Tag Archives: Moldova’s national security

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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Moldova’s Security Options following Russian Aggression in Ukraine

Russian takeover of Crimea and consequent aggression in eastern Ukraine have changed regional security perceptions in Europe and worldwide.[1] Eastern European members of NATO receive constant assurances from their Western allies about the security of NATO’s eastern borders.[2] Meanwhile, neutral states, like Moldova that lack similar guarantees, face severe defense vulnerabilities, and, therefore, have to rethink their national security strategies. Republic of Moldova has employed a policy of neutrality since the early 90’s, but it has been ignored by the Russian Federation ever since.  Moscow still keeps a military presence in Moldova despite the sovereign will of Chisinau. In the new geopolitical context, Moldova is forced to review its national security options. Thus, we propose a comparative analysis of three alternatives to the current status quos: a) joining NATO; b) joining CSTO; c) setting up a new regional defense framework. We suggest the following set of criteria: a) degree of security; b) cost; c) technical and administrative feasibility; and d) social and political feasibility.   Analysis shows that the third option is the most feasible and has the best chance of ensuring a higher degree of security for Moldova.  Therefore, we recommend that Moldovan Parliament and Government further examine and implement the third option.

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Moldova’s Defense Vulnerability: Background

Moldova’s neutrality status was imposed by the circumstances at the time of the USSR collapse. Russia, being the legal follower of the Soviet Union, could not come to terms with the new realities and tried to maintain the former soviet republics in its sphere of influence. As soon as Moldova became independent, a separatist movement erupted in Transnistria, where Russian troops are still stationed, despite Kremlin’s international commitments for withdrawal.  Thus, Moldova’s neutrality not only failed to compel Russia to evacuate its military assets, but also increased Moldova’s vulnerability, making the country an easy target to internal and external threats. That is why the current neutrality status is ineffective in providing security.

Given Moldova’s limited economic potential, the country struggles to maintain its defense capabilities. It only allocates 0.3% of its GDP for military purposes, which amounts to about 25 million dollars per year.[3] Furthermore, Moldova presents limited interest to the West. Its strategic and economic importance is negligible.  To make things worse, Moldova is highly dependent on Russian energy supplies, export and labor markets. Russian media control a significant share of Moldova’s informational space. Finally, Kremlin has been instrumental in using Russian speaking minorities in Moldova to advocate interest that often go against the will of the majority of the local population.  Yet, in spite of all these difficulties, Moldova strives to join the European Union and has already been granted a visa free regime with the EU. However, one should not forget that EU continues to be a military dwarf, despite being an economic giant.  Thus, even if Moldova were to join the EU in the foreseeable future, its security dilemma would still have to be addressed. Most local and European experts say that, in fact, Moldova will first have to solve its security problems before it can possibly join the European family of nations.

Policy Alternatives for Boosting Moldovan Security

Maintaining neutrality in its current form is nothing but perpetuating a vulnerable status quo that has proven to be ineffective in safeguarding national security. Thus, either neutrality is strengthened through international guarantees or it becomes obsolete. Seeing that there are hardly any powers willing to grant Moldova such guarantees, Moldova needs to consider renouncing its ineffective neutrality status and enter a military block or at least set up a new regional security framework.  We shall scrutinize these proposals using the following evaluating criteria:

a) Degree of security – how effective the option is in providing security.

b) Cost – how expensive each of these options is compared to each other.

c) Technical and administrative feasibility – how much of a technological and administrative effort is required;

d) Social and political feasibility – extent to which voters and officials would support the option.

NATO – High Degree of Security, yet not Easily Attainable

Joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is, no doubt, a very effective alternative as it would guarantee the higher level of security. It provides the highest degree of security, but this option is extremely difficult, as long as most voters in Moldova still perceive NATO through the lenses of Soviet and Russian propaganda and only about 30% support joining NATO.  In addition, NATO has a strict set of accession criteria, and requires unanimous consent of all member states, which makes this option technically and administratively difficult.  In order for NATO accession to become a feasible option, Moldova needs to minimize its dependence on Russia, boost its economic potential in order to afford to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense.  It is, therefore, clear that joining NATO is not a feasible option for the short and medium term, due in part to the large social and, thus, political opposition to this path.

CSTO – Easily Attainable, but Questionable Security  

Joining the Russian version of NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is a relatively simple undertaking as there are no strict accession criteria or large costs, but the security it provides is questionable to say the least. The notion of a Russian security umbrella is, obviously, highly contested; given that Russian is the sole cause of many security challenges. The majority of the population would, therefore, reject this option right away, but the Russian speaking minority may certainly welcome it. Hence, this option remains theoretically on the table as long as there are political forces that might consider this alternative if they were to accede to power.  Also, should the pro western parties renounce neutrality and embark on a NATO membership track, pro Russian parties will, most certainly, push for the CSTO alternative.  In order to lay out all the major options and avoid accusations of bias, we need to address this option as well.

New Regional Security Mechanism – Reasonable Compromise

In light of major shortcomings of the first two options, a less ambitious alternative becomes all the more feasible.  A new regional defense cooperation framework, similar to NORDEFCO (Nordic Defense Cooperation) seems a reasonable compromise.  Neutral states, such as Sweden and Finland, while strengthening their cooperation with NATO,[4] are also enhancing regional defense cooperation. NORDEFCO was founded in 2009 by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden in order to strengthen defense capabilities and explore joint synergies of member states.[5] This mechanism is a vivid example of how relatively small military powers, also challenged by Russia, can pool their resources together in the face of common threats. Similarly, countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, as well as Poland, Romania and others that feel threatened by Russia could set up a regional mechanism of defense cooperation to address common challenges to national and regional security. Financial, administrative and technical costs are considerably less that in the case of joining NATO, as there would be no strict accession criteria, while, social and political resistance would be minor because the commitment would only go as far as the voters and politicians themselves decide. Hence, building a new security platform appears to be the only reasonable compromise that would provide a higher level of security with acceptable internal and external costs.

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Potential members of a new regional defense cooperation structure.

Conclusion and Recommendations

After comparing the three options, it becomes evident that building a regional security mechanism is the only realistic way to provide a higher level of security for Moldova. The third option is not only cost effective, but is also administratively, technically, politically and socially feasible.  It is, thus, imperative to start a broad dialogue with countries in the region, both at inter-governmental and civil society levels. The new security mechanism can boost defense capabilities of participating countries at a smaller commonly agreed cost (less than 2% of GDP), yet with a considerable and lasting impact. Therefore, we recommend that:

  • Moldovan Parliament and Government work with partners in the region (Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Romania, Poland, etc.) towards setting up a new regional defense cooperation structure.
  • The country’s leadership should encourage the expert community and civil society to engage partners in the region to further develop the proposal and build public support across the area.
  • Parliament and Government should seek international technical assistance and best practices based on NORDEFCO experience.

Note: This is a concise version of a larger policy brief I wrote for the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova. You can find the entire brief here, though only in Romanian for now.

[1] Russia Today. “Ukraine moves to drop non-aligned status, apply for NATO membership.” http://rt.com/news/183664-ukraine-want-nato-membership/

[2] Greiling, Angela. “Obama Says NATO Assures Independence of Baltic Nations.” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-09-03/obama-says-nato-assures-independence-of-baltic-nations.html

[3] MilitaryBudget.org. http://militarybudget.org/moldova/

[4] The Guardian. “Finland and Sweden to strengthen ties with NATO.”  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/27/finland-sweden-strengthen-ties-nato

[5] Nordic Defense Cooperation. ”The basics about NORDEFCO.” http://www.nordefco.org/