How Russia responds to the loss of Moldova to the EU could have far-reaching implications for other states in the former Soviet Union.


Supporters of Moldavia's integration with the EU. Photo: AP

As the Vilnius Summit concluded, scholars and observers focused on the fact that Ukraine had failed to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union.  Speculation abounded as to the reasons for Ukraine’s decision, with many scholars focusing on Russian pressure on Ukraine to focus on the Russian alternative to the Eastern Partnership, the Customs Union. 

As protesters lined the streets of Kiev, observers continued to discuss Ukraine’s decision and its ramifications for the former Soviet Union. Few observers, however, paid much attention to the fact that Moldova and Georgia both signed Association Agreements with the EU.

The fact is that Russia has never had a good relationship with either Georgia or Moldova. Most famously, Russia and Georgia fought a war in 2008, and are only now beginning the process of building a relationship. However, the relationship between Russia and Moldova is often misunderstood and overlooked. It would be a mistake for scholars and observers to continue to overlook Moldova’s relations with Russia and the EU.

Russia and Moldova have always had a problematic relationship. Moldova’s geographic location made it a perfect buffer state between the East and the West.  For centuries, western Moldova was fought over by the Romanian Empire in the West, and the Russian Empire to the East. Western Moldova constantly changed hands between the two empires.  It is important to note that western Moldova was being fought over by both empires, while Eastern Moldova always remained solidly in the Russian Empire.  Thus, it is not surprising that Eastern Moldovan citizens tend to favor closer association with Russia, while Western Moldovan citizens favor closer association with the European Union.

Relations between Russia and Moldova reached new lows just before the breakup of the Soviet Union.  By 1991, there was a strong suggestion that Moldova might seek to unify with Romania. A cleavage developed along the boundary between east and west Moldova, in the area between what is now the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria. In fact, Moldova was in the throes of civil war as Transnistrians tried to win their independence from Moldova. Russia intervened in the conflict, and created a de facto independent state in Transnistria.

Moldova and Russia were never able to build a relationship following the Moldovan Civil War.  Moldova consistently looked to the West (especially to Romania) for assistance, and when the West did not assist Moldova, it reluctantly engaged the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Customs Union offered by Russia. However, Moldova desperately wanted to be able to more actively engage the West and distance itself from Russia.

The problem is that Moldova is almost totally reliant upon Russian natural gas. Until August 2013, it was solely dependent upon Russian natural gas, which Russia could use as a tool to ensure cooperation from Moldova. However, Moldova recently linked up to European Union pipelines to ensure that it would have access to European Union supplies of natural gas.

The European Commission estimates that by the end of 2014, the pipeline should provide more than one-third of Moldova’s gas consumption.  With this step of weakening its reliance on Russian gas, Moldova was able to resist pressure from Russia and join the Eastern Partnership.  By signing the agreement, Moldova has declared its intent to move out of Russia’s sphere of influence the way the Baltic states have.

While protests are continuing in Kiev, the geopolitical conflict between Russia and the EU continues.  The EU lost a battle over Ukraine, but won two battles by gaining Moldova and Georgia. Now the world will wait to see Russia’s response. The question that the EU must address is how far it is willing to antagonize Russia in this geopolitical struggle for influence in the former Soviet Union. Russia is more powerful and could be a powerful ally, but Cold War strategy by the EU will only drive Russia into confrontation with the EU, and has the possibility of destabilizing the continent.

Russia is being confronted by not only the EU in this geopolitical conflict, but also by NATO.  Georgia has not only signed an association agreement with the EU, but has made its intentions to join NATO well known. In recent meetings with NATO officials, Georgia has reiterated its goal to become a permanent member of the alliance, and NATO officials have praised Georgia for its cooperation with NATO. If NATO were to expand its membership to include Georgia, this would serve to only further isolate Russia from the West in addition to angering it.

Russia is worried that if it does not respond to the EU, that it will become irrelevant in the region that it currently dominates. This is dangerous, as Russia is still a major international power that has global as well as regional reach. Russia has proven that it is often able to resolve international disputes in ways that have stymied the West.

Beyond angering and isolating Russia, the EU must worry about overreaching and promising immediate benefit to those states whose economies are still very much reliant upon Russia for trade.  If those states become disillusioned with the EU, the EU’s credibility will suffer.

The geopolitical competition between Russia and the EU over the former Soviet states has already caused instability in the region. Protests continue in Ukraine.  Will instability follow in Moldova, where the situation between Transnistria and Moldova could again reignite a civil war? It is time that scholars and foreign policy experts pay more attention to events in Moldova and their ramifications for regional stability in the former Soviet Union.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.