Tag Archives: regional defense cooperation

Moldova Hopes to Boost Military Ties With Romania Amid Tensions With Russia

On February 4, Romanian Defense Minister Mihai Fifor arrived on an official two-day visit to Moldova. In a joint press conference, Moldovan Defense Minister Eugen Sturza thanked his counterpart and the Romanian government for its support in modernizing and developing the defense legal-strategic framework, educating 800 National Army service members in military institutions in Romania, as well as training Moldovan service members through participation in bilateral and multinational exercises alongside their Romanian colleagues.

Yet, the bigger news of the press conference was that the two ministers agreed to resume talks about a joint military battalion for deployment in emergency situations, similar to the Romanian-Hungarian-Ukrainian-Slovak Multinational Engineer Battalion Tisa. Strangely, this item was not included in the follow-up press release of the Moldovan defense ministry (Army.md;  Deschide.md February 5). One reason was possibly that the idea of a joint Romanian-Moldovan battalion was first introduced in May 2015 by then Defense Minister Viorel Cibotaru (Army.md, July 21, 2015). It was subsequently promoted by his successor Anatol Salaru (Euroactiv.ro, August 20, 2015). Initially envisaged as a multinational peacekeeping battalion, it has failed to materialize to this day for several reasons.

Viorel Cobotaru’s tenure as minister lasted only six months. Meanwhile, Anatol Salaru held the position for a year and a half during highly turbulent political times that also spilled over into the national army with Salaru vying for influence with the Chief of the General Staff (see EDM, March 28, 2016). During 2015-2016, the country was rocked by mass protests triggered by a billion-dollar corruption scandal (the equivalent of 12 percent of GDP was embezzled from three banks). This scale of corruption brought down the pro-European governing coalition, only to be replaced by one of the constituent parties of that very coalition in a de facto one party government controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. He took over the leadership of the Democratic Party on December 24, 2016 (Realitatea.md, December 24, 2016), a day after a pro-Russian president Igor Dodon was sworn into office. Three days later, upon losing the support of his Liberal Party, the ostensibly pro-NATO Defense Minister Anatol Salaru was dismissed by the newly elected pro-Russian president (see EDM, October 24, 2017).

The subsequent institutional deadlock between the government and the president left the defense portfolio vacant for ten months, until another pro-NATO defense minister was appointed following a controversial Constitutional Court ruling (see EDM, November 16, 2017). Needless to say, the general political instability, coupled with institutional deadlock and anti-Romanian rhetoric coming from the pro-Russian President Dodon, limited the space for Moldova’s defense cooperation with Romania, despite hopes that a bilateral agreement on military cooperation signed in 2012 would foster such ties (Army.md, April 20, 2012).

Nonetheless, as Moldova’s diplomatic relations with Russia are becoming ever more strained (Mfa.gov.md, January 31; see EDM, February 7; Hotnews.ro, February 8), Moldova’s de facto decision maker, Vladimir Plahotniuc, is seeking Western backing. Given his questionable legitimacy and anti-democratic record (see EDM July 25, 2017, Part 1 and Part 2), the response from the West has been less than enthusiastic. Still, thanks to his personal and political relations with Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party, Plahotniuc can count on Bucharest. Romanian authorities and intelligence services, in turn, may believe that they can control Plahotniuc via several criminal files opened against the Moldovan oligarch-turned-politician (Adevarul.ro, February 13, 2014; Adevarul.ro, November 13, 2017).

Meanwhile, Plahotniuc has pleaded not guilty and accuses the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) of plotting against him by using the Romanian court system (Realitatea.md, November 20, 2017). This hardly contributes fertile ground for deeper military cooperation between Romania and neutral Moldova, especially during an emotionally charged centennial anniversary of Moldova’s unification with Romania in 1918.

This is why the largely technical issue of a joint Romanian-Moldovan emergency response battalion has stirred harsh reactions from the pro-Russian opposition, with President Dodon vowing to block the initiative (Adevarul.roUnimedia.info; February 7), as he has successfully blocked several Moldovan contingents from taking part in military exercises abroad earlier this year. The government then decided to ignore the president’s ban, while drafting a legislative workaround the president’s powers (Ziare.ro, September 6, 2017; Agora.md, September 13, 2017). Thus, a contingent of 60 service members and 12 vehicles from Moldova was dispatched to join the Platinum Eagle multinational exercises on February 12-16 in Romania’s Babadag military range without, this time, causing a domestic political standoff (Army.md, February 8; RFERL.org, February 10).

At end of the day, the government’s effort to boost military ties with Romania remains a largely symbolic gesture, aimed at creating the perception that Romania is backing Vlad Plahotniuc, and by extension, the West does too. Meanwhile, as the ruling Democratic Party, driven by electoral calculations, continues its controlled escalation of tensions with Russia, it keeps on subsidizing the separatist regime in Transnistria via energy imports from the region and remains coy about the possibility of Moldova exiting the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Newly appointed Minister of European Integration Iurie Leanca said it could happen once Moldova submits an EU membership application, which is not in the cards for the time being (EuropaLibera.org, January 25; February 9). Thus, despite all the tough talk coming from Chisinau, the Moldovan government shows no political commitment to boost its own defense capabilities and, unlike Georgia and Ukraine, remains part of the CIS—a relic of Russian dominance in the post-soviet space.

Moldova_PLATINUM EAGLE_n

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.