A New Era in U.S.-Moldova Relations Begins
The Russian invasion has dramatically changed Europe’s security dynamics, and Moldova is now at the front lines of the refugee crisis.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis and displaced hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, most of whom are women, children, and the elderly. Consequently, neighboring countries are experiencing a massive influx of Ukrainian refugees. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent European tour was the perfect opportunity to praise the humanitarian efforts of an often-overlooked American partner on the front lines of the crisis: the Republic of Moldova.
Secretary Blinken was in Chisinau on March 6, where he met with President Maia Sandu, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita, and Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu to discuss how the war and refugee crisis were impacting Moldova. “As of this morning, we had more than 230,000 people who have crossed the border from Ukraine, and 120,000 stayed in Moldova—96,000 of them are Ukrainian citizens,” Prime Minister Gavrilita said. President Maia Sandu has also traveled to the Otaci border crossing to personally greet refugees. While many of the refugees will travel through Moldova en route to other countries in Europe, a significant number will stay in Moldova, hoping to return home to Ukraine soon.
Temporary camps have been opened near the border, and the government has transformed the Moldexpo Center in the capital into a refugee placement center. The Moldovan military has helped transport refugees and construct temporary housing facilities. Civilians are also doing their part to help their Ukrainian neighbors, with many Moldovans offering refugees their homes. Chisinau is also receiving outside assistance from agencies like the UN International Organization for Migration and the UN Development Programme. Humanitarian aid has also been sent by countries such as France.
Moldova’s actions are noteworthy and promising. The country is routinely (and rightfully) criticized for a history of bad governance, economic scandals, and the Moscow-backed separatist region of Transnistria. Yet, President Sandu’s government has demonstrated that despite its problems, Moldova will open its doors to neighbors with whom they share a common history and similar aspirations regarding European Union membership.
Since coming to power in December 2020, Sandu has put significant effort into implementing good governance measures and battling endemic corruption. In the realm of foreign policy, Sandu has sought to improve relations with Europe and the United States. Even so, because of Transnistria, Moldova’s cultural ties with Russia, and the country’s dependence on Russian gas, he has not sought confrontation with Moscow, instead opting for a “pragmatic relationship” between equals.
Moldova has generally cordial relations with the United States, but they vary depending on whether Chisinau has a pro-Western or pro-Russian political party in power. Relations during the Biden and Sandu administrations have been amicable so far. President Sandu participated in the 2021 Summit for Democracy, which demonstrates that Washington recognizes his pro-democratic agenda. There have also been several high-profile meetings since President Biden was inaugurated, including visits by Deputy Secretary of State for Central and Eastern Europe Robin Dunnigan and USAID Administrator Samantha Power.
Secretary Blinken’s visit appears to show that Washington’s interest in Moldova has been taken to the next level. During a press conference with Secretary Blinken, the Moldovan leader noted that apart from assistance with the refugees, Moldova also needs to “improve military capabilities,” maintain good relations with the United States, and develop energy resilience with Washington’s support in order to limit Moldova’s dependence on Russian gas. Blinken noted that Congress is looking to secure $2.75 billion in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine and its neighbors as well as $18 million for Moldova’s energy sector. He also stressed that Washington supports Moldova’s territorial integrity and the 5+2 format to solve the Transnistria issue.
The Moldovan president suggested that the United States send refugee experts to help Moldova address the challenges it now faces. This will be one critical issue to monitor. As Moldova’s population is around 2.6 million, accepting over 100,000 refugees will have dramatic short and long-term consequences for the country. Similarly, Washington and Brussels should discuss how to help Moldova’s fragile economy limit the impact of the war and the refugee crisis.
Due to its history of bad governance and the ongoing separatist problem, Moldova has often been overlooked by Washington as an important player in Eastern Europe. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed Europe’s security dynamics, and Moldova is now at the front lines of the refugee crisis. There are even concerns that Moldova could be the next target of Belarus and Russia, which makes Washington’s assistance to protect Moldova’s territorial integrity even more important.
Assisting the growing number of Ukrainian refugees in Moldova and supporting the country’s territorial integrity and application for European Union membership could be the new pillars of the Washington-Chisinau relationship. Secretary Blinkens’s short but important visit marks the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Moldova relations.
Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is the President of Second Floor Strategies and an analyst of global defense and geopolitical issues. He has monitored Moldovan foreign and defense policies for over a decade.