The Romanian expert in international relations and security issues, Iulian Fota, gave us an interview in which we discussed a wide range of issues related to the security of the Republic of Moldova and its position in the troubled geopolitical context of the region. The Russian troops in the breakaway region of Transnistria, the game that Moscow is playing in the Republic of Moldova, as well as the position of President Maia Sandu regarding the relationship with Russia were the topics addressed in our discussions.
Does the Republic of Moldova matter in any way in this equation of regional tensions created by Russia's military manoeuvres around Ukraine's borders?
It matters for Romania. Beyond Romania, the Republic of Moldova does not have a very high geopolitical importance. Moldova is very important for Romania, because it is one of our neighbours and because in a natural way, we all want settled, prosperous, stable and democratic neighbours.
The second element that is binding us is the sentimental one. We in Romania and in the Republic of Moldova are to a large extent the same people with a common history. We have this element of blood that cannot be ignored.
The Republic of Moldova is a small country and not being, geopolitically speaking, located on any major route of pipelines or trade routes, and so on, has a much lower importance than Ukraine, which at this time is clearly one of the big stakes of Europe and the West. It is the same in comparison with Georgia, a country located at the foot of the Caucasus and on the route of certain pipelines and transport corridors to the Caspian Sea. So also Georgia has a higher geopolitical value.
So, from the former USSR or CIS states, I think that the Republic of Moldova is one of the countries with the lowest geopolitical weight. I would not want it to sound disrespectful towards Moldova as a country, but Moldova in itself is not a stake, unlike Ukraine, which is a stake.
I think that the Republic of Moldova also understands this. Chisinau has sought all kinds of associations, such as GUAM, in order to increase its visibility.
In a statement for the Balkan Insight recently, the Moldovan Defense Minister, Victor Gaiciuc, said Moldova has nothing to worry about the tensions in the region and that the intensified military exercises in the Transnistrian separatist region pose no threat to Chisinau. Does the Republic of Moldova have any reason to worry about it or not?
I don't see any threat either. The only ones who could look for a military tool to be used in the Republic of Moldova could be the Russians. Evidence of that is the fact that they have all those contingents in Transnistria. The Russians used military force when they needed it, as happened in Georgia and Ukraine.
I do not see why they would do this in the Republic of Moldova. One thing seems strange to me, but also interesting, namely that the Republic of Moldova is the only country, at least in the European area of the USSR, which has a pro-Russian party. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine has such parties. The same goes for Belarus, where Lukashenko did not allow for any party to emerge, because he wants to monopolize the relations with Moscow.
In such circumstances, the question arises why use military force in a country that has a pro-Russian party? To alter its electoral weight and influence? That would be just one aspect.
Also, the Republic of Moldova does not seem concerned about the issue of territorial integrity. So, I don’t see the Moldovan population to be concerned about the Russian military presence in Transnistria, in general, in comparison with Georgia or Ukraine.
So, in the Republic of Moldova you can make concessions to Transnistrians, I mean the “small steps policy" here, and the population has nothing to say. In Ukraine and Georgia, no politician would dare to do such a thing.
Any politician in Georgia or Ukraine who would think of making concessions to the pro-Russian separatists would end up into a huge political scandal. While in the Republic of Moldova, car plates were given to the Transnistrians as well as other all kinds of facilities and sovereignty prerogatives that, by international law, belong to the central government in Chisinau. And the population did not protest.
In such a context, why would the Russians spoil such an atmosphere of sympathy for Moscow, a more pro-Russian one than in any other Black Sea country?
In addition, the Transnistrian leaders are only instruments of Moscow. So the question is: would it make sense for Russia to use military force in Transnistria? I don't see why!
Russian troops in Transnistria, a guarantee for Moscow
The Russian troops stationed in Moldova numbers about 1,500 - 2,000 soldiers. Their role is to watch the large ammunition depot in Cobasna of the Transnistrian region. However, studies monitoring the activities of the Russian troops in Transnistria show that they are constantly training for offensive and not necessarily defensive exercises. Could we trust Russia that these troops have only a watching role in the Transnistrian region?
Those Russian troops from the Transnistrian region are relevant only to the Republic of Moldova. Their relevance consists in being positioned, not used. Those troops have neither operational nor strategic force. They alone do not pose a threat to either Ukraine or the Republic of Moldova. They are relevant to the situation of the Republic of Moldova. They are there as a guarantee, but I don’t see why they would be used, because I don’t see a categorical anti-Russian political reaction in the Republic of Moldova to justify the use of those troops.
At the moment, I would not characterize the Republic of Moldova as an anti-Russian country because it is not. In the Republic of Moldova, even the pro-European forces, including the well-defined ones, don’t have anti-Russian feelings or develop such attitudes. Again, why use Transnistrian military troops?
According to the Constitution, the Republic of Moldova is a neutral country. In recent years, the public perception of NATO has steadily improved, though not much, but it is no longer the scarecrow promoted by the Russian propaganda. How far is Chisinau from NATO today?
It's light-years away. First of all, at present, less than 30 percent of Moldovan citizens want to join NATO. It is the lowest percentage of all states in the Black Sea region. In Ukraine and Georgia, the public support for NATO is significantly higher than in the Republic of Moldova. So Moldovans do not want NATO.
When Romania joined NATO, it had over 70 percent support. Therefore, that issue of neutrality enshrined in the Constitution is natural, not a forced one. At this moment, the Republic of Moldova wants a relationship with the EU and even accession into the European space, but not into NATO.
There is also a flip side to this, too, namely why would you use NATO as a scarecrow in a country that does not want to join NATO? I mean, to scare the citizens with what? It would be a matter of scaring them somehow that they would lose NATO, as it once was the case in Romania, but in Moldova, where people don't want NATO, I don't see how you can scare them with this thing.
Increased military pressure on Kyiv
Recently, the USA said that Russia still maintains around 80,000 soldiers (out of about 100,000) and that the withdrawal announced by Moscow around the borders of Ukraine was proposed only in a very small amount. Is there still a dangerous situation or is it moving towards a relaxation of tensions?
Russia has increased military pressure on Ukraine because it is pursuing several goals in the coming period. I think it wanted to create certain opportunities and give certain signals. Let's not forget that there is a process of negotiations between the USA and Russia. There is this discussion that a meeting with Mr Putin is possible on Mr Biden's next visit to Europe.
So, I think that Russia wanted to show that it has options both for cooperation and dialogue, and confrontation. Obviously, by putting pressure on Ukraine.
The more credible the threat, the more effectively this lever can be used. On the other hand, precisely because Russia wants to have as many options as possible, I don’t see it using military force at the moment.
And if we look at the Russians in recent years, they have been very calculated and careful in using the military force. I'm not just talking about Crimea or the Donbas. But also in Syria, or elsewhere where they intervened militarily, they took care to do it moderately and in small concentrations not to make it burdensome from the financial and human points of view. When your soldiers die, however, that turns into a political cost.
What I mean is that I don’t see what Russia would gain at the moment by using military force, when it has to win a political war with and in Ukraine.
As in the case of Transnistria and the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine wants to have a voice and a role to play in the politics of these states. Russia lost Ukraine by annexing Crimea anyway. Moscow is going to put more pressure, the weapons will still be rattling, and it will be bringing and withdrawing troops. They have blocked the Sea of Azov and will keep it blocked until October.
They will be playing more games, but I do not see the Russians engaging in a violent military confrontation with Ukraine. This is a much stronger, much stronger country. With an army willing to fight, the costs for the Russians will be high, implicitly for Mr. Putin. And that would not correspond to Russia's desire to manoeuvre in Ukraine's domestic policy.
By the way, when Russia annexed Crimea, it removed several million pro-Russian voters from the political game in Ukraine. They used to vote for pro-Russian parties and politicians. Then they put such voters out of the game in Donetsk and Lugansk as well.
In a way, that was all for the best for Ukraine, because without these pro-Russian votes, the country had fewer pro-Russian politicians and then Ukraine was much more consistent in its domestic policy. Thus, it could consolidate better and was able to rebuild its army better.
More security through the US military presence in the region
How dangerous is it for Romania to still have Russian troops? I’m speaking here about those in Transnistria, about 100 kilometres from its borders?
Those troops don't matter to Romania and pose no threat to it. They do not have the necessary power to endanger Romania on any of its segments of the border with the Republic of Moldova.
Sure, they need to be monitored, but they can't be a danger. Instead, Crimea is a problem, because there is a large concentration of troops there. It is a distance of 300 kilometres.
President Klaus Iohannis has demanded at the recent B9 summit in Bucharest, which was also attended online by the President of the United States, Joe Biden, a greater American military presence in Romania. What does an increased American presence in Romania mean for the regional security?
More security. We don’t officially know what the increased presence would mean in quantity, because this is not public information, but more troops would be equivalent to more security for Romania.
The international relations theory tells us that there should be a balance between countries. Consequently, this supplementary concentration of Russian forces in Crimea and the transformation of Crimea into an ultra-armed aircraft carrier should be obviously balanced and the balance should be equal.
This balance, on the one hand, is given by the additional training and endowment of the Romanian armed troops, and on the other hand, it is the contribution of Romania's NATO allies.
All come in the context of strengthening the NATO's capabilities on the eastern flank to protect all these states.
Coherent policy in relation to Moscow
What would it mean in terms of security for the pro-European forces to come to power in Chisinau and with a future majority coalition and a government along with President Maia Sandu and her reformist agenda? Would this create increased security opportunities for Chisinau or, on the contrary, this would antagonize Russia and stimulate its involvement in the domestic policy of the Republic of Moldova?
I think that Ms Maia Sandu has been very wise and acted very tactfully so far. It was clear that she didn’t close the door for Moscow and she did it very well. We could see that she is also willing to carry a dialogue with Moscow. These are important stakes for the Republic of Moldova in its relations with Russia. First of all, it is about agricultural exports.
Secondly, the Republic of Moldova has citizens working in Russia and cannot be indifferent to their situation. I understand it and I think it is absolutely correct that a pro-European oriented Chisinau should try to maintain dialogue with Moscow.
In fact, it is clear that Russia also wants this. President Putin congratulated Maia Sandu and was among the first to do it. I don’t see why a pro-European government would antagonize Russia, provided it keeps dialogue with Russia, just as the West does.
In the West, when the issue of sanctions against Russia was raised, there was the issue of cooperation with Moscow, not of dialogue. Throughout this complicated period, both the biggest and smallest states have continued the dialogue with Russia. Collaboration on certain projects has stopped, but the first rule of diplomacy says direct contact should be maintained because otherwise there is no diplomatic process.