning, or at least performing well enough that they will be able to contest the election results. Clashes between pro-Russia and pro-EU forces in Moldova might provoke a response from Russian soldiers stationed in the pro-Russia separatist region of Transnistria, critically destabilizing the region and threatening Ukraine’s western border and NATO member Romania.
Putin openly supports the pro-Russia candidate Igor Dodon and his Party of Socialists in order to expand Russia’s influence in the region and remove the current pro-western government.[i] Dodon has called for the “restoration of strategic relations with Russia” and accused pro-western forces of “taking orders from Washington.”[ii] Pro-Russia forces held a series of military exercises in Transnistria, a pro-Russia separatist region where Russia has maintained a military presence since it helped the region separate from Moldova in 1992, from September 30 – October 7. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported on October 17 that it was conducting readiness checks on its forces deployed in Transnistria.[iii] The timing of these actions indicates that Russia is attempting to intimidate Moldova and discourage it from further pursuing a pro-western path.
Divided pro-western forces in Moldova face significant challenges in their effort to retain control of the presidency and may prove unable to keep pro-Russia forces from power. The pro-western movement in Moldova has struggled to maintain power in the face of charges of corruption, destabilizing levels of disunity, and the ongoing public dissatisfaction and from the theft of $1 billion (roughly 1/8th of Moldova’s GDP) in 2015. Pro-western forces are attempting to unify behind former Education Minister Maia Sandu to stop pro-Russia forces from exploiting the fragile coalition’s disunity. A defeat for pro-western forces in Moldova would critically undermine the country’s efforts to integrate with western structures and significantly increase Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe.
Political unrest is likely regardless of the result of the election. Both pro-Russia and pro-western forces have laid the groundwork to contest the results of the election. The speaker of Moldova’s parliament accused the Kremlin of funneling resources to pro-Russia parties and promoting anti-government protests on October 4. Sandu warned of the potential of “massive fraud” in the coming election and claimed that unless Moldova received EU support “we will have people in the streets and a pro-Russia president.” Pro-Russia forces announced that they planned protests in the event of the victory of a pro-western candidate. They further accused the government of “illegally” interfering in the election by issuing an arrest warrant for Renato Usatii, the leader of Moldova’s second largest pro-Russia party, on charges of attempted murder.[iv] A close victory or a contested result could draw both factions to the streets, which would dramatically increase the chance of civil strife.
The security interests of the US, Russia, and their allies overlap in Moldova to a sufficient degree that severe civil strife would challenge NATO and undermine the stability of Eastern Europe. Putin perceives Moldova’s open courtship of the EU and NATO as a direct threat to Russia’s security interests and a provocative act of defiance. Putin will likely act to support pro-Russia forces in the event of conflict in Moldova against what he perceives as an aggressive and expansionist West. Putin also sees increased Ukrainian-Moldovan cooperation as a threat to his military bases in Transnistria.[v] Ukraine and Moldova share security concerns about Russia and have increased security cooperation in recent years. Ukraine would probably consider Russian intervention in its western neighbor a dangerous threat to its security. This could provoke a Ukrainian military response to civil conflict in Moldova, particularly in the case of overt Russian intervention, although Ukraine’s military weakness and overextension makes so dramatic an eventuality unlikely. NATO member Romania shares deep cultural, political, and economic ties with Moldova that have led to discussions of the unification of the two states. Romania would also strongly oppose further Russian intervention on Moldovan territory and may feel compelled to act to stabilize or check Russian military aggression on its eastern border. This dangerous convergence of clashing security concerns threatens to escalate already-high tensions in Eastern Europe and create yet another challenge to NATO and US policy.
[i] “Vladimir Putin met with Moldova Socialist leader Igor Dodon in the Kremlin,” Bloknot, November 5, 2014 [Russian]. Available: http://bloknot(.)ru/politika/vladimir-putin-prinyal-v-kremle-lidera-sotsialistov-moldavii-igorya-dodona-126529.html
[ii] “Igor Dodon: if I am elected, I commit my first visit to Moscow,” TASS, October 11, 2016 [Russian]. Available: http://tass(.)ru/opinions/interviews/3694005
[iii] “Peacekeeping battalion of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria is ready for rotation in the Security Zone,” Russian Ministry of Defense, October 17, 2016 [Russian]. Available: http://function.mil(.)ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12100002@egNews