Tag Archives: NATO

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.


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.”


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.


Moldova’s Chief of General Staff Dismissed After Long Feud With Defense Minister

On March 18, the Moldovan government initiated the dismissal of the commander of the National Army, Brigadier General Igor Gorgan, after a months-long feud with Defense Minister Anatol Șalaru (Deschide.md, March 18). Once approved by the president, this would be the fourth reshuffle of the army’s leadership since the pro-European three-party coalition came to power in 2009. The Ministry of Defense has also been affected by high turnover at the top, with four ministers being nominated in the last six years. Soon after incumbent Minister Anatol Șalaru’s (Liberal Party) appointment on July 30, 2015, he found himself at loggerheads with the chief of the General Staff, Igor Gorgan, a Liberal Democratic Party appointee. In fact, Șalaru tried to dismiss Gorgan earlier, but the latter was shielded by his fellow party member, then–prime minister, Valeriu Strelet (Deschide.md, February 19). A Prosecutor General’s report citing a 40 percent increase in crime within the Armed Forces served as a formal reason for the dismissal (Realitatea.md, February 18). However, the animosity between the two has been as political as it has been personal.


From a political standpoint, Gorgan no longer enjoys the backing from either the government or the parliament, as the Liberal Democratic Party is now in the opposition. The local political culture in Moldova continues to politicize all major state institutions, including the military; thus, it was only a matter of time before Gorgan would have had to go. After all, it was Gorgan who pushed his predecessor out in a similar power struggle back in 2013. On a personal level, the fact that General Gorgan publicly challenged Defense Minister Șalaru’s authority, criticizing his lack of military credentials, did not help his case either. The two have exchanged accusations of nepotism, corruption and incompetence (Unimedia.info, March 2; Jurnal.md, March 3). The scandal further undermines both the army’s prestige and morale at a time of continuous regional geopolitical volatility.

Former United States ambassador to Ukraine John E. Herbst has warned that the ceasefire in Syria would turn Vladimir Putin’s attention back to Ukraine (Kyiv Post, February 29). As Russia scales down its presence in Syria, Romanian analyst Dan Dungaciu echoes Herbst’s concern that the Kremlin may now refocus on Kyiv and Chisinau, using hybrid warfare to influence election outcomes and impose its federalization agenda (Adevarul.ro, March 20). Minister Șalaru appears to shares these concerns. In fact, he publicly raised the issue of Russian hybrid warfare, called for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria with a United Nations mission, and questioned Moldova’s posture of neutrality, advocating for closer ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Publika.md, February 29). These remarks prompted a critical response from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RIA Novosti, March 2). Conversely, aiming at counterbalancing Russian media influence in Moldova, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the inaugural session of the Romania-Moldova Mass-Media Consultative Council, on February 29 (Mae.ro, February 29). Attending the event, Moldova’s ambassador to Romania, Mihai Gribincea, earlier an envoy to NATO, equated the risk posed by “Russian propaganda to that of Russian troops in Transnistria” (Timpul.md, March 1).

Șalaru was an active member of Moldova’s national liberation movement of the late 1980s. And soon after his appointment to head the country’s defense ministry in mid-2015, Șalaru announced plans for a museum dedicated to the Soviet occupation and started collecting exhibits by taking down an old T-34 tank from a Soviet-era monument in Chisinau (Publika.md, September 16, 2015), much to Moscow’s indignation (TASS, September 23, 2015). Șalaru even criticized the current draft of Moldova’s National Security Strategy for not being explicit enough about the threat posed by Russia (Europalibera.org, March 4). Unsurprisingly, Șalaru’s anti-Russian rhetoric prompted a no-confidence motion initiated by the Communists on February 22, but which failed on March 11 as only the Socialists joined in to dismiss the minister (Jurnal.md, Ria.ru, March 11). Yet, the timing of the motion could also be seen as a response to Șalaru’s attempt to dismiss the Army commander and boost his own influence. Socialist parliamentarian and analyst Bogdan Tirdea suggested that the motion was, in fact, an attempt by the Democratic Party, the senior coalition partner, to “scare Șalaru rather than actually censure him” (Vedomosti.md, March 15). Even if, the Democrats did not orchestrate the motion, one can see how problematic Șalaru’s rhetoric can be at a time when the Democratic Party is trying to mend relations with Moscow. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin is scheduled to visit Chisinau on March 28–30, indicating some improvement in bilateral ties, despite Russian trade restrictions and Moldova having expelled 76 Russian citizens in 2015, including journalists and soldiers (Deschide.md, March 21). Still, the Moldovan government hopes for better trade relations and progress on the Transnistrian front.

Nonetheless, Minster Șalaru’s recent inauguration of a permanent exhibition on “Soviet Occupation” at the National Military Museum (Army.md, March 26) cements his “bad cop” image, while Democrats act as the “good cop” in relations with Moscow. The opposite dynamic is employed with regard to the West, particularly NATO. On March 24, Șalaru welcomed the first visit to Moldova by General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of the United States European Command (USEUCOM). Apart from the defense minister, Gen. Breedlove only met with President Nicolae Timofti, reaffirming US and NATO support to Moldova, including plans for a NATO Liaison Office in the country (Deschide.md, RIA Novosti, March 24). He also toured the Bulboaca National Training Center, where the US is supporting renovations to create a modern training facility (Army.md, March 24). Moldovan soldiers have recently taken part in a number of military exercises and trainings along with their US and NATO partners, both in Moldova and abroad: “Mission Readiness Exercise,” “Agile Hunter 2016” and “Joint Combined Exchange Training 2016” (Army.md, February 26, March 7, 11, 22). These opportunities are important in maintaining the army’s preparedness and increasing interoperability with NATO forces, particularly in light of Moldova’s growing budgetary constraints. However, at the same time, the scandal surrounding the dismissal of the head of the General Staff and the increased politicization of the military needlessly tarnishes the image of the army, which is one of the few institutions Moldovans still trust.

Note 1: The original article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.