Is Moldova Becoming an Object of Someone’s Games?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Just as it was early last year, tensions around Moldova are again on the rise. And, obviously, it is hardly only because of Russia
As we can see, since the very first days of the new year the situation around the globe continues to be quite stormy, and sharp escalations in various regions are becoming more and more commonplace. The Middle East remains one of the key sources of armed escalations, which one after another risk plunging it into a major military confrontation with the Western powers. The recent US and UK strikes on Yemen are the best proof of how fragile and explosive the current international environment is. In our region, the prevailing factor is the conflict in Ukraine, which is approaching its second tragic anniversary. It is worth remembering that last year in the winter and especially towards the end of February, the tension at Moldova’s borders was extremely dangerous. Kyiv assembled combat formations on the Transnistrian segment, while Moscow officially signaled its readiness to respond to attempts to close the Transnistrian issue militarily. This year, the specifics of the situation are quite different, but still extremely far from the calm pre-war situation. Several factors add uncertainty to further development of events. First of all, the U.S. statements that Washington has exhausted its resources for military support for Kyiv. Another high-profile event of recent days is the growth of anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Romanian farmers, who, after blocking a checkpoint on the Romanian-Ukrainian border, staged large-scale protests, and won’t budge in response to the authorities’ persuasion. Given that Romania has essentially become a key transit country for Ukrainian agricultural products, this development puts Kyiv in a very difficult position. In the meantime, the seemingly local bickering between Chisinau and Tiraspol has witnessed new episodes that not only deepen the new crisis between the two banks of the Dniester, but also widen the range of parties involved. Tiraspol’s routine remarks about Moldova’s militarization were followed by hostile reports clearly aimed at igniting the flames of relevant socio-political sentiments. Firstly, Transnistrian law enforcers reported an incident involving the use of firearms, as a result of which two residents of the region were removed to the territory of Ukraine. A few days later, after scheduling the meeting between Oleg Serebrian and Vitaly Ignatiev in Tiraspol, local structures issued new accusations about special combat groups of more than 60 people with experience in combat operations who came from the territory of Ukraine and train at the facilities of Moldovan special forces under the guidance of foreign specialists. According to Tiraspol, these groups are preparing terrorist acts on the left bank and sabotage of military facilities. Our Ministry of Defense, of course, rejected and called these allegations false, while at the same time confirming that since the summer the national army has been training Ukrainian servicemen to identify and destroy explosive objects. To be honest, it was weird: logically, we should have ignored such accusations altogether. As a result, we both tried to justify ourselves, and provided reasons for speculation: it turns out that we are actually training someone, even if not terrorists. All this creates a favourable ground for various conspiracy theories, like “there is no smoke without fire”. Internal political processes on the right bank will depend much on how the left-bank authorities will behave in the future. We cannot rule out some kind of military reinforcement, an increase in the number of military patrols in the security zone, construction of barriers, tightening of the crossing regime at the so-called “checkpoints”, as well as measures to identify and detect arms dump and explosives at critical infrastructure facilities. Against this background, the Kremlin may well start to step up its efforts. Last weekend, while in Romania, President Maia Sandu warned that Russia would try to rock the situation in Moldova again this spring. According to her, Moscow had already tried to destroy rule of law and power in Chisinau, using, among other things, the regime in the Transnistrian region. This is a rather strange remark, which has not been heard from the country’s leadership before. Generally speaking, last year it was obvious that Tiraspol tried to stay away from direct involvement in political processes on the right bank, and only since the new year it started to act, most likely with the aim of achieving concessions on trade issues. Further internal tension is not good for the central authorities, not so much because of the outflow of capital, investments and low-cost airlines, but because of the risk that the way Moldova is perceived in the European Union will change. According to some reports, our lobbyists in Brussels are hastening the finalization of the negotiating framework between the EU and Moldova in order to launch the dialogue before the European Parliament elections. As known, in the second half of the year, the European Union will start going through a difficult period of institutional and personnel reshuffles, at the end of which the position of the European officials may significantly change. It is possible that the start of negotiations under the new conditions may either be delayed or the approaches will be considerably toughened. It is obvious that aims to destabilize are also related to the pre-electoral context of this year. The sentiments in society are already quite heated by the general situation in the country and the duration of the coinciding electoral cycles. The undermining and loss of control over the internal situation may significantly upset plans of Maia Sandu’s electoral headquarters and radically change the electoral background before the upcoming presidential elections this autumn. Lately it has become noticeable how Moscow has been pedaling the issue of the anti-Russian policy of the Moldovan leadership. For this purpose, our ambassador was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry to be handed a protest over hostile actions against Russian-language media and entry bans on Russian citizens. Over the past week the Russian authorities has seriously intensified their rhetoric, which may be a sign of some Moldova-related preparations. In its latest analytical reports, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) notes that the Kremlin has decided to launch an information campaign to rock the position of Moldovan authorities and reposition the Russian Federation as the protector of Moldova’s threatened Russian-speaking residents. Strange as it may seem, but in contrast to the previous year, the tactical interests of Kyiv and Moscow with Tiraspol now coincide to some extent in terms of pressure on Chisinau. The Ukrainian authorities, in order to regain Washington’s military and financial attention to themselves and the region, benefit from some destabilization in Moldova, which is under the neighboring country’s protective barrier. Earlier there were assumptions that Sandu and Zelensky almost agreed on the plans to ruin the “Transnistrian project”, but recent actions by Kyiv aimed at laying transit routes and contacting the administration of the Transnistrian region speaks quite the opposite. Moreover, it is also noteworthy that Kyiv provided the Russian Federation with grounds for expressing its discontent towards Chisinau. We are talking about the fact that Moscow was angered by the public statements of the Ukrainian generals that AFU military personnel were trained on Moldovan territory. Thus, there is an impression that our country is being thoroughly involved in a dangerous game in which we appear as an object and a tool for satisfying someone’s interests.