AAs the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine approaches, US President Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev on Monday – during which he pledged additional military support and a new wave of sanctions against Russia – powerful testimony to American solidarity. Mr. Biden’s surprise trip, his first since the start of the war, was as important for its timing and symbolism as for its substance. Indirectly, it will also have reassured a few hundred kilometers further south, in the Moldovan capital, Chișinău.
Amid worrying signals that a hybrid campaign against Ukraine’s strategically crucial neighbor is intensifying and suggestions that Kremlin-backed coup plans are in place, Moldova also needs help. aid from the West. Earlier this month, his pro-European government resigned, after being relentlessly destabilized by crises largely made in Moscow. A new Prime Minister was quickly appointed. But at the Munich security conference, where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Moldovan President Maia Sandu, Mr Blinken became the most senior Western official to worry about a possible conspiracy. aimed at installing a favorable regime in Moscow.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the former Soviet republic of 2.5 million inhabitants has been plunged into economic crisis, as Russia has limited its energy supplies. Inflation soared to 30% and fuel bills reached almost the equivalent of a minimum monthly pension. Sunday saw the latest in a succession of street protests allegedly funded and organized by a fugitive pro-Russian oligarch, now living in Israel. In addition to protesters being bussed in from outside the capital, the protests have also been attended by paramilitary groups and former soldiers.
Cyberattacks and disinformation via pro-Russian media added to the sense of ongoing crisis, and Moldova faced an influx of 700,000 Ukrainian refugees – proportionally more than any other country. Indicating the current level of anxiety, Moldovan airspace was briefly closed last week after a security warning from Kyiv. About 1,500 Russian troops are already stationed in Moldova near the Ukrainian border, in the unrecognized and Moscow-backed breakaway state of Transnistria.
An outright invasion is unlikely. But the familiar features of Mr. Putin’s destabilization playbook in Eastern Europe are menacingly present: a frozen conflict that could be reopened; pro-Moscow oligarchs with money and motive to stir up trouble, and a large ethnic Russian minority. Reflecting Belarus’ role in the north, a docile government in Chișinău could allow Mr Putin to exert pressure on Ukraine from the south. Bringing Moldova back into Moscow’s orbit would also put an end to the development of military cooperation with neighboring Romania, a member of NATO and the EU.
New Prime Minister Dorin Recean has pledged to continue Moldova’s pro-EU trajectory, following its acceptance as an EU candidate last year. As the Kremlin continues to weaponize the economic crisis it helped generate, the West should consider further increasing levels of humanitarian aid to one of Europe’s poorest countries. It should also offer technical resources and expertise in countering disinformation and cyberattacks. Inevitably, such aid will be presented by Moscow as confirmation of the West’s proxy war against Russia. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, recently described Moldova as the West’s new “anti-Russian project”. But the importance of social unrest on the southern flank of Ukraine should not be ignored.