Putin could inflict ‘major crisis’ on Moldova as country ‘ready’

Zelensky accuses Russia of trying to destabilise Moldova

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Moldova’s relations with Russia have been put under pressure in recent times, with the past year seeing the country gain EU-candidate status and its leaders voicing support for Ukraine. Moldova’s Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița visited the wartorn country on Tuesday, December 6, to condemn Russia’s actions, saying that her nation would “support Ukraine with everything we can”. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicu Popescu, told NordNews portal at the end of November that Moldova has now suspended participation in regular meetings within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the bloc which effectively replaced the Soviet Union in the wake of its downfall, because it “very clearly signals its complete disagreement with the trends that are observed in this space”. Instead, Mr Popescu said, “integration and accession to the European Union remain [Moldova’s] absolute priority.”

Here, Express.co.uk takes a look at what these latest developments mean for Moldova and its increasingly tense relations with Russia – and a possible conflict that an expert has dubbed a “blind spot” of the West. 

This week 31 years ago, on December 8, 1991, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine signed the Belovezh Accords, effectively meaning that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR, no longer existed. The agreement, which established the CIS, was later also signed by Central Asian and Transcaucasian republics, including Moldova. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia did not join, despite formerly being in the USSR because each country regarded their membership in the Soviet Union as an illegal occupation. 

The CIS – which has its headquarters in Minsk, Belarus – aims to encourage cooperation between the states in the political, economic, humanitarian, military, and more. However, it rarely reaches such agreements.

Georgia left in 2009 following the Russo-Georgian war, and after the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine contemplated leaving before its participation formerly ended four years later. 

Republics choosing to leave the CIS is not taken lightly by Russia. Paul Goble, a specialist in ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia and former director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, explained that those in the Kremlin often view the framework as a way to maintain dominance over the region. 

Since June this year, discussions in Moldova have taken place over whether the Eastern European country will suspend its participation in the CIS. This “current crisis” has been building  for some time. Either junior ministers have been sent to CIS meetings or Moldova has simply not sent a representative at all, as a result “insulting the Russian side”. Despite the severity of the issue at hand, Mr Goble said the looming crisis has “generally flown under the West’s radar”. 

Writing in November for the James Foundation, he explained: “[Others, especially in the Kremlin,] viewed [CIS] then and now as a framework for maintaining Moscow’s dominance over the region and even as a structure that should serve as the matrix for the reconstitution of a Russia-centric empire. Among those holding this viewpoint is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Consequently, the Kremlin has not held favorable views toward post-Soviet countries that have had an icy relationship with the organisation.”

Last year, Moldova saw a new pro-EU Government, headed by the Party of Action and Solidarity with its leader as Maia Sandu, take power following the defeat of Igor Dodon, who has recently been accused of being on Russia’s payroll, according to an investigation by RISE Moldova. He denies the allegations. 

Moldova seemingly abandoned its neutral status which is enshrined in its constitution when it suspended its participation in the CIS. Mr Popescu told NordNews portal at the end of November that Moldova’s suspending its involvement in the CIS “very clearly signals its complete disagreement with the trends that are observed in this space. Integration and accession to the European Union remain our absolute priority.” 

He added that formally belonging to the post-Soviet area carries a “certain symbolic meaning” that “many [Moldovian] citizens do not like”. 

Mr Goble said it is now “already clear” that the Kremlin is taking measures “intended to dissuade Moldova” from leaving entirely. This comes at a time when tensions with Russia are already high due to Moldova’s cooperation with the West in helping Ukraine, as well as criticism of Russia’s invasion. 

The Kremlin was reportedly angered by Maia Sandu telling the European Parliament in May this year that “Crimea is Ukraine, the Donbas is Ukraine, Kyiv is Ukraine, and they always will be Ukraine.” It is thought the move to leave the CIS and instead join the EU and eventually NATO may lead to retaliation from Russia.

Mr Goble continued: “What makes this situation especially dangerous is that Moscow has always viewed any questioning of CIS membership as being part and parcel of plans by those countries to leave Russia’s security orbit and enter into that of the West, especially that of NATO, something Putin is, above all, committed to blocking.”

So far, the Kremlin has been accused of reducing gas supplies – on which Moldova is totally dependent – as a form of “blackmail”, according to Prime Minister Gavrilița. She told PRO-TV Television: “There are no signals that Russia will stop supplying gas to Moldova in December. But the government is ready for any scenario, as Russia continues to use energy resources as a tool of blackmail.”

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The war in Ukraine has put pressure on everyday life in Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, with inflation reaching 35 percent in October.

Its close proximity to Ukraine has meant that its energy supplies have been severely affected, and it is now bracing itself for blackouts this month as its power lines could be affected by missile strikes as they flow through Ukraine.

Mr Goble warned that Russia is unlikely to ease up on Moldova and “leave things where they currently stand”. Instead, he said it will put pressure on Moldova which could then spark “a major crisis”. 

He added: “The Kremlin will most assuredly apply intensified pressure against Chisinau [the Moldovan capital], which could easily spark a major crisis in Moldova. And the West would find such a conflict difficult, if not impossible, to ignore lest Putin, facing a wave of defeats in Ukraine, win a victory by keeping Moldova in the Russian orbit and preventing Chisinau from following the path of [Georgia] out of the CIS.”

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