Putin v. Sandu: Why Russia Is Moving Again On Moldova
Moldovan President Maia Sandu has warned that Russia aims to install a pro-Kremlin leadership in the former Soviet country across the border from Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has both the means and desire to do so.
PARIS — There are two ways to escalate a conflict. The first is "vertically," using new weapons or aiming at new targets, as Vladimir Putin has been doing for the past few weeks by striking Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.
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The second is "horizontally": extending the conflict to new territories, to new areas. This is the threat that hangs today over Moldova, this small state of the former USSR, which neighbors Ukraine and Romania, whose language it shares.
These fears were raised Monday by the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, who was referring to a Russian plan to create unrest inside Moldova in order to install a government favorable to Moscow. The pro-European president said the civil unrest was being fomented by people from Russia, Serbia, Belarus and Montenegro.
The alarm about Moldova was raised by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during talks with European leaders in Brussels last week. And Sandu has now effectively confirmed Zelensky's warnings based on documents seized by Moldova's intelligence services.
A fragile nation
Is this scenario possible? That question has two components: does Putin have the means to destabilize Moldova? And does Putin have an interest in destabilizing Moldova?
To the first question, the answer is a resounding yes. Moldova is an extremely fragile country, with only 2.6 million inhabitants; there are thousands of Russian peacekeeper soldiers in a third of its territory, Transnistria, the thin strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine; and there is daily fallout from the war in neighboring Ukraine.
In recent days, Russian missiles have twice flown over Moldovan territory, and the country is regularly without electricity because of the bombing of Ukrainian energy facilities across the border.
The country is already very polarized politically, and subject to constant information warfare, which President Sandu mentioned during her visit to France in December. The president was democratically elected, and has just been forced to change her prime minister to face this challenge. But her resolutely pro-Western stance makes her a potentially prime target.
Putin has his eye on Moldova
Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUM
Putin's interest in destabilizing Moldova
So what would be Putin's interest in destabilizing Moldova? It would be twofold: first, to "punish" the European Union for supporting Ukraine. Brussels granted Moldova the status of candidate to the EU at the same time as Ukraine last year, and Putin's orchestrating the overthrow of Moldova's leadership would inflict a slap in the face to those in Europe who oppose him.
But the temptation may go further, returning to the Kremlin's dream of conquering southern Ukraine and establishing territorial continuity between Donbas, Crimea and Transnistria. This was one of Putin's initial goals, but he failed because of the resistance in the city of Nikolayev, in southern Ukraine.
It is clear that for Putin, the modern state of Moldova is only a relic of a bygone empire. He would not hesitate to use force to wipe it off the map.
In the face of such a horizontal escalation, Europe would be drawn even further into Putin's war.
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