Pro-Western Maia Sandu’s victory in the second round of the Moldovan presidential elections last week inspires optimism among her domestic supporters and their foreign patrons while raising worries in Russia that bilateral ties might soon become much more difficult to manage. Her Russian-friendly predecessor worked very hard to cultivate excellent ties with his country’s historical partner despite intense resistance from hostile elements of his permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”), but that renaissance in relations might now be over. It’s very difficult to imagine Sandu standing against those same “deep state” forces that she’s presumably a part of. In fact, she might even seek to impose their dual vision of (re)unifying with Romania and militarily resolving the frozen Transnistrian Conflict, which could spark a new East-West crisis in the worst-case scenario. The “best-case” one might then realistically be that a “managed decoupling” occurs between the two with time, but that would of course be less preferred than simply retaining their strategic ties.
For those who aren’t too familiar with the geopolitical dynamics, it’s important to point out that Moldova is a territory historically claimed by Romania but which had been under Russian Imperial and Soviet control for around one and a half centuries from 1812-1991 except for the interwar period when it was controlled by Bucharest. The tiny sliver of land east of the Dniester River (“Transnistria” literally meaning “beyond the Dniester”) remained under Russian control between the two World Wars but sought to secede from Moldova during the late Soviet period in response to Romanian nationalists coming to power in Chisinau, which frightened the region’s many Slavic people who feared for their rights and identity. The brief war that soon followed has yet to officially conclude but saw the introduction of Russian peacekeepers and subsequent bestowing of citizenship upon some of that area’s people. It presently hosts a Russian base but is completely surrounded by Moldova and Ukraine, which greatly complicates any potential military scenario.
To explain, Moldovans are divided over whether or not to (re)unify with Romania, but since Transnistria is universally recognized as their united country’s sovereign territory, its political future is uncertain in the event that that happens. One possibility for politically resolving this frozen conflict is to asymmetrically federalize the country, but opponents of this outcome argue that it would forever weaken the state. Supporters, meanwhile, insist that this is the only way to avoid more bloodshed and ensure that the locals’ human and cultural rights are protected. The presence of the Russian military base has hitherto served as a deterrent to any reckless NATO-provoked military adventure by Chisinau, but Sandu might gamble just like Saakashvili did before her that the time might soon be coming to strike. Unlike Georgia’s previously unrecognized breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Transnistria isn’t adjacent to Russia and therefore couldn’t be as easily supported as they were if she were to launch a similar midnight attack against its peacekeepers there.
The Russian military is more than capable of holding its own in the opening stages of any possible conflict, but it would certainly need support sooner than later, especially in the event that Ukraine were to join in any potential NATO-provoked Moldovan military operation there. That’s why observers have been warning about the worst-case scenario of a larger war in Transnistria for a while already ever since the 2013-2014 Ukrainian Crisis because the geo-military variables aren’t in Russia’s long-term favor. Moscow would have to pass through Ukrainian airspace to save its soldiers in that scenario, which would probably be closed to them for obvious reasons. Realistically speaking, the odds are against Russia unless it ups the ante by escalating the situation according to what the US — especially under a possible Biden presidency — might likely expect it to do. This means that Sandu’s election might be very dangerous in hindsight if she submits to the neoconservatives’ plans.
The reader must keep in mind that the author is only forecasting a series of scenarios and isn’t making any clear-cut predictions. It might end up being the case that Russian-Moldovan relations remain stable and that there isn’t any effort to (re)unify with Moldova and/or militarily resolve the Transnistrian Conflict. That’s certainly possible, however increasingly unlikely it might become, especially under a Biden presidency which restores the neoconservatives’ influence in Washington. For that reason, the “best-case” scenario should also be discussed whereby a “managed decoupling” is initiated between Russia and Moldova, no matter how economically disastrous this would be for the Moldovan people who depend on the Russian consumer and labor markets. At the very least, it would be preferable to the larger war that might be unleashed in the worst-case scenario even though Moscow would of course wish to retain strategic relations with Chisinau.
So as not to be misunderstood, the author isn’t promoting so-called “defeatism”, but just feels obligated to realistically assess all possible options in the event that indicators suggest that the worst-case scenario is becoming a reality. Russia undoubtedly has contingency plans in place for how to respond to that series of events, but it might nevertheless catch some observers unaware who hadn’t foreseen any of this happening. That’s why the purpose of this analysis is to inform, not advise, for the sake of educating everyone about what might come next. Sandu’s victory could very well be a dark omen for East-West relations, but it might also not be a big deal at all if she realizes that her country’s interests objectively rest in retaining pragmatic relations with Russia and politically resolving the Transnistrian Conflict. Only time will tell which path she chooses to take and a lot will definitely depend on the outcome of the as-yet-undecided US presidential election.