As the Russo-Ukrainian War has escalated following the bombing of a vital bridge in Crimea and Russia’s retaliatory strikes against cities throughout Ukraine, the conflict appears to be dragging in the country’s neighbors. On October 10, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko announced the formation of a “joint military group” with Russia following his claims that Ukraine was preparing to attack Belarus. On the same day, Moldovan deputy prime Minister Nicu Popescu said that Russian missiles had crossed Moldova’s airspace on their way to Ukraine. Moldovan president Maia Sandu subsequently called for expanded police powers to address pro-Russian street protests in the country.
These developments suggest that the escalation of Russia’s war in Ukraine could take on two important dimensions. One relates to the scale of the conflict, with the Kremlin pursuing military mobilization and Russian president Vladimir Putin threatening to use more destructive weaponry, including nuclear weapons. Another dimension is the scope of the war, which could pull other states directly into the conflict. Ukraine’s neighbors Belarus and Moldova are two of the likeliest candidates to be dragged into the war.
To be sure, Belarus’ connection to the conflict in Ukraine is not new. Belarus served as a major launching pad for Russian forces attacking Kyiv at the beginning of the invasion and it has hosted Russian troops and assets on its territory ever since. Nevertheless, Lukashenko has not sent Belarusian forces directly into Ukraine, in large part because such a move would be deeply unpopular in Belarus and the long-serving leader has already faced major protests against his rule.
However, Lukashenko’s calculus on directly involving Belarus’ in Ukraine may be shifting. Ukraine’s success in regaining territory as part of its recent counteroffensives and the Crimea bridge attack has raised concerns in Minsk about Kyiv’s potential for military activity against the country, with Lukashenko stating that “strikes on the territory of Belarus are not just being discussed in Ukraine today, but are also being planned.” Lukashenko used this as justification for deploying more Belarusian troops to the Ukrainian border and forming the joint military group with Russia, though officials have called these measures “defensive” in nature.
While Lukashenko certainly has reason to remain cautious about sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine, the evolution of the conflict may force him to reconsider this stance. Russia’s mobilization suggests that the Kremlin is looking to coral more forces to contain Ukraine’s counteroffensives and Putin may increase pressure on Lukashenko to use Belarusian forces to reopen the northern vector of the conflict. If sites within Belarus near the Ukrainian border are attacked, this could serve as a precursor to direct Belarusian involvement. At the very least, Belarus has already increased the delivery of weapons and other military equipment to Russia while Lukashenko has ratcheted up inflammatory rhetoric against Ukraine.
Moldova also has an existing connection to the conflict in Ukraine. Like Belarus, Moldova has a contingent of Russian troops on its territory, though in this case they are located in the breakaway region of Transnistria and have been stationed there for decades. While the Transnistrian conflict has been frozen since the early 1990s and Russian troops there have not been actively involved in Ukraine up to this point, they nevertheless present a security concern for the Moldovan government. Russia has made no secret of its desire to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. This could only be done by linking Russian forces in Kherson to those in Transnistria via the port of Odessa.
Thus, Moldova’s geographic proximity to the Black Sea, combined with the preexisting Russian military presence in Transnistria and the pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian stance of the Maia Sandu government, make it a prime candidate for being pulled directly into the Russo-Ukrainian War in the event of escalation. The violation of Moldovan airspace by Russian missiles was likely not a coincidence and can be interpreted as a message from Moscow to Chisinau that it is not insulated from the conflict. In the meantime, protests against Sandu and their connection to pro-Russian oligarchs demonstrate a threat to the government’s domestic position.
These developments do not necessarily suggest that a Russian military invasion of Moldova is imminent—Russia certainly has its hands full in Ukraine and opening a new front in Moldova would only place greater pressure on overstretched Russian forces. But Moldova is vulnerable to a number of hybrid warfare tactics by Moscow, including fomenting protests and targeting energy infrastructure, with recent missile strikes in Ukraine forcing the country to reduce electricity supplies to Moldova by 30 percent. And with a prepositioned Russian military presence in Transnistria, increased involvement in Ukraine or pressure on the Sandu government cannot be ruled out.
A geographic expansion of the war in Ukraine is not inevitable but as Putin looks at his menu of options to respond to Ukraine’s recent territorial gains, escalating the scale of the conflict has clear downsides. Using tactical or chemical weapons could galvanize more Western support for Ukraine while risking the support, or at least the neutrality, of non-Western countries such as China and India.
On the other hand, Putin could view pulling other states like Belarus and Moldova directly into the war as having certain advantages for pursuing escalation with a less clear risk of blowback from the West. For example, the expansion of the conflict into Belarus and Moldova could spark greater refugee flows into Europe, which could undermine the cohesion of European Union (EU) states backing Ukraine. Such an expansion could also further disrupt economic and energy infrastructure on the continent, making the war more costly and painful for the West to sustain.
While expanding the war to other countries presents challenges and constraints for Moscow, Russia has proven that it still prefers to use asymmetric warfare when dealing with the West. This is especially the case when Moscow suffers setbacks such as the ones it is currently experiencing on the battlefield in Ukraine. In this sense, Russia’s actions in Belarus and Moldova, as well as the respective governmental and societal response in these states, will serve as an important weathervane of the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s broader standoff with the West as it moves into a more dynamic and unpredictable phase.
Eugene Chausovsky is a Senior Analyst with the New Lines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as Senior Eurasia Analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.