The Next Six Months Will Be Critical for Moldova

The Next Six Months Will Be Critical for Moldova

After Ukraine, Moldova is the next line of defense against Russian aggression. Here are six critical steps to strengthen this Eastern European nation.

 

Moldova is a small, landlocked country in Eastern Europe that languished in obscurity until Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Moldova’s neighbor, Ukraine, two years ago. But while kinetic conflict has not yet reached Moldova’s border, Russia’s hybrid war is underway within their borders. This will only increase in the lead-up to Moldova’s Presidential election and EU referendum vote in the fall of this year. As Moldovan foreign minister Mihail Popsoi said last week in Washington, DC  “It’s not an issue of whether Russia wants to invade, it’s only an issue of if they can.” Decisive action in the next six months will be crucial to protect Moldova’s independence.

Last year, Moldovan President Maia Sandu credibly accused the Russians of a coup attempt. Russia has shown they have no qualms about interfering in Moldova’s upcoming elections (due for November 2024) and constantly transmits disinformation in Moldova. In other words, Russia is flooding the zone.

 

The good news is that Moldova currently has a government committed to reforms, including and especially around anti-corruption. The United States and its partners and allies have been rising to the moment. Since 2022, U.S. economic assistance investments have increased tenfold, building on support over the past decade. Among other success stories, U.S. aid has helped turn the Moldovan wine industry into an export powerhouse. 

Moldova, though a tiny country wedged between Romania and Ukraine, possesses a critical geopolitical significance. Allowing the forces of illiberalism to spread to Moldova degrades European security and undermines U.S. interests. This piece outlines six key areas with short-term tactical and longer-term strategic opportunities for action in the next six months. It is in the United States and its partners’ and allies’ interests to seize this moment.

Accelerate Reliable Energy Options

Russian gas flowed into Moldova via Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union. But in 2022, Moldova broke these ties and no longer purchases gas from Russia. But Transnistria (the Russian-backed breakaway state on the eastern border with Ukraine and producer of the majority of Moldova’s electricity) is still dependent on Russian gas that flows via Ukraine and will feel the chilling effects of this tap being turned off in December. The EU should ensure that at least two of the three electric power lines currently under construction between Romania and Moldova are operational by the end of the year or as soon as possible. This will enable Moldova to receive electricity from sources other than Transnistria or Ukraine. The EU can and should look for and provide additional gas to Romania through 2027 when Romanian domestic production will increase. We outlined additional solutions in “Winter is Coming for Moldova,” but these two are needed as soon as possible.

Lock in Economic Progress

Moldovan exports to Russia have declined over the last fifteen years, with those to the EU steadily increasing. Today, the bloc is Moldova’s largest trading partner. Additionally, over the last year, Moldovan trade with the United States has nearly doubled, according to Deputy Prime Minister Dumitru Alaiba. Safeguarding these positive, stabilizing economic trends ensures that Moldova will have the stability to continue building in other areas. To support this, the EU, United States, and multilateral organizations should expand the political risk tools of the DFC, the EBRD, and the IFC over the next six to twenty-four months. Additionally, USTDA should run at least one reverse trade mission before the election.

Shine a Light on Russian Aggression

Washington must call attention publicly to Russian attempts to sow disruption in Chisinau. During the Summer of 2024, the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Europe should hold a Hearing on Moldova to discuss not only Russia’s hybrid warfare but also how the United States can build on the significant progress being made in the country. The Congressional Moldovan Caucus Members should travel to Moldova. If it is not possible for Congresspeople to travel before the U.S. elections, the House Moldova Caucus should send a high-level staff delegation made up of their chiefs of staff or legislative directors.  

Secure Election Transparency

Last year’s local elections in Moldova were plagued by Russian interference and the disruption of a last-minute judicial decision to ban a political party led by a convicted criminal. It is essential to not only ensure free and fair elections in Moldova but also the electorate’s faith in their institutions. These could be bolstered by high-level election observer missions from the United States and Europe for the upcoming Moldovan Presidential Election and EU Referendum this Fall. Multilateral organizations such as OSCE and the Council of Europe, through both the Venice Commission and the Group of States against Corruption, should support the arrival of teams in Moldova in early summer to provide technical assistance to support election observation and transparency. 

Disrupt Disinformation

Moldova has continued to rise in its press freedom rankings while combatting an onslaught of Russian information warfare. This is progress that can and must be built upon. To do this, additional support for a free press is critical in Moldova ahead of the elections to not only disrupt Russian efforts but also to increase citizens’ faith in their country’s future. This work must build on the excellent foundation already set by the Council of Europe and USAID. Furthermore, investment must increase in alternative, high-quality Russian language programming. There is a gap in Moldova but more broadly across post-Soviet states for Russian language programming that is not sponsored and controlled by the Russian government. The United States and our partners and allies would be wise to build this out further in a robust multinational effort to create programming available across the globe. 

Update Cybersecurity and Resilience

Moldova has been rapidly digitizing, but this has left it vulnerable to cyberattacks. Russia has been behind the significant cyber incursions targeting the Moldovan government and infrastructure, which often occur around important events such as before the European Community summit and election day. The work that USAID and our European partners are already doing in supporting cyber-development, especially with the National Institute for Cyber-Security in Moldova, is essential. Still, more is needed to support deeper resiliency, especially around protecting elections. Estonia and the EU broadly have been supporting Moldova’s cyber-defense capacity building but should expand the Tallin Mechanism to include Moldova as well. The United States should provide technical assistance to support Moldova in developing multi-stakeholder public-private collaboratives to support cyber defense. These models are effective as they offer a sizable group for sharing information on threats, malicious activity, best practices, and mitigation techniques, which can reduce costs while increasing protection.

Six Months, Six Jobs

With continued and increased effort now, Moldova has the chance to join the path blazed by Estonia, which is a free, prosperous member of the EU with a GDP per capita of $27,000. If it fails, it will become a mini-Belarus, gripped by corruption, controlled by Russia, and coasting on a stagnant GDP per capita. But the time is now for the United States and its partners and allies to double down on their investments in Moldova—the six lines of effort outlined above can be executed in the next six months. Making these investments over the next six months will pay more dividends than investments made in the last twenty years. This is Moldova’s moment—and one that those in support of a free and open Europe should seize. 

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president, William A. Schreyer Chair, and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership Through Soft Power (Bombardier Books, 2023). Follow him on X: @danrunde

Leah Kieff is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

Image: Shutterstock.com.