The West can’t afford to neglect Moldova — because Putin won’t

As the United States and Europe continue to scramble to help Ukraine defend its territory, preserve its democracy and save its economy, they should keep in mind that Ukraine is not the only country in the region suffering due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. Next door, the small country of Moldova is appealing to the West for urgent help and long-term partnership. If we turn away from Moldova, again, we will push it into Putin’s arms.

“The Russian military aggression in Ukraine is making every single person in Europe feel less secure and is having a negative impact on every single person in Europe”, Moldova’s foreign minister, Nicu Popescu, told me in an interview this week in Washington. “And of course, this impact is more negative on Moldova, because Moldova is right there”.

Popescu’s official title is Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, which should tell us something. The new government in Moldova, one of the region’s poorest countries, is trying to break a long-running pattern of political dysfunction, systemic corruption and malign influence coming from Moscow. The December 2020 landslide election of Moldova’s first outright pro-Western president, the Harvard-educated former World Bank economist Maia Sandu, presents the best chance yet to move Moldova firmly into the Western camp.

“It’s been disappointed several times by politicians, but the path to Europe has been several times unmistakably chosen by our society”, Popescu said.

The Moldovan government has always tried to balance its relationships, for understandable reasons. Russia has 1,500 troops occupying the Moldovan breakaway territory of Transnistria and controls Moldova’s energy supply. There is still a large pro-Russian constituency in Moldovan politics, business and society.

But the invasion of Ukraine has changed everything in geopolitics, especially for Ukraine’s neighbors who now see that “neutrality” does not protect a small country from being viciously attacked on Putin’s whim. The Moldovan government has condemned the Russian invasion, even though Putin’s retaliation could prove disastrous.

“Moldova is a neutral state, but neutrality only refers to us not participating in military action", Popescu told me. “We’re not neutral when it comes to condemning the aggression. We’re not neutral when it comes to defending the principles of international law, which must be respected”.

The United States and European countries have been paying more attention to Moldova recently. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the capital, Chisinau, last month. The United States has given Moldova $130 million since the Ukraine war started to help with the hundreds of thousands of new refugees spilling over the border.

But that’s just a Band-Aid for Moldova’s problems.

“We need to ensure socioeconomic stability. We are severely impacted by the war. We are Ukraine’s most fragile neighbor”, Popescu said. “We’ve been coping reasonably well with the humanitarian crisis, the refugee situation and the energy crisis. We’ve been pursuing reforms. But, it’s a difficult region”.

The question is whether the West’s recent increased attention to Moldova will persist beyond the current crisis. Popescu’s visit was framed as a new “strategic dialogue” with the United States, but a similar effort during the Obama administration withered away.

The European Union earlier this month finally gave Moldova the paperwork it needed to begin its application for membership, after years of stalling. But will the E.U. give Moldova a real and speedy path to membership? Or will the West’s promises of partnership give way to benign neglect, as has been the pattern, leaving a vacuum Russia is happy to fill?

“European integration has been an aspiration that was formalized in the late 1990s in Moldova. But from the late ’90s until just last week, it was a unilateral aspiration”, Popescu said.

There are several specific things the United States could do to cement its commitment to Moldova’s long-term stability and success. The Justice Department could do more to go after Moldova’s sanctioned oligarchs and their wealth, especially the ones living in the United States. U.S. organizations should double down on helping Moldova continue its reforms and root out corruption. And the United States can help Moldova diversify its energy supply, diluting Putin’s leverage.

And while Moldova isn’t seeking military assistance, it has a huge and growing need for help fortifying and managing its borders, including the 863 miles it shares with Ukraine. That’s perhaps the most urgent effort, because if Ukraine falls, Moldova could easily be Russia’s next target. Would Putin actually invade Moldova and try to topple the pro-Western government, as he is attempting to do next door?

“We don’t know”, Popescu told me. “Our task is to be ready for everything”.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada.