Much Western media coverage of Moldova — which won its candidate status for EU membership last year — tends to portray the country merely as a point of geopolitical competition between Russia and the European Union (EU.) It is regularly described in journalistic shorthand as a tiny former Soviet republic, the poorest European country, and a fragile democracy.  

From a Western perspective, you would be forgiven for thinking that Moldova is all but in a perpetual state of vulnerability to Russia’s imperialist ambitions, incapable of escaping from its communist past, and consigned to an unhappy and contested zone at the far southeastern corner of continental Europe. While it is true that the country has faced extensive hostility from the Russian state and its intelligence services, the language can sound rather a fatalist. Moldova has clocked up substantial achievements on its democratic journey since its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  

Under the leadership of its first female president, Maia Sandu, the country of 3.25 million has transformed remarkably into a vital strategic partner for the Euro-Atlantic area as it seeks to build resilience against the threat of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 

Russia’s full-scale escalation of its war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022 was not just a direct military attack on a single state on the eastern periphery of Europe. It is part of a wider and more sophisticated Russian attempt to reverse the process of democratic consolidation in the former Soviet Union, and ultimately to undermine the integrity of the post-World War II international system based on the provisions of the United Nations Charter.  

Very few world leaders understand this multifaceted security threat from Russia more acutely than President Sandu. From her perspective, this is a problem that is not purely linked to the Ukraine invasion, nor the geopolitically contested post-Soviet transition in Moldova. It is a historic task to overhaul an economic system riddled with corruption and with extensive ties to the Russian kleptocracy that has enabled a war of aggression to be perpetrated on European soil in the 21st century. She has termed this “the rule of thieves.” 

“We all know that the only way to save the planet is joint global action against climate change. The same goes for corruption. Corruption weakens states and erodes democracies. We should take it more seriously than ever before,” stated Sandu in her address to the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly last year.  

The clear progress made in Moldova’s reform agenda since Sandu assumed the presidency in December 2020 is an unequivocal demonstration that democracy can endure the intense pressure of a corrupted post-Soviet transition process. The decision of the European Council last year to grant Moldova EU candidate status should be recognized as Sandu’s achievement at a time when EU values in democracy and the rule of law faced among candidate states. It stands testament to her determination to strengthen Moldova’s democratic institutions and provide certainty for its future as a free and open country within the Euro-Atlantic community with a functioning market economy.  

Thanks to Sandu’s efforts, popular support for EU membership in Moldova remains resilient (currently 63%), notwithstanding the country’s deeply-entrenched ideological and ethnic divisions — clear from anti-government demonstrations by a pro-Russian party on February 28 — and Russia’s recent exploitation of Moldova’s political and economic vulnerabilities. A parliamentary majority committed to the reform process remains intact despite the government’s fall in February. Russian attempts to destabilize Moldova by withholding gas transfers and orchestrating efforts to overthrow its democratically-elected government may even be seen as a signal of growing Kremlin anxiety over its lack of influence in the country at a difficult time..  

On top of Moldova’s tangible role in the global fight against corruption, Sandu has dedicated her time in office to making her country a key regional security provider for Europe. The cooperation and intimate ties between Moldova and Romania (the NATO and EU state to its west) have strengthened, with Bucharest citing the importance of Moldova’s participation in NATO’s international peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR).  

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On a personal diplomatic level, President Sandu has engaged with Western partners in informing their response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. So far, much of the focus of the policy response has been on NATO’s defense and deterrence capabilities. The transatlantic military alliance has strengthened its presence on its eastern flank, while Sweden and Finland have been invited to join NATO in a reversal of their long-standing neutrality. Important though these developments are, from the Moldovan standpoint they only confront part of the challenge that Russia presents to European security. 

At this year’s Munich Security Conference, Sandu raised the need for air defense and surveillance given the immediate impact these defense and security capabilities have for all of southeastern Europe. Interestingly, she also called for common approaches in tackling Russian propaganda and disinformation, which she sees as “the most damaging element to our society and our democracy.” 

The West should heed Sandu’s words. It is important to remember that Russia is waging an information war as well as a military one. Ilan Șor, who was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement in a bank-fraud scandal that siphoned off $1bn from the Moldovan economy in 2019, was found to be spreading social unrest in Moldova as part of a Kremlin-backed plan to overthrow the legitimate government in Chișinău to a regime more to its liking. Șor, now believed to be living in Israel, denies any involvement with Russia’s FSB to undermine Moldovan democracy. 

Russia has a long history of interference in southeastern Europe. In 2016, two Russian intelligence officers were accused of plotting an attempted coup in Montenegro. The men were convicted, and later acquitted and a new trial may now be held. In Bulgaria, the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office assigned the State Agency for National Security to launch an investigation into the acquisition of Bulgarian real estate by Russian citizens, and legal entities were sanctioned by the US, the UK, and the EU. And Russian state media has tried to inflame the current tensions in Kosovo over car license plates.  

It is critical to ensure that Russia and the open criminality it fosters do not succeed in wrecking the future of other countries. Defense and security policy should acknowledge this risk and place Moldova’s strategic importance as an aspiring EU member state at its core.  

This starts with recognizing the substantial political, economic, and social steps already taken by Moldova under Sandu’s administration and the close regional security partnerships it has struck. The Harvard-educated Moldovan president’s proposal for an international sanctions regime against corruption offers a good first step and accords with President Biden’s anti-corruption policies.  

As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine grinds into a second year, the West can no longer afford to misread Moldova and the extraordinary example of leadership shown by its first female president. 

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is an Associate Research Fellow at the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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