"The guiding philosophy of the political class in Chișinău has traditionally been reflected in the idea that the prosperity of the Republic of Moldova can be achieved through economic reforms and reducing corruption. Even in the example of the Transnistrian conflict, these policies were erroneously advanced as the key solutions. The challenge, however, is that the mechanisms behind this philosophy are poorly fit for the task. When a state faces threats to its national security and defense, the traditional approaches targeting only the political and economic development are not likely to work. To reach that instance in time, when development tools become effective, one must first address the effects of defense and security threats..."
The assertion in the title is probably the most disregarded strategic idea in Moldovan politics. Ignoring this idea has also been the biggest error in state-building efforts of the Republic of Moldova since 1992. We are not aware of cases when a state, which faces active threats to its security and territorial integrity, has achieved economic prosperity. In fact, it is hardly possible to find success stories, in which the enormous assistance that the West invested in conflict zones has managed to achieve economic development. Unless the security and defense issues were addressed first, it was not possible to achieve a sustainable economic development. It is true that even in the lack of security threats it is challenging to build a solid economy. This is practically impossible when these threats exist.
Insecurity as a development obstacle
This process has a pretty simple logic. Effective economic development can only be achieved by a country with institutions that are effective at implementing projects, but also at maintaining its full capacity to control its policies and territory. However, the threats to national defense and security, besides reducing resources and preventing the optimal functioning of the economy, are also eroding the state institutions. Any conflict creates opportunities for illegal enrichment. And as a result, it tempts and lures in people in power, fueling and increasing high-level corruption, creating vested interests and proxy actors that operate against the state. These officials-made-proxies manage to capture the state and being vulnerable to external control they transfer this vulnerability to state institutions. The defense and security threats in such a model are not the result of corruption, but instead are a source and an essential amplifier of political corruption. Corruption becomes the channel and mechanism of external aggression, and the exposed state transforms into a political annex of the aggressor state.
The lack of understanding of this mechanism in particular, and of the modern defense and security threats in general is a noticeable trait of all political forces. In fact, it has been a permanent deficiency of governments in Moldova – a missing link in the DNA of their strategic culture. Initially, the country was governed by the local Soviet officials who inherited the leadership of the Republic of Moldova and did not have either the knowledge, training, or the necessary political maturity to develop effective security and defence capabilities. Later on, they were replaced by another wave of politicians, who did not resist the temptation to turn the state institutions into a source of private income, and the state itself – into a personal business. Gradually, that second wave found the way of securing a stable flow of income, by offering submission to the Kremlin-connected political clans, in exchange for a protection fee. Finally, the recent generation of politicians - who have just started climbing the political mountain in Moldova - simply can only see the tip of the "iceberg", which represents the handicap in the way of Moldova’s state-building. Schooled in the West, mostly in disciplines such as economics, finance and development, they came with their professional prejudices and favorite policy tools. Their predecessors did not want to fix the country’s national security issues because they allowed to freely exploit the country, under the guidance from Russia. The latest generation of politicians simply does not notice the problem or perceive it as an artificial one. The likely reason is that their previous professional experience did not include cases similar to Moldova.
The error of the classical approach
It is insufficient to rely solely on traditional approaches of political and economic development, inspired by the current Western model, which evolved gradually. One cannot ignore the significance of the fact that the largest political party in the Moldovan Parliament is financed by Russia – the country that currently is the source of the greatest security and defense threats facing Moldova. It is also important to interpret correctly the fact that the Moldovan law enforcement authorities refused to objectively investigate the foreign financing of a political party, thus revealing a selective approach to justice. This example sheds light on the vulnerability of the law system to foreign influence, which is a serious threat to national security.
Why are these examples so critical to consider? A political system plagued by internal corruption may offer the possibility to repair that, for instance by obtaining a political majority in elections and having a clear political will. This can happen, even though it is a very difficult task. However, when corruption in a country is exploited and even fueled by a foreign actor in order to influence this state’s political system, then obtaining a parliamentary majority – which in these circumstances is much more difficult to achieve – does not guarantee the eradication of corruption. Because political corruption, as some Western security analysts already acknowledge, can be weaponized by another country in a proxy-type of interstate aggression. Under these conditions, Moldova no longer confronts exclusively the indigenous corrupt elites. It confronts Russia, with its resources, capabilities and pressure, which are significantly more difficult to confront. In fact, Moldova alone is unlikely to succeed in dismantling the corruption, which is weaponized by Russia, if it applies only classical methods of political and economic development.
Therefore, the lack of understanding of the modern interstate aggression and its mechanism is the main obstacle to establishing the Republic of Moldova as an economically prosperous state, effective for citizens and resilient to internal and external threats. The Moldovan political elites ought to understand the nature and the underlying mechanism of this obstacle, if they indeed aim to achieve success in advancing political and economic reforms. Furthermore, it is necessary to examine and identify the additional challenges created by this incomplete understanding of modern interstate aggression. Failing to do this would worsen the situation by ignoring the problem. It would be similar to the case when a "doctor" does not understand the nature of the "disease".
Creating protection tools
The use of political corruption as a weapon in interstate aggression is not an end in itself. It is the means by which Moldova's resistance to external influence is weakened. But the ultimate goal is achieving political and even physical control of the target country.
There are three dimensions of this problem and three steps to address it. The first and most important stage is establishing deterrence, quick repelling or creating unbearable costs to a military aggression, which can be disguised as an internal rebellion (proxy-war), as a low-intensity armed invasion or a massive armed invasion. Metaphorically, this stage represents a dam, which protects the city from flooding. If the dam is defective, nothing else matters, because the city will be destroyed. The second stage involves the joint and effective application of civilian and military intelligence tools to create an effective early warning mechanism against different types of armed aggression. Figuratively, this is the sentinel, who triggers the alarm when she detects a leak in the dam. At this stage the national intelligence system – on both the civilian and military sides – is used to reduce the external exploitation of domestic political corruption. Consequently, it disconnects the corrupt network from the financing and support of the foreign patron. And only at the third stage is appropriate, promising and effective to apply extensively the tools designed to strengthen the economic and political institutions, including the traditional mechanisms for fighting corruption. Particularly useful at this stage is the assistance of the national intelligence services in presenting evidence and knowledge about the corrupt networks controlled from abroad. Therefore, it is important that the policy makers follow the sequence described above and are not guided by an inverted one. The defence, security and reintegration dimensions of the country should be among the top priorities of any political or governance programme. And this is important even though the immediate needs or expectations of the population could propel important social or economic agenda issues to the front, but which according to strategic logic are actually secondary.
In order to better explain this priority stage, let us examine the defense dimension, which would be foundational in terms of securing and "repairing" the Republic of Moldova. Some decision-makers believe that the risk of a conventional military aggression is unlikely. This statement clashes with the reality, as Moldova remains the only country in the post-Soviet space, with Russian military forces stationed on its territory and which hosts a conflict that has not been yet “unfrozen”". Coincidentally, at six-year intervals we had wars in Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014) and Nagorno-Karabakh (2020). The reasons and the forms of military aggression were diverse, but in all cases the conventional military instrument was applied. Moreover, Russia has shown determination and ease in using the military instrument, directly or indirectly.
Because a similar scenario is real for the Republic of Moldova, it is absolutely necessary to have a clear understanding of threats and risks, to which the military is expected to respond; the prioritization of these threats and risks is also important, as it would facilitate the proper distribution of attention and scarce resources. And it is not obvious that these requirements are clear to the military professionals. The politicians, on the other hand, do not seem to be willing to accept the logic and the imperative of an armed threat, which is a faulted approach. From an alternative perspective, if the military instrument is unable to cope with the top threats of a foreign nature, while the resources necessary to create these capabilities do not exist, it would be a pragmatic decision to not finance the military dimension at all. Politicians must regard the military as an instrumental resource of the state, or not spend the public funds on a military which, without being able to participate in the management of the state, becomes an artifact and a cosmetic annex of the governing process. If it becomes clear that the military cannot or will not be able to carry out its direct functions, it becomes rational to redirect the resources invested in the military to other state policies and projects. Therefore, the policy makers need to pay immediate attention to the issue of defence and security sector funding. This has to be done based on an effective threats and risks analysis, which would allow to assess the practicability of the military instrument: whether it is useful or not, and whether it is effective or not.
As long as it maintains its neutrality status, the Republic of Moldova is unable to protect itself from a massive invasion by Russia – a country that is named, because there are no other potential aggressors in the region. But this is a much less likely scenario than a small-scale military invasion or a proxy war. Both of these types of interstate aggression are elements of a hybrid war mechanism. Objectively, Moldova’s capacity in countering today these technologies of aggression is realistic only due to the fact that Ukraine provides a geographical insulation from Russia. A second condition for maintaining this capacity is that Russia's armed capabilities in the Transnistrian region do not increase significantly.
Nevertheless, there is one critical and enabling condition for Moldova’s efficiency against such threats – its army and other security instruments in general, require a substantial adjustment of their structures and models of operation. Such a reset should also include the focusing, as a matter of priority, on early warning and early response. Because forewarned is forearmed. And the ability of the Republic of Moldova to impose costs – political, but also material – against an armed aggression is a strong deterrent, which requires to be developed and strengthened in advance. This represents the main purpose of the national defense and security instruments – imposing significant costs against potential aggressors. They have to be shaped to deal with aggressors, who apply modern warfare tools, exploiting the domestic processes of the Republic of Moldova, including the weaponization of political corruption.
Dumitru Mînzărari Ph.D. is Associate Political Analyst with the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE, Chișinău) and Research Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP, Berlin). He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and his MA in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York. Dr. Mînzărari is a former military officer who served as state secretary for defense policy and international cooperation with the Moldovan Ministry of Defense, worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe field missions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and with several think tanks in Eastern Europe.
This Commentary is prepared within the project "We and Europe - Analysis of EU-Moldovan relations through innovative media and analytical products", implemented by the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE), in partnership with IPN, Radio Chisinau, Zugo.md and with the support of Konrad Foundation Adenauer. The opinions presented in this commentary belong to the authors.