Category Archives: Moldovan Army

New Pro-Western Moldovan Defense Minister Faces Uphill Battle

On October 24, Eugen Sturza was sworn in as Moldova’s minister of defense by Parliament Speaker Andrian Candu. This put an end to an eleven-month-long battle over the appointment between pro-Russian President Igor Dodon and the nominally pro-Western government, controlled by oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. After Dodon repeatedly refused to appoint Sturza, citing the nominee’s lack of experience in the defense sector and his questionable integrity, the Constitutional Court had to step in. The Court sided with the government, temporarily relieving the president of his constitutional prerogative of appointing ministers. The ruling is yet another controversial decision by the high Court that undermines the few remaining checks and balances in the Moldovan political system (see EDM, October 24). With his legitimacy being questioned, the new Defense Minister Sturza is likely to face significant challenges in spearheading his new vision for the Moldovan defense sector.

Eugen Sturza, Candu, Filip

Moldova faces a number of major security threats. The frozen conflict with the separatist region of Transnistria and the presence of Russian troops and munitions in the breakaway area pose a continuous threat to Moldova’s sovereignty and national security. Moreover, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea also carry major risks for Moldova. At the same time, Moldova remains highly vulnerable to “hybrid” (“new type”) threats in terms of energy, informational and cybersecurity. In recent years, there has been increased awareness domestically about the need to boost the country’s defense capabilities; but to date, little has been done. With about 6,500 active-duty military personnel, the Moldovan army remains smaller and considerably undertrained and underequipped compared to the 7,500-strong Moscow-backed Transnistrian force, not including the roughly 1,600 regular Russian troops stationed in the region (Deutsche Welle, April 20, 2015; (Russiancouncil.ru, accessed November 16, 2017; see EDM, July 31).

Despite being consistently rated the second-most-trusted institution in the country, following only the Church (Iri.org, November 8), the Moldovan Armed Forces remain underfunded and the country’s defense budget has been by far the lowest in the region, stagnant at 0.3 percent of GDP. Only since 2015 has there been an actual increase in defense spending (Agora, May 16, 2015; Moldnova.eu, July 15, 2016). Nonetheless, despite incremental growth in absolute terms, relative to GDP the 2017 defense budget was actually slightly lower compared to the year before—0.4 percent versus 0.42 percent of GDP, respectively (Mf.gov.md, 2017, accessed November 16). These figures underscore the lack of a genuine commitment by the government to significantly boost the country’s defense capabilities. Instead, Chisinau continues to rely heavily on foreign assistance, which, though indispensable, is not a sustainable way to assure national security (Moldova.org, August 12). The United States government has been a major contributor to the modernization of the Moldovan military infrastructure, causing the ire of pro-Russian President Dodon, who is highly critical of the west in general and the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in particular (Noi.md, August 14). Illustratively, the opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau has already been delayed by nearly a year due to the Moldovan president’s opposition and the government’s lack of political will (Ziarulnational, September 14). The absence of agreement between the president and the new defense minister regarding the national security agenda is likely to cause further tension going ahead.

The differences in viewpoints between the commander-in-chief and the defense minister could hardly be starker. Eugen Struza, who is also the vice president of the government’s junior coalition partner—the European People’s Party of Moldova (PPEM), led by former prime minister Iurie Leanca—promotes a manifestly pro-Western agenda. Sturza is making a political point by having announced that his first visit abroad will be to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, while the second one will be to Bucharest (Europalibera.org, November 7). Shortly after his appointment, Sturza had a phone conversation with his Romanian counterpart and met with the Romanian ambassador to Chisinau days later to discuss bilateral defense cooperation (Army.md, November 29). On Tuesday, Minister Sturza met with US Ambassador James Pettit and laid down his plan for reforming Moldova’s defense sector by focusing on updating a set of strategic documents (Army.md, November 14). Moldova’s draft National Security Strategy, developed under the previous head of state, Nicolae Timofti, was nixed by President Dodon. Nonetheless, on November 1, the government approved the National Defense Strategy with no input from the president (Gov.md, November 1), and the Military Strategy is pending approval. Thus, president Dodon is being excluded from the defense sector policymaking process (Timpul, November 7).

Yet, it is important to note that the legitimacy of the new defense minister (see EDM, October 24) as well as of the entire government (see EDM, January 21, 2016) has been called into question due to recent political scandals and maneuvering by the country’s major political players and institutions. As a result, implementing a robust reform agenda will be an uphill battle for Sturza, especially if contested by the popularly elected commander-in-chief—President Dodon. With Moldova’s austere budget, a significant modernization of the armed forces is not in the cards for the time being. Furthermore, as the army is not a significant political constituency in Moldova, the defense sector will likely remain little more than a political prop for the political parties waging an already traditional geopolitical tug of war during the 2018 parliamentary campaign. If nothing else, the repeated postponement of the opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau is a vivid indication of the strictly rhetorical nature of many of the government’s pro-Western commitments. Eugen Sturza’s lack of defense sector experience notwithstanding, the young civilian reform-minded new minister is expected to try to maintain the issue of the national army on the government’s agenda. However, given that he and his party are only a junior coalition partner to the ruling Democratic Party, most of the important decisions will almost certainly not be his to take.

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Note: This article was written for the Washington based Jamestown Foundation and the original can be accessed here.

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How Vulnerable is Moldova to a Russian Invasion Through Its Only Port?

Moldova is a landlocked country, but unbeknownst to many, it has an international port on the Danube that is accessible to seagoing vessels. The Port of Giurgiulești (some 130 kilometers from the Black Sea) presents large economic opportunities as well as significant security vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities increase as the security situation in the region worsens. On July 17, after almost two decades of negotiations, Ukraine finally agreed to allow Moldovan customs and border police onto its checkpoints along the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border (Europalibera.org, July 17). In response, Tiraspol threatened to escalate the conflict with Chisinau (Novostipmr.com, July 17). Subsequently, Moldova’s government banned Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin from landing in Moldova on a military plane en route to Transnistria. Rogozin was further annoyed by the Moldovan parliament’s almost traditional call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist region, prompting him to issue a veiled threat by comparing the current situation in Moldova to that of Georgia prior to the 2008 war (Timpul.md, July 21). All the while, Russian soldiers in Transnistria were practicing crossing the Nistru River, which divides the separatist region from Moldova proper (Mil.ru, July 20). Ironically, during the same time, Moldovan soldiers appear to have been barred yet again by their own government from taking part in a major international exercise, “Sea Breeze 2017,” which could have included a scenario of defending the Giurgiulești port from an enemy takeover.

Giurgiulesti_Port

The Giurgiulești port became possible following a 1999 land exchange agreement with Ukraine, which offered Moldova 430 meters of Danube shore. Following the opening of an oil terminal in 2006, the Moldovan government had high hopes for the port to help reduce the country’s energy dependence on Russia (BBC News, February 21, 2006). Yet, even after the opening of terminals for passengers, grain, vegetable oil and cargo, the port’s economic output failed to meet expectations. Instead, it became a source of scandals beginning with the lease agreement of the port’s general investor and operator ICS Danube Logistics LLC, the controversial practice of foreign vessels registration, including of Iranian vessels under international sanction, and strained relations with Ukraine as Moldovan-flagged vessels continued to anchor in annexed Crimea (Anticoruptie.md, April 1, 2016). Nonetheless, both the government and the private port operator continue to have grand plans for the port and the surrounding free economic zone. However, poor infrastructure connecting the port to the rest of the country, as well as the narrow shore strip and shallow waters in that portion of the Danube, make a future port extension project a tall order (Canal3.md, November 29, 2015).

Despite its strategic economic value, the port presents growing security vulnerabilities for Moldova. Following the annexation of Crimea, the security situation in the Black Sea region changed dramatically. Since Ukraine has moved S-300 missile systems to the Odessa region to better protect its airspace (Kyivpost.com, March 31, 2016), this also puts Russian aircraft, flying in and out of Transnistria, in danger of getting shot down. Furthermore, after Ukraine closed Russian resupply lines for its military contingent in Transnistria in 2015 and Moldova began arresting and deporting Russian military personnel en route to the separatist enclave (Publika.md, May 22, 2015; Prime.md, October 12, 2016),  the Giurgiulești port remained a potential entry point for Russian soldiers trying to evade the higher scrutiny at Chisinau Airport. Yet, the port also represents a soft target for a full-scale Russian intervention. Authorities seem to be aware of the risk, as evidenced by the “Strong Border 2017” joint exercise carried out by Moldova’s Information and Security Service (SIS) and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in the port of Giurgiulești (SIS.md, May 29). Nonetheless, Moldovan leadership is sending mixed messages when they repeatedly fail to meet their commitments by reneging on major joint exercises with NATO partners, including the most recent “Sea Breeze 2017.”

ANTITERRORISM EXERCISE CARRIED OUT AT THE PREMISES OF GIURGIULESTI INTERNATIONAL FREE PORT

Undeniably, the Russian Black Sea Fleet poses a major threat to Ukraine (see EDM, July 13) as well as to Moldova. Therefore, it is all the more striking, given Moldova’s modest defense capabilities, that it would back away from such a valuable opportunity to enhance the interoperability of its forces with NATO partners and strengthen maritime security in the region through multinational exercises such as “Sea Breeze.” The decision appears to be yet another concession by Moldova’s nominally pro-western government to the country’s pro-Russian president, who, despite serving a largely ceremonial role, has been allowed to use red tape to repeatedly ban the army from participating in military exercises abroad (Deschide.md, April 26). With an outdated national defense strategy and failure to appoint a defense minister for seven months so far, it is another example of the perplexing reality of Moldovan politics, devoid of strategic vision and oblivious to the security risks facing the country.

Admittedly, in the still unlikely scenario that the Transnistrian army (5,000–7,000 soldiers) and more than a thousand Russian troops in the separatist region would move against either Moldova or Ukraine, the support of potential “little green men” could be critical. Given the high risk of an air offensive, the port of Giurgiulești remains the only option, especially since this strategic asset is largely defenseless, apart from a couple of unarmed small patrol vessels. Only one motorized infantry brigade of about 600 active duty soldiers stationed in Cahul would stand in the way of a potential invasion. To make things worse, the supposed “little green men” would likely face little resistance from the mostly pro-Russian population of the Gagauz autonomous region. Finally, today’s international context is even less conducive of any western support than it was in the 2008 war in Georgia. Given Moldova’s lack of any bilateral or multilateral defense agreements, the careless attitude of Moldova’s government toward its NATO partners and its cavalier attitude toward Russia are bewildering.

 

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.