Since Russia seized Crimea and stoked war in eastern Ukraine, most of the scenario-building as to where Russia might push next has focused on the Baltics. The buildup of Russian anti-access area denial (A2AD) assets in the Kaliningrad District has made the northeastern flank an almost obvious area for Russia to pressure the West. But the focus on NATO’s redline has deflected attention from an area where Russia could easily push next, and whose collapsed economy, government failure, and shifting public mood has created conditions ripe for another exercise of Russian hybrid conflict.
Enter Moldova, a post-Soviet state, home to an ongoing frozen conflict in Russian-controlled Transnistria, where Moscow has already shown that it can easily pull the strings at will. Furthermore, a gigantic corruption scandal, driven by the theft of a billion dollars through an elaborate bank scheme, has brought the country to the verge of systemic collapse. The deepening crisis in Moldova has led to street demonstrations and demands that corrupt oligarchs be removed from power, accompanied by a growing public willingness to shift the country back into Russia’s orbit, as well as an eerie Soviet nostalgia.
Because much of the corruption unveiled was found among the avowedly Europe-oriented elites, the banking scandal has tarnished, perhaps irretrievably, the pro-EU narrative. Last October, former Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who was in office from 2009-13, was arrested and charged with accepting $260 million in bribes. The public mood is explosive, with citizenry storming the parliament in the capital of Chisinau last month right after the new government of Pavel Filip, ostensibly a leader of a pro-European coalition, was approved. Filip remains deeply mistrusted and considered by the thousands who protested his appointment as another manifestation of the country’s systemic corruption. The attendant public anger is more reminiscent of revolution than of the reformist hopes that marked the country’s path to closer association with the EU only a year ago. The levels of theft and oligarchic influence brought to light by the banking scandal have revealed a larger systemic problem in the country: namely, Moldova has become a conduit for money laundering, with an estimated $20 billion of Russian money having passed through the country’s banking system over the past four years. To appreciate the scope of these numbers, consider that Moldova’s GDP last year was about $8 billion.
Human misery aside, the story of Moldova’s unraveling is particularly disheartening because of the country’s geostrategic position along the southern flank of NATO, directly bordering on Romania and sandwiched between NATO and Ukraine, not far from the Black Sea littoral. As things stand, Moldova could shift ever-deeper into Moscow’s political orbit, and eventually become Russia’s “new Kaliningrad”— first a political base from which to exert pressure in southeastern Europe at will, then the host of Russian military installations to further complicate U.S. and NATO efforts to secure allies in Europe. If unaddressed, Moldova’s downward spiral carries the seeds of another crisis along Europe’s flank, this time closer to the southern theater with potentially even graver consequences for Europe’s security than the deteriorating conditions in eastern Ukraine, especially if Russia increases its military presence in Transnistria and continues to consolidate its political and economic influence in Moldova itself.
Today protesters in Chisinau are calling for the dissolution of the parliament and early elections. Thus far the government has resisted such calls, but it’s anyone’s guess how much longer the imploding state and government can hold on. In the next electoral cycle, the pro-Russian forces may get enough votes to swing the parliament decisively towards Russia, all but ending Moldova’s increasingly futile efforts to remain connected to the West. Not that the European Union, increasingly paralyzed by its own crises, is likely to focus on a small country outside its periphery. So when the next Moldovan election comes—whether soon or in a year’s time—Putin should be well positioned to expand his grip on the country, in the process opening an even deeper fault line along NATO’s southeastern flank. This raises the question of what Russia is prepared to do to ensure direct access to its installations in Transnistria. The question was already a thorny one in the wake of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine. Now there is an even greater risk of a Russian military campaign against Ukraine along the Black Sea littoral.
Unless the West begins to reach out to Chisinau, especially to help alleviate the deepening economic crisis in the country and to begin addressing its systemic corruption, Russia will be in a strong position to score a political victory there, making the next Moldovan government part of the growing sphere of influence along its periphery and putting more pressure on NATO’s southeastern flank.