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In Moldova, Ukraine Buys Time - by Antonia Colibasanu for Geopolitical Futures - 27.02.23

A war of words has troubled Moldova for more than two weeks. It started when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned of a Russian coup plot against Moldova on Feb. 10.

Two days later, Moldovan President Maia Sandu said that Ukraine sent intelligence to her government, according to which the Russians had a plan to destabilize the country by organizing protests and by employing “violent actions.” It would have been the perfect cover for inciting a coup in a country that is prone to violent protest-induced governmental change.

In fact, Moldova had been on high alert even before Zelenskyy’s warnings. Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – in a not-so-veiled threat – accused the West of “having its sights” on Moldova as a country that might “follow Ukraine’s path.” Even before that, Sandu enraged Moscow in January by implying Moldova might consider joining NATO.

Two influential Russian lawmakers responded by saying Moldovan membership in NATO could lead to the country’s destruction. Following the threat, Sandu requested that the parliament pass draft legislation to provide the Prosecutor’s Office and the State Information System with tools to combat risks and threats to the country’s security more effectively.

News of the coup added to the already high anxiety in Moldova and triggered a change in government. Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita resigned and was replaced by Sandu’s security adviser and National Security Council secretary – a signal that the government was prepared to operate from a mandate to protect Moldova from Russian threats.

This is no small thing for a country usually committed to a policy of neutrality. Sandu and the new prime minister promptly issued statements on the shortcomings of neutrality and a potential constitutional change to join a “larger alliance” – that is, NATO.

These kinds of statements, meanwhile, have stirred up domestic partisan activity. Pro-Russia factions are expected to object, while nationalist factions seek to double down on their own agenda, which includes petitions to the EU to add Moldovan oligarchs and other sympathetic politicians to sanctions lists.

Moscow has responded to Moldova in kind. On Feb. 21, President Vladimir Putin canceled a 2012 foreign policy decree that committed Moscow to peacefully resolving the border crisis of Transnistria. The region is a narrow strip of land in eastern Moldova that has been controlled by a Russian-backed government since a war in 1992 fought between Transnistrian separatists and Moldova.

And for 30 years, some 2,000 Russian soldiers have been stationed there. (The separatist region is said to host the largest weapons depot in Europe – about 20,000 tons of ammunition and military equipment, albeit likely from the Soviet era.) In 2012, Moscow agreed to help find a way to peacefully resolve the conflict, but that was at a time when Russia was seeking closer relations with the EU and the U.S. Clearly, that is no longer the case. In other words, Transnistria is a European region in which Russia has citizens to protect and military assets already in place to protect them.

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Antonia Colibasanu is Senior Geopolitical Analyst and Chief Operating Officer at Geopolitical Futures. She has published several works on geopolitics and geoeconomics, including "Contemporary Geopolitics and Geoeconomics" and "2022: The Geoeconomic Roundabout". She is also lecturer on international relations at the Romanian National University of Political Studies and Public Administration. She is a senior expert associate with the Romanian New Strategy Center think tank and a member of the Scientific Council of Real Elcano Institute.

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