Russian Politics in the Post-Soviet Space

Review of Russia’s Policy in the Post-Soviet Space/ Russian Aggression in Ukraine: Response of Moldova and Its Refusal to Impose Sanctions

Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst

Note: The 51st publication reviews steps taken by Moldova in response to the Russian military aggression in Ukraine.

 

Introduction

Russia's military aggression in Ukraine posed serious economic and security challenges for Moldova. The country is unable to independently deal with the growing influx of refugees. At the same time, the Moldovan government fears that in the event of the development of Russian military aggression in southern Ukraine, the war could reach as far as the separatist Republic of Transnistria. Moldova's main priority has been creating a safe environment and humanitarian corridor for refugees from Ukraine since the start of the war in Ukraine. Concurrently, the country, given its neutrality status and economic factors, refuses to join sanctions imposed on Russia.

 

First Response

In the wake of the Russian military aggression in Ukraine, Moldovan pro-Western political leaders affirmed Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and condemned the military aggression against the country. Moldova also voted in favor of a resolution which the UN adopted against Russia.

On February 20, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova, Nicu Popescu, upheld the  sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. As he stated, threats of and unilateral use of military force are illegal under international law.

On February 22, the President Maia Sandu condemned the recognition of the independence of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk by Russia on February 21. On February 24, Ms. Sandu also condemned the act of war by Russia against Ukraine. As a neutral state, Moldova stands ready to assist Ukrainian citizens in their humanitarian needs, she said.

On February 24, the day the war began, the Moldovan parliament declared a 60-day state of emergency which bans demonstrations during this period and allows the government to expel “undesirable persons” from the country as well as introduce a special entry and exit regime, a special regime for the use of the airspace and measures to manage refugee inflows from Ukraine. In addition, the government obliged communication service providers to block online content sources which promote false information.

On the same day, the Prime Minister, Natalia Gavrilita, held a special press conference whose main messages were: condemning the acts of war in Ukraine, prioritizing the safety of people, intensifying diplomatic relations with Western partners, launching a Crisis Cell to monitor and coordinate actions and creating protocols to receive refugees.

On February 28, the UN General Assembly held an emergency special session and adopted a resolution on the Russian military offensive in Ukraine. A total of 141 countries, including Moldova, voted in favor of the resolution entitled Aggression against Ukraine. The resolution demands that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

 

Reception of Refugees and Humanitarian Corridors

Moldova has become one of the safest places for refugees from Ukraine and a major transit route to other European countries. On February 25, Maia Sandu spoke with her Romanian counterpart, Klaus Johannis, to coordinate joint efforts in providing assistance for Ukrainian refugees. A Single Crisis Management Center was launched in the country on March 1. The center coordinates the activities of the government, international organizations, individuals and volunteers. Representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are also involved in the management of the center. Romania also assists Moldova in the management of refugee flows.

In the first days of the war (February 24-28), a total of 71,359 Ukrainian citizens entered Moldova of whom 33,173 left the country. As of March 18, more than 321,000 refugees had crossed the border since the start of the war, of whom 104,000 (including over 48,942 minors) were housed in asylums or private homes across the country.

Natalia Gavrilita Visits Refugees from Ukraine. Source:  gov.md

Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, is facing a significant challenge due to the large influx of refugees. On March 5, Nicu Popescu said that his country needed additional resources (technical means, financial aid and help with relocation of refugees) to provide dignified shelter for Ukrainian refugees.

 

International Assistance

In the face of new challenges, Moldova received significant international support and although Moldova did not join the sanctions imposed on Russia, the West appreciated the country’s role in receiving refugees. On March 5, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited Moldova. During a meeting with Maia Sandu, he supported Moldova's aspiration to join the EU. However, Mr. Blinken said that this process should be decided by the European Union (on March 3, Moldova submitted an application to join the European Union after Ukraine signed a request for immediate EU membership. Georgia also submitted an application on the same day). The US Secretary of State pledged Moldova USD 18 million to diversify the energy sector in the coming years which is currently dependent on Russian gas. Earlier, on March 3, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, visited Moldova and pledged the country EUR 15 million in assistance for “overcoming the crisis.” At the same time, Moldova is receiving various (financial/material) assistance from Western countries to cope with the refugee crisis.

Maia Sandu Meets with Antony Blinken. Source: rferl.org

 

Neutrality and Economic Ties with Russia

Moldova is one of the countries which did not join the sanctions against Russia. The country's pro-Western government attributes the move to the country's neutrality status and the nature of its economic relations with Russia. Similar statements have been made several times by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Nicu Popescu, since the start of the war.

Moldova is a neutral country whose status of permanent neutrality is enshrined in its constitution. The constitution does not allow the deployment of military troops of other states on the territory of Moldova. The government focuses on the country’s EU membership.

On February 28, Nicu Popescu said that Chisinau will stick to the constitutional neutrality principle in the Ukrainian situation. “Moldova is a neutral state. We will not take any side in the conflict. Moldova will not join any sanctions either,” he stated. “The Moldovan economy is too integrated and dependent on Russia. A decision to impose sanctions on Russia is not an easy decision, this is a very hard decision that could be made by stronger and more prosperous countries than Moldova. It was decided after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that Moldova would not join the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union or the US, and we adhere to this course. The decision was made based on economic considerations, as the Moldovan economy is too dependent on relations with Russia,” the Minister said in response to a journalist's question why Moldova was not joining the sanctions.

On March 5, Nicu Popescu said that the country had no intentions to join the global sanctions against Russia or take steps to move closer to NATO due to the precarious security situation and the country's neutral military status as enshrined in the constitution.

On March 10, Minister Popescu told reporters that the Moldovan government “sees no immediate threat that Transnistria, its security forces or Russian troops stationed in the region are preparing to participate in the military operations in Ukraine.” For Moldova, which Nicu Popescu described as Ukraine's “most fragile neighbor,” the Russian aggression in neighboring country could pose an existential threat. The 1994 constitution enshrined Moldova’s neutrality and Russia's invasion of Ukraine will not change this policy. “Constitutionally, Moldova cannot take sides in military conflicts. Neutrality is quite popular among the public and the voters. Moldova's vision is to join the EU while remaining neutral like Finland, Sweden, Austria, Cyprus and Ireland. We have a legal basis and a constitution which determines our actions. Moldova has the sovereign right to decide what kind of security policy it wants to pursue, be it neutrality or something else,” Mr. Popescu said.

 

Maia Sandu Demands the Withdrawal of Russian Troops from Transnistria

Three weeks after the start of the war in Ukraine, Maia Sandu demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria. She voiced this at a March 17 meeting with the Romanian President, Klaus Johannis. It is noteworthy that earlier, on March 15, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a document which states for the first time that Transnistria is a Russian-occupied region. Among initiators of introducing the term “occupation” in the document were members of the Georgian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly.                                                                                      

There are about 2,000 Russian servicemen in Transnistria, some comprise the peacekeeping forces and others, the Russian military operative group, are protecting the weapons depots left in Transnistria after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is not the Moldovan President’s first such statement. Maia Sandu called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria as early as November 2020, when she held her first press conference as president-elect. Ms. Sandu demanded the replacement of the Russian peacekeeping forces by civilian monitors under the OSCE. A similar request was voiced at a session of the UN General Assembly on September 22, 2021.

Russia evaluates President Sandu's demands as a cause for “serious destabilization.”

 

Why Moldova Did Not Join the Sanctions?

After the start of the war in Ukraine, the country's leaders overtly stated that Moldova would not join the sanctions imposed on Russia. The decision could be due to several factors:

  • Moldovan pro-Western political leaders explain the refusal to impose sanctions against Russia with the country's neutrality. According to Moldova, the violation of neutrality will increase future external risks from Russia. However, at the same time, Moldova condemns the Russian military aggression and is at the forefront of humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees.
  • A Russian military unit is stationed in the separatist Transnistrian region of Moldova, which borders Ukraine. In the event of a Russian military invasion of southwestern Ukraine, there is a high probability that risks to the security of Moldova will also increase. This threat became even more obvious after a map, accidentally displayed by the President of Belarus, showed the direction of Russian military movements towards Moldova. This factor itself makes many residents of Moldova think about emigration out of fear of the impending danger.
  • Moldova is virtually completely dependent on Russian gas, which it receives through Ukraine. Although a gas pipeline connecting Romania and Moldova was built last year, its permeability is not sufficient to ensure Moldova's energy security. At this stage, Moldova cannot provide an alternative source of Russian gas. Joining the sanctions could leave Moldova without Russian gas and the West will neither be able to offer a viable alternative to Moldova in the short run.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is a major economic challenge since imports from the port of Odessa to Moldova have been restricted. In addition, given the scale of Moldova's economic relations with Russia, joining the sanctions will further hurt the Moldovan economy. At the same time, there are many Moldovan citizens who live in Russia and provide financial assistance to relatives in the homeland. The complication of their condition will also affect Moldovan citizens.

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