“Speeding up Time” and Moldova’s Prospects

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Anton ŠVEC
The growing operational crisis in Ukraine threatens to spoil the game for the ruling regime in Moldova, which wants the war to continue in the same framework to solve its own political tasks
Ukraine’s political leadership and NATO structures were warned about the plans for a Russian offensive in May-June 2024 well in advance - they had been talking about it as a done deal since the end of winter. At the same time, the Kharkiv direction seemed to be the most predictable object for the intensification of military operations, especially in view of Vladimir Putin’s statements about the need to move the front away from the Russian border area, first of all, Belgorod. This city has been under constant shelling for a long time, resulting in civilian casualties almost daily. Although Kyiv had every opportunity to prepare its defense in this area in the absence of element of surprise, a shortage of ammunition, mobilization delays, and obvious corruption and errors in military planning led to rapid tactical successes by Russian forces that threatened to turn into a serious crisis for the AFU. In just a few days of the offensive, conducted amid a personnel reshuffle in the Russian defense ministry, the “northern” grouping of Russian troops has taken control of 13 settlements and is advancing along a broad front of up to 60 kilometers. According to Russian military experts, more than 300 square kilometers of Kharkiv oblast are occupied by the Russians or are in the “grey zone”, with severe artillery shelling, mopping up and fighting for Vovchansk and a number of other settlements. There is no direct threat to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city before the war, but residents of some villages between it and the line of contact, as well as in the Suma oblast, are being evacuated. Meanwhile, Russia is developing an offensive in Donbass, at Chasiv Yar and near Ugledar, as well as in some other tactical directions. The belated military and financial assistance from the USA and EU countries and the recently adopted mobilization law will at best have a delayed effect, and at this stage the General Headquarters in Kyiv faces a rather difficult situation. Strikes on Ukrainian energy facilities, infrastructure, logistics and military units in the rear also remain a factor of the long-term degradation of the Ukrainian armed forces’ capabilities. Changes in the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry will predictably and traditionally be accompanied by increased missile pressure, which is positively perceived by the Russian public. Another factor of Kyiv’s political instability is the official end of Volodymyr Zelensky’s mandate in the coming days. Claims to his legitimacy – the SSU recently stated to have prevented an attempt on the life of the president, as well as Kyrylo Budanov and Vasyl Malyuk – may intensify internal rivalry, weaken external support and thus provoke additional difficulties for the frontline. The “cascade tripping” effect that some Russian patriotic analysts dream of is unlikely to happen in the coming months, but Ukraine has already become a net importer of electricity and fuel, as well as a fully subsidized state with a “hole in its budget” and serious problems with creditors. And demographic problems are fraught with fatal consequences in the future and have many negative effects on the economy in the present. Against this background, the West is increasingly voicing opinions about the need for Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, but they are not supported by the official position of the USA, NATO and the EU. Thus, the NATO secretary-general said that Ukraine would not be rebuilt in case of defeat. In his turn, the head of EU diplomacy chief Josep Borrell urged Kyiv to keep fighting to improve its negotiating position. The overall situation on the Ukrainian-Russian front is in a strategic stalemate, but tactically Moscow is in the phase of a successful offensive, while Kyiv’s military, political and economic stability is seriously questioned. In military-strategic terms, Moldova is moving at an accelerated pace under the control of the United States and NATO, becoming their tool, but receiving no real potential for improving its own defense capabilities. On 13-14 May, the Swift Response exercise took place with the landing of American paratroopers in Moldova. The European Union, according to the Western press, plans to bring military cooperation with Chisinau to an “unprecedented level” in the coming weeks by signing new agreements. At the same time, Chisinau and Bucharest are establishing the legal framework in case there is a need to deploy Romanian units on Moldovan territory. Meanwhile, there is no reason to say that Moldova, which has limited potential of its own, is “under the umbrella” of NATO or the EU and will definitely be protected by these blocs. Rather, it is about the fact that our country may become one of the targets in case the confrontation expands beyond Ukraine. In this sense, the Ukrainian resistance remains the only real factor that allows the current radically anti-Russian regime to remain safe and away from the theatre of war. Maia Sandu and her team are interested in preserving this situation at least for this year (ideally until the parliamentary elections in 2025). The Moldovan opposition has not yet nominated a candidate with a low anti-rating, who, unlike Igor Dodon who is under control and is sure to lose, would be able to compete strongly with the current president in the second round. Consequently, Maia Sandu’s entourage has no reasons for cancelling the vote, especially if it is accompanied by a referendum on European integration, unlike the president’s office in Kyiv. Under current circumstances, they will not rush to exacerbate the situation in Gagauzia and Transnistria, trying first to secure a new mandate for Sandu, and as a bonus – the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Only after this, or even after the parliamentary elections, preparations for a final solution of the “Gagauz and Transnistrian problem” and an irreversible Western Atlantic transit of the republic can be started. On the other hand, the failure of Ukraine at the front with the degradation of state structures and/or the advance of Russian troops to the borders of Moldova, as well as the beginning of the peace talks from the position of the success of the Russian army (automatically followed by the restoration of the 5+2 format with the participation of Russia and Ukraine) can seriously “confuse the maps” of the Moldovan leadership and force it to urgently reconsider its domestic and foreign policy tactics. Therefore, soon we will again witness purely ego-driven words of support and mobilizing appeals of our “leaders” to Ukraine due to the situation on the front. Maia Sandu’s regime has no alternative plan but to believe in Kyiv’s stability and European integration at Brussels’ expense.