Charles Michel, the European Council President, traveled to Bucharest in March for his first official meeting in three and a half years with the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis. The Romanian head of state took the opportunity to call on the European Union (EU) to adopt a new sanctions regime against pro-Russian entities and individuals seeking to derail Moldova’s path toward EU accession.
In a press conference following the talks, Iohannis stated that Russian aggression is not limited to the war in Ukraine but extends to hybrid activities designed to block Moldova’s path to membership and European integration. While Moldova’s government seeks a Euroatlanticist future, Russia says that its future course must be Eurasian.
Russia has used Moldova as a punchbag for years, and still illegally occupies a swath of its territory. But in recent months, the Kremlin has stepped up its campaign. It has withheld gas supplies, mobilized political proxies to stage anti-government protests, and exploited Moldova’s deeply entrenched ideological and ethnic differences with sophisticated disinformation and propaganda. It has also been accused of seeking to engineer a coup and of nurturing covert pro-Russian networks among opposition parties.
This is troubling for Romania, which has intimate ties to Moldova, not least through its language which is spoken by about three-quarters of Moldovans. About 10% of Moldovans live in Romania, and a third have a passport.
It’s not therefore an issue that Romania’s leaders could ignore, even if they wanted to. Romania has been making a conscious effort to ensure that Moldova’s EU aspirations are at the forefront of the EU foreign policy agenda alongside the war in Ukraine. The focus of the European Council summit was rightly on providing Ukraine with 1m rounds of artillery ammunition. But it was at Romania’s initiative that the 27 EU member states asked the European Commission to produce a support package for Moldova ahead of the next meeting in June. Details of the package have not yet been released.
The framework currently used for EU engagement with Moldova is of limited use to confront Russia’s threat. The EU-Moldova Association Agreement, signed in 2014, establishes foundations for “stronger political association and economic integration.” However, the scope for political and security cooperation is narrow.
Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, on Moldova’s eastern border, has prompted the EU to reassess its approach to ensure the stabilization and security of its eastern neighborhood. Last summer, the European Council decided to grant Moldova EU candidate status together with Ukraine. Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, expressed his support for the defense and security of Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in a trilateral meeting in Bucharest in April 2022 with the leaders of Romania and Moldova.
But the overall response has been far from adequate. The EU is failing to meet the moment. While Moldova says it is penetrated by FSB agents and held to ransom by Russian gas suppliers, the bloc is focusing, very literally, on technicalities.
The point was rammed home in a none-too-subtle manner by the Austrian Foreign Minister, Karoline Edtstadler, who said during a recent visit to Moldova with seven of her European counterparts that there can be “no shortcuts.”
The “rules are rules” argument might be fine at another time. But it hardly takes a master strategist to understand that with Russian cruise missiles taking shortcuts over Moldovan territory, the situation is more urgent.
NATO seems to have grasped this. Even before Russia sent its tanks across the border in 2022, the alliance chose Romania, its reliable and strategically-important regional partner, as the home to a new battlegroup under NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. Allied aircraft use Romanian bases to patrol and reconnoiter the Black Sea region. The decision had to be made quickly and it was.
From Moldova’s perspective, the Russian hybrid threat means that there can be no alternative but to pursue EU accession, and swiftly. Moldova’s President Maia Sandu has described EU membership as the only way to ensure her country’s “survival as a free and prosperous state.”
Romania shares this perspective. The Romanian Prime Minister, Nicolae Ciucă, stated that his country would continue to be an “active promoter’” of Moldova’s accession to the EU in an official meeting with his Swedish counterpart, Ulf Kristersson, in Stockholm on April 3. Romania’s outlook now needs to be heard with more respect than previously. As an EU member state with an intimate understanding of Moldova and the challenges it faces on its European path, Romania is central to how the EU navigates the new security situation in its eastern neighborhood.
It is of course important to maintain respect for the meritocratic procedure of the EU enlargement process, but sometimes events intervene. The security situation now calls for pragmatism and flexibility on the part of the EU to provide Moldova with certainty over its future place in Europe. Moldova’s pro-European choice — both within its current government and its population as a whole — is by no means a foregone conclusion. Pro-Russian forces may very well return to power.
Romania’s nuanced understanding of Russia’s security threat in the region could allow it to act as a mentor to Moldova, continuing to work closely with EU officials to aid its government, channel aid, ensure its delivery, and secure the administration against the Kremlin’s hybrid threats like the weaponization of corruption.
Most of all, the EU should understand and act as a matter of urgency on the critical issue — there is competition for Moldova’s future against a nasty, militaristic power with utter indifference for Moldova’s 2.5 million people. That point would best be made by a significant gesture from Brussels. Quite what form that should take is a matter for discussion. The EU might start by asking for Romania’s advice.
Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a Central and Eastern Europe commentator and consultant.
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.