|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
Although stability in the region remains precarious, security prospects appear to be balanced in favor of Ukraine and its Western allies in the face of Russian aggression. Military assistance to Ukraine is increasing, racking up billions of euros from the EU and others, and Ukrainian military forces are mobilizing to regain control of territories in the Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Lugansk and Donetsk regions. The prolongation of Russia's war against Ukraine makes the socio-economic costs difficult for Western decision makers to manage and fully bear. Under pressure from the unknown, Brussels is facing difficulties in imposing a sixth sanctions package against Russia, which was promised shortly after the fifth wave of sanctions (adopted in April). The failure to adopt the new sanctions stems from the EU's inability to reach a consensus on the embargo on oil imports from Russia, where Hungary is seeking exceptions, citing economic reasons. As EU governments address cost issues for industries and citizens, Russia calls for import substitution, attempts to establish external administration of the businesses of Western companies that have left Russia (around 1,000 entities), and diversification of their routes and export destinations. Most recently, the Russian authorities imposed counter-sanctions on 31 companies from "unfriendly" EU countries, which include a ban on financial transactions and a ban on access to Russian ports. These could lead to a revision of the contractual relations for the supply of Russian energy resources and their subsequent increase in price, which would impede post-pandemic economic recovery.
The effects of the Russian temporary occupation in Ukraine
Vladimir Putin's regime is counting on worsening food shortages in Asia and Africa, but also on the global energy crisis to continue the war against Ukraine. The escalation of existing crises will increase the pressure on the West, both financially and in terms of security. Russia is aware of this and deliberately uses the destabilization of world security to downplay the Ukrainian cause and attack Western solidarity. The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, has said that Russia will not "capitulate" to Ukraine and that all goals will be achieved. This speech explicitly indicates that Russia will continue its aggression, adjusting its objectives to developments on the battlefield. Ukraine therefore has no choice but to defend itself but also to regain control of its entire territory, for now exclusively by force.
Despite the painful sanctions, which have already caused an exodus of certain categories of workers (from the IT sector) and foreign investors (Western companies), the Kremlin continues its efforts to occupy the southern Ukraine. The military-civilian administrations controlled by Russia try to de-Ukrainize temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories (Kherson, Zaporozhye, Donetsk and Lugansk), preparing the ground for their “annexation” to Russia under the model of Crimea in 2014. Without the complete liberation of the country from Russian occupation, Ukraine's national security will be seriously undermined in the long run. Threats to neighboring countries will automatically increase, regardless of whether they are protected by NATO membership, like Romania, or rely on an untenable neutral status, as in the case of Moldova. The authorities of the latter seem to be trying to compensate for the problematic neutrality, proclaimed "on paper", but little effective in practice, with international assistance to build up state resilience (IPN, April 2022) and a presence, albeit symbolic, in the agenda of global powers. This type of intentions has been illustrated during the participation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Moldova, Nicu Popescu, in the meeting of the heads of diplomacy of the G7 states on May 14.
At the G7 meeting, Moldova was recognized for its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and reiterated its readiness to provide assistance through the Moldova Support Platform, launched in April (accumulating commitments of around €700 million: loans and grants new and old). However, the G7 focused on reforms instead of focusing on preparedness of Moldova for adverse situations and scenarios. The representatives of the G7 countries referred to the destabilization of the Transnistrian region, which does not yet contain real threats to Ukraine or Moldova (Riddle, May 2022). At the same time, the G7 overlooked the fact that the recent events in the Transnistrian region are a sufficient prerequisite to explicitly mention the need for assistance that would enable and prepare the Moldovan army and law enforcement for crises in the ongoing regional context. Instead, perhaps at Chisinau's request, Western states deliberately chose to focus solely on reforms. However, if the "reforms" also include military assistance, then it makes more sense for this to be made public, since European officials have already openly declared similar intentions, but only with reference to non-lethal military equipment (Council of the EU, May 2022). Likewise, although the G7 states insist on supporting the stability of Moldova, they omitted the peaceful solution of the Transnistria conflict, which represents an important element for the stability of the country.
EU (military) assistance or other type of support from NATO?
According to article 11 of the Constitution (1994), Moldova is a state with permanent neutrality. In reality, there is no national or international mechanism to guarantee the country's neutrality, and the defense capabilities of the military are unknown to the public, largely because there are no recent evaluations published by the competent authorities. Although the country's military doctrine is outdated (1995) and stems from permanent neutrality principle, the national security documents are more recent and address the concept of neutrality beyond non-adherence to military blocs. Thus, the Parliament's decision of July 2018 approved the national defense strategy, as well as an Action Plan, which provided for the defense budget to be increased from MDL 625 million in 2018 to MDL 1.4 billion in 2025. In 2018, the government controlled by the then oligarchic forces conceptualized the neutrality of the country in terms of international cooperation and contribution to security through investment in a professional army. The same principle is defended by the current pro-EU government, which would contradict the international isolationism promoted by the pro-Russian forces, who want legislation limiting the participation of the national army in international missions and other forms of interaction with military organizations or military camps (with the West). The government in Chisinau is currently implementing the military and defense strategies adopted by the oligarchic forces in 2018, which in some places have lost relevance and do not contain explicit aspects related to state resilience.
Since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, the Moldovan Ministry of Defense has not provided any public information related to the preparedness of the national army. The same type of information is not part of the annual reports submitted by the Ministry. Therefore, there is a lack of clarity about the country's real defense capacity against a possible military threat. On the other hand, Moldova is known to receive military assistance from the EU through the European Peace Facility instrument, which involves the provision of military, but non-lethal, equipment worth 7 million during the years 2022-2024. Specifically, the equipment delivered by the EU aims to increase the capacity to assist the population provided by the Military Medical Service and to provide the Engineering Battalion with equipment for the disposal of explosive munitions. The EU did not promise any other equipment, on the one hand, and the Moldovan authorities, on the other, did not request it. However, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, made a statement about the EU's intention to "significantly increase assistance" to Moldova by delivering "additional military equipment". The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Chisinau clarified that it the EU did not mean lethal weapons, but did not explain whether other equipment than promised is provided to the military medical service and engineers. In any case, these measures refer to the partial equipment of some units within the national army, not to specific measures dedicated to resilience as a whole. Other measures supported by the EU concern border management, in which, in addition to the EUBAM Mission, the EU finances 70 Frontex Agency representatives operating on Moldovan territory.
Previously, under the NATO-Moldova Individual Action Plan for 2022-2023 (NATO-Moldova IPAP), Chisinau planned an inter-institutional self-assessment on “resilience and civil emergency preparedness” based on seven NATO benchmarks. These criteria contain the following dimensions: 1) continuity of government functioning; 2) energy resources; 3) manage the uncontrolled flow of people; 4) access to food and water; 5) mass accident management; 6) civil communications systems; 7) civilian transportation. These aspects of resilience were established at the 2016 Warsaw Summit. Later, they transformed into criteria for NATO Defense Capability Planning in 2017 and conveyed to Moldova during joint activities in 2018 (the year of the government oligarchic of Vladimir Plahotniuc).
Unlike the 2018 national strategies, which do not refer to resilience, the NATO-Moldova IPAP indicates eight actions aimed at increasing Moldova's response capacity, such as: developing institutional resilience potential, monitoring critical infrastructure, increase rapid response capabilities, etc. However, the document does not specify the source of financing. Furthermore, instead of mentioning a single authority responsible for coordinating the entire process, the tasks are distributed among a multitude of actors, from parliament to individual ministries. As a result, measures aimed at strengthening the state in the seven areas mentioned above are at risk of not being implemented due to either lack of budget funds or lack of centralized coordination. In addition, NATO states are ready to provide technical assistance to Moldova, which should be properly reflected in strategic documents and daily communication with the public.
NATO membership or other ways to make up for the shortcomings of Moldovan neutrality?
To counter the Russian threat, Sweden and Finland renounce military neutrality and prepare to become NATO member states, where they will be able to benefit from article 5 on collective defense. The same reasoning would have practical benefits for Moldova, whose constitutional neutrality has no tangible effect. Obviously, in the current internal political context there is no room for competent discussions on the country's accession to NATO, given the public opposition to it (61% in April 2022). Two preconditions are needed to make a qualitative transition from NATO-related phobias to the benefits of joining this military bloc:
First, constitutional provisions that require 67 votes (out of 101) in the legislature must be amended. Such an outcome is possible if a pro-NATO political party manages not only to repeat the performance of the Action and Solidarity Party of June 2021, but also to improve on it by four more seats. This will depend on the quality of the current PAS government, which in case of failure will favor the pro-Russian and conservative forces in the next parliamentary elections. The next amendment to the constitution requires an inclusive national dialogue and transparency, respectively.
And second, for NATO membership to be at least hypothetically likely, resolving the Transnistrian conflict must become a feasible exercise. This means, first of all, Ukraine's victory over Russian aggression, followed by efficient coordination between Kyiv and Chisinau on steps to reintegrate the Transnistrian region into the Moldovan constitutional environment. This process must include the democratization, decriminalization and demilitarization of the breakaway region, which is deeply loyal to Russia, even if it wants to create the appearance of Westernization through economic integration with the European market.
However, if NATO is an undesirable option among the pro-Western political forces in Moldova, then the alternative solution is to build a strong army based on the Euro-Atlantic model. This means substantial investments in the modernization of defense capabilities (infantry, air defense potential), interoperability with NATO forces and anti-crisis management and national resilience based on effective cooperation with the competent civilian agencies. This way of compensating for neutrality deficiencies should be implemented until Moldova joins the EU (long-term goal), which will open access to Article 422 of the Treaty of EU on collective security. Ultimately, Moldova has to decide which solution to choose, but either proposal requires transparent political decisions, achievable "roadmaps" and active public diplomacy. While the war in Ukraine continues, Chisinau can focus on the second model of cooperation with the EU and NATO. Later, depending on the outcome of reforms and elections, the talks may incorporate a desire to join NATO. Under no circumstances should the concerns of the population and the constraints imposed by the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict be ignored. Overlooking any of the suggested ways to compensate or replace permanent neutrality will be used by the political forces promoting the (re)unification of Moldova with Romania. For some segments of society, the union with Romania is associated not only with economic benefits, but also with security guarantees against the Russian factor (IPN, April 2022).
In lieu of conclusions…
The regional context is unstable and the prospects for a radical improvement in the situation are uncertain. However, military assistance to Ukraine may change the dynamic of things to the detriment of Russia, which relies on its energy tools to gain time, financial resources and room for maneuver relative to the West. In such circumstances, Moldova needs a very precise strategy, with financial resources and coordinating authorities, to increase resilience in all criteria applied within NATO.
Efforts to increase resilience are also essential because they can be combined with the development of Moldova's defense capabilities in the context of neutrality. If the Moldovan public is not yet ready to reflect critically on NATO, then the country must invest in the army. The attempts to destabilize Transnistria highlight the importance of having an adequate defense potential. Without an army capable of defending itself, the country's neutrality is flawed and may itself be a source of insecurity. Both the modernization of the armed forces in the field of defense and the strengthening of state resilience must accompany the process of European integration, accelerated by the prospect of Moldova's future accession to the EU.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.