The United States, the European Union, and NATO must act now to prevent Putin’s next act of aggression.
For more than three decades, Russia has viewed neighboring states as part of its sphere of influence in which it believes it has the right to foment separatist movements, send in troops as “peacekeepers,” and engage in brutal aggression. The result has been uninvited Russian forces occupying territory belonging to Moldova, Georgia, and most recently Ukraine. In Belarus, Russia has exploited dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s dependence on Russian intervention to stay in power, dissolving much of Belarus’ sovereignty and independence and allowing Russian forces to use Belarus as a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
This pattern started under Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, who signed the 1999 Istanbul Document under which Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from Moldova’s Transnistria region and from Georgia’s Abkhaz and South Ossetian areas, but never followed through. Under Vladimir Putin, Russian expansionism has accelerated murderously. Putin refuses to accept that countries in the region that used to be under Moscow’s control have the right to determine their own future. He certainly does not want to see them become thriving democracies—i.e., threatening alternatives to the corrupt, authoritarian regime he oversees in Russia—or looking to join institutions such as NATO or the European Union.
The consequences have been deadly for Russia’s Western-leaning neighbors. Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, it still occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory. Today, it occupies roughly 20 percent of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.
Notwithstanding the disastrous performance of Russia’s military in Ukraine, Russia is still dangerous. The most recent reminder comes from Moldova, which recently uncovered plans by the Russian security apparatus to destabilize or overthrow its government. Concern is growing in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, that it is Putin’s next target.
Moldova is not a large country, nor a wealthy one, nor a formal ally of the United States—but it is an important country. Sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, Moldovans in 2020 elected a pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, to replace her pro-Russian predecessor, Igor Dodon. They reaffirmed their support for her pursuit of closer ties with the European Union by giving a solid majority to her Party of Action and Solidarity in June 2021 parliamentary elections. After years of massive corruption and pro-Russian leaders, Moldova finally had a chance to succeed and look to the West for its future.
In recognition of its European aspirations, the EU granted Moldova candidate status last June. That decision was both a reflection and an endorsement of how far Moldova had come in its economic and democratic development since being freed from the clutches of the Russia-linked oligarch (is there any other kind?) Vladimir Plahotniuc. Over the past four years, Moldova has embraced a liberal-democratic future—exactly the pattern that led Russia to invade Georgia and Ukraine, respectively.
Indeed, the progress Moldova has made is in jeopardy. On February 10, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita resigned just 18 months after taking office. “I took over the government with an anti-corruption, pro-development and pro-European mandate at a time when corruption schemes had captured all the institutions and the oligarchs felt untouchable,” she explained, adding that her agenda wasn’t prepared for “so many crises caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
Russia continues to support the break-away region of Transnistria, which is de facto autonomous and comprises about 13 percent of Moldova’s territory. Because the self-proclaimed government of Transnistria relies on Russian financial, material, and military support, the Council of Europe considers it a Russian military occupation of Moldovan territory.
It was therefore shocking, but hardly surprising, when, in a February 9 address to an EU summit, Volodymyr Zelensky disclosed that Ukrainian intelligence services had uncovered a “plan for the destruction of Moldova by Russian intelligence . . . to break the democracy of Moldova and establish control over Moldova.” A few days later, Sandu confirmed Russian plans to topple the pro-Western government, including through use of pro-Russian parties. “The purpose of these actions is to overthrow the constitutional order, to change the legitimate power from Chisinau with an illegitimate one,” she charged. Mikhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky, compared Russia’s designs to topple the Ukrainian government a year ago, “But in Moldova, Russia wants to do things differently—not by tanks, but by bandits.”
Despite the resignation of the prime minister, Moldova is, so far, proving resilient, which is to the credit of both its leaders and its people—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vulnerable. It is, per the International Monetary Fund, the second-poorest country in Europe, which inhibits its ability to defend itself from Russian influence. While the agenda of Sandu and her party has mostly focused on development and rule-of-law issues in previous years, the war in neighboring Ukraine has forced the government to devote more attention to basic security. Hence Sandu’s decision to appoint Dorin Recean, her pro-Western defense and security advisor, to succeed Gavrilita.
More than 460,000 Ukrainian refugees have found safety in Moldova, which has a population of less than 3 million, but the government is much less equipped than Poland or other EU countries to provide for them. Moldovan authorities have tracked Russian missiles flying over Moldovan territory on their way from ships in the Black Sea to targets in Ukraine, and fragments of Russian missiles have been found on Moldovan territory multiple times. The government’s inability to do anything about the missile threat—sheer luck has prevented those fragments from injuring anyone—has led it to request air-defense systems from Western countries.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried reiterated American support for Sandu and observed that “I think we are—all of us—all too familiar with Russia’s playbook. We’ve seen what Russia has done in many places, including Moldova, including Ukraine, including Georgia. The list could continue.”
The fact that Russia has been weakened by its war in Ukraine, that its military has proved far less capable than many feared, does not mean it is weak. Putin uses other means such as the Federal Security Service and the GRU military intelligence to engage in disinformation, political interference, espionage, sabotage, assassination, and coups d’etat. A recent report indicates that part of the Russian plot against Moldova might involve poisoning its leaders, as they have Ukrainian leaders, defectors abroad, and even domestic politicians. As long as Putin and Putinism are around, countries like Moldova will remain under threat. Indeed, if Putin proves incapable of carving out some sort of “victory” in Ukraine, he may be tempted even more to try his luck on the much smaller and poorly armed Moldova.
Moldova is important inherently to the millions of people who live there, of course, but also because of its geographic position between Ukraine and NATO, and because it is on the front lines of the struggle between authoritarianism and freedom. If Moldova fails, it will be a victory for Putin at a time when he desperately needs one and a defeat for the liberal-democratic world when it most needs to keep up its confidence and resolve.
To prevent such a scenario, the West needs to ramp up its support for Moldova and, much like it did in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, disclose intelligence it may have regarding any designs the Kremlin may have on Chisinau. The EU should accelerate its negotiations on membership and bolster Sandu and the new government. NATO should consider military support that would make Moldova like a porcupine, difficult for Russia to swallow. Much like President Biden’s important visit to Kyiv on Monday, a stop in Chisinau by the secretary of state or secretary of defense would signal strong American backing for Moldova.
Doubtless there are some who will claim that helping Moldova defend its sovereignty and independence would be provocative to Putin. They said the same thing about Ukraine; clearly Putin needs no provocation. Ahead of Putin’s address to the Russian Federal Assembly, advertisements have popped up around the country proclaiming: “Russia’s border ends nowhere.”