Tag Archives: regional defense cooperation

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 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.


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/