Extending the “Crimean Formula” – a Challenge for Moldova?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Russia plans to annex four more Ukrainian regions, following the “Crimean formula”. But will it stop there?
The Kremlin has raised the stakes in its confrontation with Ukraine in particular and the West in general. So-called referenda on previously occupied Ukrainian territories are being prepared apace. Some saw this as Moscow’s reaction to the Kharkiv failure, while others believe that the Russian leadership, which for a long time did not dare to take additional military measures, is taking the conflict to a new phase of escalation. Today’s events speak in favor of the second version. In the morning, Vladimir Putin made a video address, in which he probably disclosed only some details of the decisions he had made. Thus, by means of partial mobilization it is planned to strengthen the military grouping involved in the hostilities on the territory of Ukraine. In addition, the federal authorities’ basic willingness to respond positively to the planned plebiscites was confirmed. A few days earlier, representatives of the Russian occupation authorities, as well as many high-ranking Russian politicians almost synchronously announced the urgent need to hold “referenda” on becoming part of the Russian Federation as early as this autumn. Considering the speed of decision-making and its practical implementation, we should expect the annexation of the mentioned Ukrainian regions in the coming months or even weeks. It is possible that the legal formalization will take place on November 4 (National Unity Day in Russia), which was hinted at by some Russian speakers back in the summer. A statement by Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev preceded all this and essentially announced the step agreed to by the Russian establishment to incorporate the new territories into Russia. To all appearances, as Medvedev said, the annexation of the currently controlled regions would completely “untie the hands” of Moscow and give it the opportunity to use the entire arsenal available to ensure the security of what was once “Russian” territory. Thus, the Kremlin is repeating the “Crimean formula” of accelerated territorial takeover, thereby adjusting social attitudes and increasing patriotic mobilization in Russian public opinion. However, it would be wrong to believe that these events concern only Russian-Ukrainian relations. On the contrary, such a precedent is extremely dangerous for virtually all post-Soviet states, including Moldova. Just look at Leonid Slutsky’s recent controversial statements about the Transdniestrian region. The current relations between Chisinau and Moscow can hardly even be called satisfactory, not to say worse. Yesterday, upon receiving credentials from the Moldovan ambassador, Russia’s leader indicated several key points that make up the current agenda between the two countries. These are the Transnistrian settlement, in which the Kremlin intends to retain its decisive “guarantor” status, and energy, where Russia, according to Putin, will adhere to existing agreements. In fact, withdrawal from the agreement is also a legally permissible action provided for in the treaty. In addition, the Kremlin is actively cozying up the Moldovan opposition, provoking domestic political instability, not even shying away from the fact that a politician with a highly dubious reputation is behind the current protests in Chisinau. Despite the cooling of bilateral relations, delegations of deputies from the Shor party and the parliamentary opposition are welcome in the Russian capital, discussing with them such important issues as obtaining natural gas at affordable prices and lifting the embargo on agricultural products. Thus, Moscow sends a message to our country’s population that it has not yet classified Moldova as an unfriendly country and is ready to meet them halfway, but only if there is reciprocity, which the current government does not show. The conclusion to which people are being pushed is simple: such a government must be changed. The government, in turn, systematically shuts down all political irritants and seeks to eliminate the Kremlin’s supporting forces by neutralizing both specific individuals and the resource base of these opposition forces. The episode involving an attempt to resume direct air communication between the two countries, which was immediately blocked by the authorities, was a good example. Chisinau was forced to openly admit the obvious fact that Moldova was in maximal solidarity with the sanctions policy of the European Union against the Russian Federation, and that it has no intention of reconsidering its position. The trigger for a complete collapse of relations between the two states could be the energy sector. Moscow has never responded to requests for an extension of the deadline for auditing the historical debt, which, according to government officials, increases the likelihood of suspension of gas deliveries to our country. At the same time, there is no other legal way to deliver gas to Transdniestria except through the existing contractual mechanisms. Therefore, the authorities are confidently saying that if Russia stops supplying gas, it will deprive the left bank of the Dniester of energy resources – and this will eventually lead to paralysis of the region’s economy and socio-political collapse. By and large, the ruling party does not have much room for maneuvering, and whether it is taking the Kremlin “for granted”, or counting on its humanity, because by this logic Russia is unlikely to allow the bankruptcy of the loyal “PMR”. However, current events show the opposite: Moscow is acting more and more unpredictably, nonlinearly, not counting the losses. The decision to further escalate the conflict with Ukraine testifies to the fact that the conditional “war party” is gaining the upper hand in the intra-Kremlin confrontation. For this reason, it cannot be ruled out that Russia may go all-in and break the gas contract for the purpose of total destabilization and disorganization in Moldova. Moreover, under present conditions it is absolutely impossible to exclude the extension of the “Crimean formula”, when Moscow will resort to the legal registration of the “referendum on joining the Russian Federation” previously arranged on the left bank of the Dniester. After that, it would receive legal grounds, in its opinion, for protection of the Transdniestrian region both from the socio-economic and military points of view. The clouds continue to gather over Russian-Moldovan relations. Uncertainty and unpredictability is increasing, all the more so in the practical absence of full-fledged mutual contacts. Amid growing risks, when international law has given way to military law, sympathetic statements of Western leaders about the illegitimacy of plebiscites on the territories occupied by Russia hardly inspire optimism and hope in our politicians. Interestingly, Maia Sandu, on her return from New York, has scheduled a Supreme Security Council “due to the latest security developments in the region”. Perhaps, its results will make it a little clearer how our government will react to the regional and geopolitical reality that has changed once again this year.