On February 10, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița resigned, citing a lack of public support for her government in its efforts to cope with the implications of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s unrelenting efforts to destabilize her country. Two days later, President Maia Sandu said Russia had been planning a coup, “to change the legitimate power from Chisinau with an illegitimate one.”

The plot would involve “diversionists with military training, camouflaged in civilian clothes, who will undertake violent actions, attack some state buildings, and even take hostages,” she said. On February 14, the country closed its airspace. NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said on February 13 that the alliance would discuss increased aid for Moldova to help face the Russian threat.

Because the drumbeat of Russian hostility to Moldova is unmistakable.

Events in Moldova has been deteriorating for a while, in large part because of the Kremlin’s actions. Apart from the influx of 700,000 Ukrainian refugees, Moldova has had to contend with the cutoff of Russian oil and electricity exports. Those developments triggered a collapse of the economy and 30% inflation that has devastated its economy just as the government was trying to push through EU-inspired reforms enabling it to qualify for EU accession talks.

Last autumn, demonstrators organized by the pro-Russian Shor party demonstrated for weeks against the government, blaming it for a 400% rise in gas prices and the resultant inflation. Reports state that Shor has close ties to Russia’s FSB, though its leader has denied this. Fortunately, the warm European winter has allowed Moldova recently to cut its dependence on Gazprom, a front company for the Russian state.

Yet this has not stopped a flood of Russian cyber strikes, disinformation attacks, and influence operations against it. Russia’s forces inside the adjacent separatist Transnistria enclave — home to a Russian-officered military force — have also been accused of attacks on Moldovan infrastructure, including energy links from Transnistria to Moldova.

This is not new. As early as 2014, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Moldova was one of its targets. It hoped to seize the entire Crimean coast of Ukraine when Moscow mobilized 2,000-3,000 Spetsnaz forces in Transnistria to march on Odessa once its supporters had seized power through rioting there. Both south-western Ukraine and Moldova would then have been incorporated into Putin’s imperial Novorossiia land grab. Russia tried again last year, but the creation of a land bridge between its forces in the east and Moldova eluded it once again. Russia has made no secret of its aims. Last year, a senior general stated it aimed to take the whole of southern Ukraine and create “another way” to Transnistria.

And the Washington Post has meanwhile reported that “the FSB funneled tens of millions of dollars from some of Russia’s biggest state companies to cultivate a network of Moldovan politicians and reorient the country toward Moscow.”

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So, it was hardly surprising when on February 9, Moldova’s security services confirmed President Zelenskyy’s report that his intelligence service had uncovered a Russian intelligence plan to destabilize Moldova. Or that Romania confirmed a Russian missile had once again infringed Moldovan sovereignty by crossing its airspace en route to a Ukrainian target on February 10, a classic Russian intimidatory act.

Thus, Russia has utilized every instrument of its hybrid warfare playbook against Moldova and evidently achieved some success. i.e., the cabinet crisis.

More importantly, this history — for these pressures date back to the original seizure of Transnistria in 1992 — should teach us critical lessons for European security.

The most important is that the widespread advocacy of negotiations with Putin has no basis in reality. Although numerous “experts” maintain that it is in Putin’s, if not Zelensky’s, interest to negotiate; Moldova’s story tells us that such arguments might make sense only in a graduate seminar on international relations; they are of no interest to the Kremlin.

As Moldova demonstrates, Putin’s interests are focused exclusively on winning (and he apparently does still think victory is within his grasp.) As the football coach Vince Lombardi would have recognized, for Putin winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Winning means first of all expanding the empire, for it is a shared obsession of Russia’s elite that if Russia does not win and expand, it might actually disintegrate. In other words, imperial extension is the precondition for Putin and his system to remain in power. Moreover, Ukraine is not enough, Russia must also regain Moldova. 

Neither will that suffice, for the Russian tradition — as expressed by Catherine the Great, Russia’s greatest empire builder, “the only way I have to defend my frontiers is to expand them.” Russian imperial interests are therefore insatiable. Putin himself has said that Russia has no borders.

While Russia might bow to realities of force and expediency; the fact that the pressures directed against Moldova are equally directed against virtually every European state and even to some degree the US. Russian cyber strikes and information warfare, not to mention its bizarre shopping list of demands to the West in December 2021, shows that Russia under its present autocracy cannot recognize limits to its imperial pretensions. Hence it believes itself to be in a state of war with the “collective West.”

Russia’s post-2014 aggression does not merely target Ukraine. Instead, it deliberately assaults the very idea of international order and particularly that of a European security order. Indeed, Putin, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proclaim the collective West is at war with Russia. Russian nationalist political scientist Sergei Karaganov openly says that, “We are at war with the West. The European security order is illegitimate.”

Thus, another key lesson from Moldova must be that its “hybrid” war is part of the Ukraine war, and that both countries are now fighting for their lives.

There is truth in what Russia’s elite says. We are now at war and we must respond accordingly.

Finally, for those still urging negotiations we must ask, inasmuch as Putin has broken seven major bilateral, multilateral, and international treaties, including the UN Charter, to wage this war of aggression, upon what basis can either we or Kyiv negotiate with him?

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute


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