The Russian Vacuum in Moldova

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Russia is as cautious as possible in the Moldovan direction. Strategic inertia provokes a rapid decline in Moscow’s impact on the processes in Moldova and only instigates the anti-Russian course of the country’s leadership
Since February of this year, Russia has chosen a radical way to restore its lost strategic positions in Ukraine by force. Despite the immediate response of the Western community and the increasing sanctions pressure, the “special military operation” continues, gradually expanding the Russia-controlled area in the south and east of Ukraine. After several weeks of relatively low-intensity clashes, mainly in the city of Mariupol, the beginning of the second stage of the Russian offensive was announced. The coming days or weeks may witness decisive battles of powerful groups of the parties to gain control over the Donbass, which will determine the further course of the military campaign. Curiously, the Kremlin’s new militaristic line towards Ukraine is in no way projected onto many other tracks, including the Moldovan one. As to the latter, here the Russian politics is in a state of anabiosis, which not only forms a carte blanche for the anti-Russian antics of the current authorities, but also puts the long-term interests of the Russian Federation in the region in a vulnerable position. For obvious reasons, Moscow’s toolkit curbed significantly even before the conflict in Ukraine after the pro-Kremlin politicians’ failures in the presidential and parliamentary elections in the last two years. The socialists and communists sliding into a compliant opposition alongside the ever-increasing sole command of the Sandu-Grosu party deprived responsible Moscow officials of focal points with the least authorities. Certainly, attempts to “build bridges” with elites, and personally Maia Sandu, including through ex-Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Vlad Kulminski, were made even after the socialists’ electoral fiasco. This brings to mind a rather unexpected visit to Chisinau by deputy head of the Russian Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak who still serves as Special Representative for trade and economic cooperation with Moldova. However, any such contacts are completely eliminated today. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, no serious Russian delegation has visited Moldova. The last time a major official from the Russian Federation visited Moldova was mid-February, it was Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, who is now a member of Medinsky-led Russian delegation at negotiations with Ukraine. As the leadership of our country has repeatedly stated, there is no high-level communication after February 24. Ostracized by the West, the Russian Federation is hardly an acceptable interlocutor for the pro-European leaders of Moldova who sympathize with Ukraine. It can be assumed that our leadership, among other things, was additionally instructed by foreign partners about communicating with Moscow. Thus, the tendencies observed since last year towards minimization and gradual erosion of Moldovan-Russian relations have intensified manifold, as a result many important areas are affected. For example, the 5+2 format of the Transdniestrian settlement is paralyzed and does not work. Now, our side estimates its prospects extremely negatively, given the difficulty of joint mediation between Kyiv and Moscow. At least, such signals came from President Maia Sandu and Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Oleg Serebrian. The latter also mentioned the need to involve representatives of Romania in the negotiation format and to enhance the status of observers from the European Union and the United States. The Kremlin, probably, won’t like this. It’s clear that our authorities no longer consider the current format as the one which meets the present-day realities, and we can expect that negotiations on the left-bank territories, if restarted, will first address the transformation of existing formats. In general, all the negotiating tools used to resolve protracted conflicts in the former Soviet Union and in Europe, with the joint participation of Washington and Moscow, are going to pieces. The situation in the peacekeeping process on the Dniester is so far stable: the joint control commission holds sessions, the crisis related to the departure of Ukrainian military observers seems to have been handled. However, there are no guarantees that the calm in the security zone will be preserved, since tensions between Transdniestria, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine are growing every day and cannot but affect the nature of relations within the JCC. Chisinau is systematically swelling instability in relations with Moscow through gas talks and the still unresolved issue of electricity supplies from the left bank of the Dniester. We are raising the stakes hinting at our readiness to hold a tender and purchase electricity after May 1 in Ukraine. Natalia Gavrilita pretends that she does not know how the situation will develop further. Although it is obvious that Gazprom will understand the government’s proposal to postpone the debt audit, given all the circumstances and lacking alternatives. In any case, Russia is interested in maintaining an uninterrupted supply of gas to Transdniestria, and probably keeps in mind that Moldova still does not have other reliable sources of supply, especially at below-market prices. Despite the fact that Moscow seeking to pressurize Chisinau instructed the Cuciurgan GRES management to refuse signing a long-term contract for electricity supplies, this issue should also be solved in a relatively amicable way. But Chisinau continues to inflate the stakes, increasing pressure on Transdniestrian trade and economic exchanges and launching a fake search for alternative sources to meet the needs formulated in the tender. In addition to the energy sector, numerous symbolic and not just symbolic steps have been recently taken: the ban on St. George’s ribbon, Soviet films about the war, Russian TV channels and printed publications, as well as symbols of the special operation in Ukraine, along with systematic unauthorized actions at the Russian Embassy in Chisinau. There is an opinion that this is only the beginning of the anti-Russian campaign unleashed by the pro-Western leadership of our country. These actions are being complemented by the escalation of tension over the left bank and indicate the failure of any possible agreements between Moscow and the West on Moldova. Obviously, this state of play results from positions of Romania and the United States, as well as the personal prejudices of Maia Sandu and her inner circle. Nevertheless, Russia doesn’t seem to respond to all these events. Even the Russian Foreign Ministry’s comment regarding the ban on symbols was modest and peaceful. Apparently, the Moldovan track is still handled by the same group of people, or sort of a “party”, that is in charge of negotiations with Ukraine and has an obvious intention to reduce the current confrontation with the United States and the EU which has reached the highest possible level. Perhaps this is the reason why the Russian “military special operation” in Ukraine didn’t add to Russia’s tougher line in relations with Moldova, even after a series of frankly unfriendly steps on our part. In this context, in fact, it would be nice for our authorities to seize the opportunities and maintain bilateral relations with Moscow in order to improve Moldova’s situation, for example, in the field of energy or the country’s reintegration. But will Maia Sandu’s curators, especially in Bucharest, let her take such a step? I don’t think so.