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Putin's Next War

Putin's Next War

As Ukraine struggles, Moscow eyes Moldova.

Jeffrey Gedmin

I first met Maia Sandu in a coffee shop in the colorful, slightly scruffy neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant in Washington. It was two summers before the pandemic and on a sticky D.C. August day colleague Jonas Rolett was scaring up appointments for a woman he called “remarkable.” Sandu had served as Moldova’s minister of education from 2012 to 2015. She was a Harvard grad who had worked as a former World Bank adviser. The petite, soft-spoken woman I met had a vision.

American Purpose co-founder Frank Fukuyama met with Sandu in Moldova in September 2022. She had been elected as the country’s first female president two years earlier. President Sandu was determined to conquer corruption, particularly in the courts, and get Moldova into the EU. Frank worried at the time that Moldova would be forgotten in the swirl of events. That swirl includes today war in the Middle East, a volatile election year in the United States, and the danger now of Russian forces making headway in Ukraine.

Moldova is easy to overlook. It’s a tiny nation, smaller than Denmark, with a population of 2.6 million. Depending on which index you read, at the time of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 it was either Ukraine or Moldova that counted as Europe’s poorest country. Parts of rural Moldova still lack running water and indoor toilets. Corruption has been horrendous; “the magnitude . . . transformed it into a threat to our national security,” Sandu told Iulia Joja in an interview for American Purpose three years ago.

Moldova is also home to a made-in-Moscow frozen conflict. The separatist region of Transnistria is recognized by the Council of Europe as Moldovan territory. Not a single UN member recognizes Transnistria’s sovereignty. Yet it’s here that Russian President Vladimir Putin meddles mightily and keeps some 1,500 troops. Transnistria, its capital Tiraspol filled with Lenin statues and Karl Marx avenues, shares a border with Ukraine. 

It’s an immense challenge to hold this country together and to keep things moving forward. But poverty rates in Moldova are declining, slowly. The fight against corruption has made progress. Over the last five years, Moldova has improved its ranking by forty-four positions in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Against considerable odds, the country is now ready for EU accession talks. It’s still a complicated and dangerous road ahead.

A couple of years ago, Moldova was decidedly cautious in its expressions of support for Ukraine. The country was nearly entirely dependent on Russian gas. That’s changed thanks to Romania’s assistance with alternative energy. 

The last time I saw Maia Sandu was last fall during my interim presidency of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. At the network’s Prague headquarters, she pleaded for support of Ukraine. During her visit earlier this month with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, the fifty-one-year-old Moldovan leader said, “If the aggressor is not stopped, he will keep going . . . closer to us. Closer to you.”  

NATO coordinates joint military exercises with Moldova. Romania quietly stations special forces inside the country and trains Moldovan special forces in Romanian mountains. France chips in with intelligence. Truly, Moldova needs every speck of assistance it can scrounge up. The country’s defense budget is smaller than the budget of Real Madrid’s soccer team.

Russia is now ramping up political pressure. Moscow pushed Russians in Transnistria to vote in Russia’s presidential election last weekend. Moldova said Russians could vote on the premises of the Russian embassy in the Moldovan capital of Chişinău. That’s what international law dictates. The Kremlin facilitated instead unsanctioned voting booths and illegally-produced election papers in Russian-occupied Transnistria. In the wider struggle for freedom, sovereignty, and democracy, Moldova matters.

Mr. Putin knows this. Look for his security services to intensify efforts aimed at destabilizing the Sandu government using disinformation, political intimidation, economic sabotage, and cyberattacks. Sandu is up for reelection in the fall. She’s also called on Parliament to organize a referendum in autumn on Moldovan accession to the European Union. The Sandu government is striving for fullest buy-in and unity.  

Last month, Transnistria appealed to Russia for “protection.” In January, separatists had claimed without proof that Moldova’s central government was creating “special strike teams” for murder and sabotage in Transnistrian territory.

The head of Moldova’s intelligence service predicts that Moscow will try this year “to trigger several social and political crises, to spark clashes, and to incite interethnic hatred.”  

It was Ukraine’s inching toward the European Union in 2013 that provoked the ire of the Putin regime and triggered the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. 

Last year, Sandu rescued a homeless dog that had lost a leg in a car accident. Sandu’s mother was a music teacher and her father a veterinarian who worked morning to night caring for pets in their village. During communism, Sandu’s aunt stood in front of dozens of soldiers to prevent a convent from being closed. 

There’s something about this family. Perhaps trying to show he belongs, First Dog Codruț—meaning small forest—bit the Austrian president’s hand during a state visit to Chişinău last November. Austria has maintained its energy and finance relationship with Russia throughout unprovoked aggression and atrocities in Ukraine. 

I’ve been asking regional experts and diplomats in Chişinău how we can help Moldova. It’s a mantra: Support Ukraine, pass the ammunition. Many I’m speaking with believe Russia intends to focus on Odesa and bring the war to Transnistria. 

On Sunday, Moldovan authorities dismissed as Russian provocation separatist claims that Ukraine had launched a drone attack from the Odesa region on a Transnistrian airbase.

Last Friday, a Russian missile strike on a residential area in Odesa killed twenty and injured at least seventy. When Russia shells the Ukrainian port city, you can hear the sounds of explosions in Moldova’s capital. The aggressor keeps getting closer. 

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Olena Zelenska together with the President of Moldova Maia Sandu walk to place icon lamps in the memory of those killed during the Maidan Revolution. (Flickr: President of Ukraine)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy