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European Council President Charles Michel and Moldovan President Maia Sandu. European Council President Charles Michel greets Moldovan President Maia Sandu prior to a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Dec. 15, 2021 (AP photo by Kenzo Tribouillard).

Moldova Could Be the Next Flashpoint in Europe’s Standoff With Putin

Thursday, March 3, 2022

As the war in Ukraine enters its second week, the continent’s eyes are already turning toward neighboring Moldova. The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, made an emergency visit there yesterday, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a last-minute visit next door to Romania.

The main reason given for the pair of visits was to discuss the large wave of Ukrainian refugees pouring into Moldova, a tiny country with limited resources. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, 1 million refugees have fled Ukraine in the past week, and almost 10 percent have gone to Moldova, a country of 2.6 million. That would be the equivalent of Germany absorbing more than 3 million refugees in one week.

But while refugee settlement was a major part of discussions between EU and Moldovan officials, security concerns also featured heavily on the agenda. On Tuesday, a video clip of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addressing his security council circulated on the internet. In it, Lukashenko is standing in front of a battle map that, in addition to operations in Ukraine, appears to show plans for troop movements and infrastructure targets in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria. Belarus has been used as a staging ground for the Russian attack in Ukraine, and Lukashenko is reportedly preparing to send Belarusian troops in support of Russia's military campaign there. Some of the attacks in Ukraine depicted on the map have already taken place, raising concerns that the ones showing an incursion into Moldova launched from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa—which is currently under heavy attack—could be next.

Moldova is a Romanian-speaking country that traces its modern origins to the Russo-Turkish War of 1812, when Russia annexed the eastern half of the Principality of Moldavia, one of the three constituent parts of Romania. Though it was later returned to form part of Romania in the interwar years, the Soviet Union took control of it at the end of World War II and merged it into the broader USSR. But since the collapse of the USSR, efforts to reunite Moldova and Romania have been beset with problems, the biggest of which is Transnistria, the Russian-speaking portion of Moldova that is not under the control of the central government.

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The thin strip of territory between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border is mostly populated by Russian-speakers who wanted to remain part of the USSR, and who went to war with the newly independent Moldovan government in 1992. Since then, the region has been self-administered, internationally recognized as part of Moldova but with de facto autonomy guaranteed by Russian “peacekeeping” forces stationed there. Even Russia, however, has until now not officially recognized Transnistria’s independence.

If Russian forces capture Odessa in the coming days, they could officially recognize Transnistrian independence while annexing it to the Odessa zone of Russian military occupation. How Moldova will react is the big question. If Chisinau rejects the move, it too faces the prospect of a Russian invasion.

Moldova, like Ukraine, is not a member of NATO, and the West is not bound by a defense pact to defend it from a foreign invasion. But many people in Moldova are dual citizens of Romania, which is a NATO member, raising follow-on questions over how Romania might react to a Russian invasion of its neighbor. Fears are growing over the possibility of conflict between Romania and Russia, which could eventually pull NATO and Russian forces into a direct military confrontation.

One possible way of protecting Moldova would be a quick reunification with Romania, an idea that was already under discussion last week, even before Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the invasion of Ukraine. Former Romanian President Traian Basescu has urged the central government to hold a “snap referendum” to unite the two countries, as a means of deterring Russian forces from advancing into Moldovan territories. That could put Moldova in the EU overnight, following a precedent set by the 1990 European Council decision on East Germany, after it reunified with what was then West Germany, and possibly also NATO, before Russian forces are able to invade the country.

In other words, while much of the international media has been breathlessly reporting on the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU overnight, which is effectively impossible—and, contrary to inaccurate reports, has not advanced—they are ignoring where the actual possibility of an overnight accession lies, which is a Moldovan-Romanian unification. It remains a long shot, but unlike the Ukraine situation, it is feasible.

In Other News

The EU opens its doors to Ukrainian refugees. The refugee situation is not only a problem for Moldova, but also a bloc-wide challenge. Yesterday, European Council President Charles Michel visited Poland, which has taken in more than half of the 1 million refugees that have fled Ukraine already. While there, Michel pledged EU support to countries hosting Ukrainians, but acts of solidarity are already on display. Railways across Europe are offering free travel for them to continue westward, in order to alleviate the burden on neighboring states of hosting and settling the refugees. Families across Europe are also volunteering to host Ukrainian refugees in their homes, including here in Belgium as well as in Germany, where Berliners went to train stations to meet arriving migrants.

EU interior ministers are meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow, when they are expected to activate the Temporary Protection Directive, a rule created in 2001 as part of a belated response to the Balkan Wars, but which has never before been applied, including during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Even before the outbreak of war, Ukrainians had the right to enter the EU on a tourist visa of up to 90 days, albeit without the authorization to work. Today’s decision would grant them the immediate right to work, as well as access to social entitlements like housing and medical care, for up to three years. While the directive will also apply to non-Ukrainian nationals who have been living in the country, there have been reports of non-white residents of Ukraine

The EU becomes a genuine military union. Borrell’s frequent referrals this week to “EU military staff” may have come as a surprise to many who didn’t realize the EU had such a military arm. In fact the European Union Military Staff has existed since 2004 but has had few operational duties until now. All that changed this weekend, when all 27 national EU defense ministers agreed to deliver military equipment to Ukraine in an effort funded by the bloc and coordinated by the EU’s External Action Service, overcoming a longstanding hesitance in the bloc to such a move. The accession treaties created for Ireland and Austria restrict the use of the EU budget for military purposes, necessitating the use of an extra-budgetary vehicle called the European Peace Facility to reimburse the member states for the equipment. Ireland voted yes on the move, but stressed that Irish funds will go toward delivery of non-lethal equipment only.

Borrell called this a “historic shift” that will fundamentally change the EU’s role, noting that it has historically been only in moments of crisis that the EU makes forward leaps toward integration. The move wouldn’t have been possible without last Saturday’s announcement by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that the country is ending its post-World War II policy of not sending arms to conflict zones. In addition, Germany will more than double its defense budget to meet NATO’s target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. It was a shocking development, and Scholz reportedly told only a handful of people before announcing the historic shift in the German parliament.

Despite being angry at not being consulted, his party and his coalition partners subsequently fell in line. The shift is welcome news for French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been urging Europeans to step up their defense spending and embrace Paris’ ambitions for European strategic autonomy. “These events are a signal our era is changing,” he told the French people in an address last night. “Europe must invest more, to be less dependent on other continents, to make our own decisions. To become a more independent, more sovereign power.”

EU sanctions bite. The Russian economy is in freefall. The ruble has crashed to a record low of 110 to the dollar as of Thursday morning, while interest rates have doubled. The Russian Central Bank has imposed a 30 percent commission for foreign currency purchases, and Fitch has downgraded Russia’s sovereign rating 6 notches. And with fears that Russia will use cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions imposed by the EU and the U.S., EU finance ministers agreed yesterday to take as-yet-unspecified steps to make sure the sanctions include cryptocurrencies.

Meanwhile, finance ministers are concentrated on finding ways to shield European economies from the worst of the blowback effects, which are likely to include dramatically higher energy prices, inflation and possibly food shortages. They are preparing a package of subsidies and protections that is likely to be adopted early next week. But many different options remain on the table, with no consensus on which one to choose. Should they redirect unused funds from the coronavirus recovery fund? Should the EU issue collective debt to fund these efforts? Should they suspend state aid rules? One thing is certain: There will be an intense few days of negotiations ahead.

Dave Keating is an American-European journalist who has been based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, Dave has in the past covered the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, courtrooms of Chicago, boardrooms of London, cafe of Paris and the climate campaigns of Berlin.

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