In the months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, theories on how the future would play out were in no short supply. A popular one included the Republic of Moldova succumbing to a spillover of events occurring in its Ukrainian neighbor, or itself being directly targeted next. This fear resulted in an eagerness to accelerate the pace of Moldova’s inclusion into the European Union, but not much beyond that across the West. This is a mistake. We’re treating Moldova as a side note just as much as Russia presently is. Naturally, we’re all preoccupied. Regardless, now more than ever, EU membership should not be our only goal for Moldova. We are neglecting the opportunity Moldova actually represents.
We must reframe our understanding of Moldova; away from the notion of it potentially being a repeat of Ukraine and realize it as Russia’s previous blueprint of what they ultimately pursued in Ukraine. Indeed, Moldova will not be the sequel to Ukraine. On the contrary: Ukraine-2022 was Moldova-1991. And Moldova in its current state is what Ukrainians are fighting to avoid: a divided nation, one of the poorest in Europe, with borders held by ceasefire. Through committed decisive actions, we should today be making Moldova the West’s model for a prosperous postwar-Ukraine as much as Russia used it as an example first.
Moldova not being overshadowed by Ukraine would be difficult under the best of circumstances. Alongside each other, they’re populations consist of approximately 2.5 million and 37 million inhabitants, respectively. In terms of area, Moldova is about 1/18th that of Ukraine. While no one would be blamed for not knowing much about Moldova based on its size alone, it’s all the more reason to treat Moldova as a model to be scaled up for a future Ukraine.
Now, “Putin’s War in Ukraine” has become a catchy hook across Western media in the past year, but we have to remember that Russian meddling in Eastern Europe is nothing new. If anything, it’s tradition. Let’s rewind a bit for those unfamiliar: modern-day Moldovans and Romanians share historical ties that date back centuries. These ties run so deep that there currently exists a viable opinion (almost but less than half, according to most recent polls) that Moldova should become a part of Romania. In truth, Moldova was originally one of three major states (Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania) that joined over time to found what we think of Romania today.
The land of this general area on the western side of the Black Sea has been a focal point of conflict and imperial exchange since the days of the Roman Empire. Dominant powers have funneled in from all directions throughout history. Moldavia became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Then in 1812, the Russian Empire gained control of a portion of Moldavia via the Treaty of Bucharest and named it Bessarabia. Decades later in 1859, the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia united to form the United Principalities. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War, the United Principalities became the Kingdom of Romania.
Then, taking advantage of the turmoil caused by the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Bessarabia (a part of Moldavia a century before) declared independence in 1918 and joined the Kingdom of Romania. Transylvania joined soon after with the defeat of Austria-Hungary in World War I. This unification lasted two decades and ended with World War II and the 1939 Molotov-Rubbentrop pact when Nazi-Germany and Soviet-Russia divvied up Eastern Europe for their own short-lived gains.
And so, in 1940, Romania was forced to cede some of its territory to the Soviet Union. As a result, the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR) was established and would exist until the dissolution of the USSR. It was also in the first half of the 20th century that the Moldavian language began to take on its own identity. In reality, the spoken language was dialectally Romanian like it always was, but its written form suddenly turned to the Cyrillic alphabet used by Russians.
By the end of the Cold War, when the MSSR claimed independence from the USSR as the Republic of Moldova, it had already enacted two laws not long prior. One established Moldovan as the sole state language, in lieu of Russian, the de facto official language of the Soviet Union. The second law stipulated the return to the Latin Romanian alphabet. Moldova was now considering closer ties to Romania yet again. Romania: a Western-leaning democracy that is today a member of NATO and the EU. Is this sounding a little familiar (i.e. 21st century Ukraine)? But Russia and Russian-speakers in Transnistria (a sliver of land in Moldova along its border with Ukraine) would have none of it. Again, is this sounding familiar (i.e. the Donbas of Ukraine)?
With Moldova looking at a whole new world beyond Russia, Transnistria suddenly sought its own independence to retain their historical connections to Russia. The Transnistria War was on. With the help of Russian forces over two years, Transnistria ultimately resisted Moldova’s attempts to reestablish control over the region. Russia and Moldova negotiated a ceasefire to end active hostilities, thus creating a frozen conflict that has lasted over thirty years to our present setting.
At least 1,500 Russia troops remain stationed in Transnistria (officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic). The international community still considers Transnistria a part of Moldova, but inside the country exist clear divisions with border checkpoints along the Prut River, separate currencies and separate governing bodies. Of note, if there is ever any inclination to believe Russia’s go-to excuse that it is always merely aiming to defend Russia-speakers elsewhere; remember that even Russia has avoided annexing or recognizing Transnistria as an independent nation state despite the efforts of local officials to make it happen for decades. Why? Because it is through Transnistria as a breakaway region that Russia exerts considerable influence in Moldova. At its will, it uses pro-Russian parties, control over the media, destabilizing cyberattacks and gas supplies controlled by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom.
Moldova in turn resists, more so in recent years. Its parliament in early 2023 explicitly named Romanian the official language of the country, a symbolic move for the most part but defying none the less. It was around this time that a leaked document, allegedly dated back to 2021 and created in a joint effort by several Russian agencies (including Russia’s domestic, foreign and military intelligence), started to make the rounds. It was unambiguously titled: “Strategic Goals of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Moldova.”
This 10-year plan set out Moscow’s key goals that included ensuring Moldovan policymakers and society in general have a negative disposition towards NATO, and that Russian groups have a strong presence in its politics, economy and media. Also in the outline were hopes that the Russian language would play a bigger official role in Moldova and that Moldova would eventually join the Euroasian Economic Union (a union of post-Soviet states that includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan). Moldova had elected an unapologetically pro-Western Maia Sandu as its president in 2020 with her party winning an overwhelming parliamentary majority in 2021. This could not have gone unnoticed in Russia.
So, how can this situation be a strategic opportunity that benefits Moldova and the West? Moldova’s small size and poor economy means it can benefit from an influx of foreign funds much faster than larger systems. It is the argument here that the West should be of the mind to embolden Moldova through economic opportunities it has never truly had. With the help of Romania as an anchor (not unlike Poland is to Ukraine) and through a series of international economic packages and suggested domestic reforms to encourage foreign investment, Moldova’s real 5-year plan on a national level in partnership with the West should establish foundational societal pillars that encompass: energy security, tax reforms that encourage domestic and Western private investment, infrastructure spending and anti-corruption enforcement.
In pursuit of these foundational pillars, policy notes could include Russian-owned television channels being phased out and their content replaced with the help of larger Western media giants. Energy could flow from a mix of renewable energy systems within Moldova and a new trilateral LNG port (shared also by Romania and Ukraine) at the Port of Giurgiulesti on the Danube River or on the Black Sea itself. Moldova, in conjunction with neighboring countries, could explore the viability of a new natural gas pipeline that connects to Poland’s end of the Baltic Pipe. To promote outside trade and make itself attractive to foreign investment in respect to costs, the nation should finalize its inclusion to the European Union while hanging onto its Moldovan Leu rather than adopting the Euro as its main currency.
Of course, no matter what Moldova would love to do, the question and thorn of Transnistria will unarguably remain as it has. But does it need to? Russia has used the region as leverage for as long as most can remember. On one hand, Russia allows the government of Transnistria to petition for independence and Russian annexation, but Russia in fact is faced with limited gains through either of these actions. Transnistria doesn’t serve a military advantage like Crimea does hosting the Sevastopol Naval Base in the Black Sea. Unlike eastern Ukraine, Transnistria is landlocked and a nation away from the Russian border making it a logistical nightmare.
And so, Moldova should recognize the independence of Transnistria (with an open invitation to reunification talks down the road if ever desired). Yes, Moldova should in fact give in to what Russia has been blackmailing it with for over thirty years, which has nonetheless essentially created two distinct and opposed de facto nations. Moldova should give Transnistria its independence, turning a disadvantage into an opportunity to cut its losses and eliminate an unnecessary weight holding it down. Moldova would then itself have a more comprehensive ability to function independently, grow economically and securely control citizenship statuses and the movements of citizenries between Moldova and Transnistria.
However controversial it may be, the independence of Transnistria will show in the larger context that any Russian occupation, however temporary, lengthy or indefinite, of Ukraine ultimately cannot deter the hopes and goals of the real Ukraine. This preemptive action by Moldova would serve as an olive branch in good faith and also call Russia’s bluff; putting the onus on them to continue to prop up Transnistria without allowing the fallback of claiming to be working towards a cooperative and peaceful integration for the sake of Moldovans. Transnistria itself would be given what it has long desired. Neither they nor Russia would have any justification for dispute or armed intervention.
But this independence must be dependent on the commitment of, principally, Romania and the United States; but in cooperation with a large swath of Europe/NATO to elevate Moldova and its people economically. Anything short of that will alienate Moldova’s population and risk its return to Russia’s fold. This latter outcome must be politically unacceptable. But if it is agreed upon, Moldova can turn its fortunes around, simultaneously reinforcing the larger geopolitical landscape of Eastern Europe and the continued tide of Ukraine moving forward.
[Photo (cropped) by Visem, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
*David Kobylanski is a writer by day, reader by night and lover throughout. His love for the United States, the Constitution and the military branches is cemented by his passion for history and the history that has yet to be written. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.