Flashpoints II: Russia's Interests in Moldova

Part II in an ongoing series analyzing competing views of potential conflict zones, influencing factors, and geopolitical implications.

Russia's strategic interests in the post-Soviet space include limiting the ability of states to fully integrate with the West. The security concerns raised by potential NATO membership of former Soviet states are of particular importance. In Moldova, the frozen Transnistrian conflict violates Moldovan territorial integrity and lengthens the timeline of integration.


On Moldova-EU Relations

Given Russia’s close partnerships with key EU countries, Moldova joining the EU would present little strategic trouble in and of itself. Far more important would be keeping NATO out of the country, a consistent Russian policy now spanning several decades.

Most importantly, the country ratified an Association Agreement with the EU in July of this year, having earlier signed with two other former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia.  The importance of the decision to carry out the agreement and its coupled Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement was highlighted by rising East-West tensions in neighboring Ukraine. The emerging conflict there followed anti-Russian protests after former president, Viktor Yanukovych, backed out of the EU Association Agreement last November. 

Despite the clear pro-EU stance of the ruling coalition, relations with Russia remain very important for Moldova. Moldova is a full member of the Commonwealth of Independent States and is home to a large Russian-speaking population. Russian is a language with the official status of a "language of interethnic communication", and is a language commonly used in the nation’s school system, despite the increasing role of English. Bilingualism in Romanian and Russian is the norm among older Moldovans.

According to Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, Chisinau is “not planning to join EU sanctions against Russia”. Given the already weak status of his nation’s economy, any interruption of existing trade would likely have a disproportionate effect. This situation would not be likely to change in the event of EU accession, and therefore Russia is left with a satisfactory position.

The Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova, the single largest party in the country and the opposition force to the ruling Alliance for European Integration, is a significant pro-Russian force in Moldova. Despite its name, the communist party is commonly seen as a center-right force advocating closer Eurasian integration. The party boycotted the parliamentary vote ratifying the EU Association Agreement. The strength of the party is not likely to change in the event of eventual EU accession, leaving Russia with considerable support within the country in the event Moldova does join the EU.


On Gagauz Independence

Russia maintains very good relations with the Gagauz people of southern Moldova, who consistently act as a pro-Russian force in the country’s internal politics. Unlike Transnistria, the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia does not claim complete independence from Chisinau, but rather holds a special autonomous status. Though ethnically a Turkic people, Gagauzia acts much like the Russian-speaking population as a demographic opposed to EU expansion into their country, instead advocating closer ties with the prospective Eurasian Economic Union.

It is unlikely that Russia will make any overt steps to promote Gagauz independence so long as the current status-quo is maintained. Having pro-Russia voters in Moldova offers the Kremlin a clear strategic advantage, an advantage that would be lost with full independence. Russia already has troops stationed in Transnistria and Crimea, adding more troops to the area wouldn’t do much to further strengthen Russia’s tactical position. Such a move would more likely only act to alarm NATO-member Romania and unnecessarily increase the tension in the Black Sea region.


On Transnistria

Transnistria is home to a 1200 strong Russian army peacekeeping force known as the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova. Russia supports the special status of Transnistria and emphasizes the stabilizing role of their forces in the country. Despite this, full diplomatic recognition of Transnistria is not given by the Russian Federation.

Strategically, Russia has a very satisfactory position vis-à-vis frozen conflict. Russian troops in Transnistria are a hedge against NATO or other hostile actors in the area and can be used to pressure Moldova and/or Ukraine should the situation arise. Should Transnistria’s sovereignty be recognized internationally, the peacekeeping mission of the Russian army would no longer be needed. A new justification for their continued presence would need to be developed.