Moldova-Russia Relations in 2024: No Chance for Improvement

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Sergiu CEBAN
As early as last December, Maia Sandu ruled out the possibility of friendly relations between the two countries. Moscow, apparently, also does not see any prospects for mutual “warming” without a change in the current Moldovan leadership
While predicting the future, many experts are trying to avoid the topic of Russian-Moldovan relations, which reached their lowest point last year. There are no signs they will improve in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the formal reduction of communication channels does not mean that the Kremlin has excluded our country from the sphere of foreign policy interests. On the contrary, the current situation can only encourage the Russian Federation to act more actively in order to bring Moldova back under its influence. Last year, the flywheel of mutual claims reached its maximum, and the actual breakdown of relations was only a matter of time. First, our authorities confirmed that they were joining most of the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. Then Maia Sandu stated that she did not see any possibility for a continued partnership with Moscow, as well as for developing cooperation within the CIS. The logical outcome was a drastic reduction in the Russian embassy staff in Chisinau. By the end of 2023, the parliament approved the National Security Strategy proposed by the president, which denotes Russia as the main threat. The introductory part of the document states that Russia’s aggressive policy has regional overtones and its hostile actions make strengthening the country’s defense a strategic necessity. Later, Sandu said that Moscow will continue its actions to destabilize Moldova in spring 2024 in the midst of the election campaign. In this regard, she recommended that the government use the experience of local elections to come up with concrete policies to curb the risks. Just the other day, Defense Minister Anatolie Nosatii reaffirmed the provisions of the national security strategy and the perceived status of Russia as a threat in Moldova. According to him, as a result of the hybrid war waged against Moldova, the illegal deployment of Russian troops on the left bank of the Dniester and the presence of ammunition depots, the Russian Federation is the cause of the tense situation in the republic which the entire population feels. The Russian capital, except for periodic comments of the Foreign Ministry, seems to pretend that they do not notice negative reactions from Chisinau. Thus, the last thing Putin spoke about at his December information marathon was the future of Moldova’s membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States. According to the Kremlin leader, our staying within the CIS “is of little value to Russia”, but at the same time Moscow is not giving up on anyone and is willing to work together. In fact, the Russian president’s speech on the results of the outgoing year 2023 offered no hints pointing to possible changes in Russia’s expansionist policy. Putin is quite satisfied with the way the economy and the state have adapted to Western sanctions and warfare for the second year in a row. The ideological narratives with which he is going to be re-elected for another term in March this year indicate that all personnel changes following the election are likely to be aimed not at adjusting the domestic/foreign policy line but, on the contrary, at consolidating the ultra-patriotic bias of the Russian state. Putin’s greater optimism is also linked to the failure of Ukraine’s military offensive campaign last summer and autumn, as a result of which Moscow has toughened its approach and negotiating position in dialogue both with Kyiv and the West. The bet is on the impossibility for the U.S. to continue its exhausting struggle with Russia in the face of multiplying military and political crises around the world. This, according to the Kremlin strategists, will sooner or later force Washington to rethink its approach towards Russia, including the easing of sanctions policies. The fact that the Kremlin is no longer considering the option of freezing the current line of contact and is openly hinting at new territorial claims to Ukraine, in particular Odessa, which Putin called a “Russian city” should cause the greatest alarm in Chisinau. Holding negotiations from such positions and terms is still totally unacceptable for the United States and Kyiv, which is why experts predict another outburst of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the coming months. Yesterday, the media quoted former CIA chief David Petraeus as saying that if Russia achieves victory in Ukraine it will not stop there and the next target will be Moldova. Even according to U.S. analysts, the emerging regional context in 2024 does not seem to bode well for calm times. It is clear to many that the Kremlin’s continued focus on Ukraine’s southern regions poses a direct threat to Moldova’s national security. Given that 2024 is a pre-election year, we can assume that Moscow will try to use the entire arsenal of available opportunities to defame the main electoral favorite - the incumbent president Maia Sandu - as much as possible, as well as to discredit the pro-European course of the country, which she symbolizes. Russia is likely to target Moldova’s old pain points. First of all, it is the energy sector, where, despite a certain weakening of its influence, indirect dependence still remains. Mainly on the electricity purchased at the MGRES, which is produced from Russian gas, as Moscow keeps reminding our politicians from time to time. Gagauzia and Transnistria, despite the fragile status quo with the central authorities, can activate at any moment and create internal political tension if the Kremlin demands it. By the way, the events of recent days already indicate that either Chisinau and Tiraspol have again worsened their relations, or Moscow and the Transnistrian administration are making their first attempts this year to probe the Moldovan leadership’s response to crisis scenarios and readiness to make broad compromises with the left bank. Certainly, presidential election this autumn will be the Kremlin’s crucial moment. All available resources and levers of influence will be used to prevent Maia Sandu from being re-elected for a second term. In addition to the main goal, there are a lot of related tasks: for example, to provoke such a political tension inside the country which will allow at a certain moment to launch a destabilizing scenario and even disrupt the recognition of the results of the vote. In general, we can predict a further deterioration of relations between Moldova and Russia with high confidence. In fact, as early as last December, Maia Sandu essentially ruled out the prospect of friendly relations between the two countries; normalization is possible, in her opinion, only when Moscow “changes its attitude towards Moldova and its citizens”. The Kremlin, however, sees this normalization in its own way, at least without the current leadership of the republic.