The Republic of Moldova, one of the two newest candidate countries of the European Union, faces a raft of complex crises linked to its domestic political and economic situation as well as to the war in neighbouring Ukraine. Since the 2021 parliamentary victory of Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), her pro-European government has been struggling to stamp out domestic corruption and reverse past processes of state capture. The authorities are simultaneously scrambling to achieve energy security, curb rising inflation and cope with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. But the PAS-led government also faces a difficult balancing act in its relations with the Russian Federation, even if the latter has so far refrained from all-out destabilisation of Moldova. If it wanted to, Russia could exploit multiple vulnerabilities at the national level in Moldova as well as in two of its regions: the breakaway region of Transnistria and the autonomous region of Gagauzia. This report examines to what extent Russia’s influence over Moldovan domestic politics as well as the regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia poses risks to the internal and external stability of Moldova. It also looks into the role the EU could play in mitigating these vulnerabilities.

Moscow can and does take advantage of the long-standing but evolving divisions within national Moldovan politics over geopolitics and identity, dependency on Russian gas, the influence of Russian-produced content in the Moldovan mass media, and the situation of national minorities. In the past, the Kremlin has exercised influence primarily through candidates from the Communist or Socialist parties. But due to the declining influence of their respective leaders, including former president Igor Dodon, Russia is increasingly hedging its bets and also investing in new political actors. The Russian Federation could further leverage its grip on Moldova’s energy supply, through Moldova’s continued reliance on both Russian gas for heating and cheap electricity imports from Transnistria. As in the rest of Europe, rising gas prices are pushing up living costs, which could, in turn, trigger social unrest. Most worryingly, there is a risk of collusion between the interests of Russia to keep Moldova out of the EU’s geopolitical orbit and those of various political and oligarchic factions within Moldova whose positions are threatened by the anti-corruption reforms of PAS.

As a result of, and taken together with, divisions over responses to the war in Ukraine, Moldovan politics are being ‘re-geopoliticised’. The Moldovan electorate has traditionally been divided along ‘pro-Russian’ and ‘pro-European’ lines and remains prone to identity and language politics, including the status of the Russian language. Although recent elections have focused more on domestic issues such as the fight against corruption, it remains to be seen whether or not this positive trend can hold. Russia could also leverage its significant presence across Moldova’s media landscape, including through affordable and attractive Russian-language content. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the murky ownership structure of the media in Moldova. Finally, Russia could specifically target Moldova’s sizable national minority communities, exploiting their preference for Russian-language communication and susceptibility to narratives that emphasise socially conservative values, as well as their general lack of integration in Moldovan society. The Moldovan Orthodox Church, canonically subordinated to Moscow, also plays a role in this regard.

These dynamics are particularly present in the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia in the south of the country. For nearly 20 years Gagauzia’s autonomy arrangement, which was negotiated to accommodate ethnic tensions in the early 1990s, has been poorly implemented and occasionally turned into a flashpoint for tensions between the region and the centre. For many historic, linguistic, religious, economic and other reasons Gagauzia remains one of the regions most susceptible to Russian influence and has occasionally hinted at separatist intentions. However, these should not be overstated: Gagauzia’s intent and ability to engage in armed conflict with Chișinău remains very low due to its geographic specificities and lack of military means. Unless the war in Ukraine takes an unexpected turn and Russian troops reach Odesa or Ukraine’s neighbouring Budzhak district, Gagauzia is likely to remain restless rather than outright separatist. It will nonetheless remain resistant to certain reform efforts of the central government, in particular if it feels excluded from the process. While the Gagauz remain sceptical towards aspects of Moldova’s EU integration prospects that touch upon widely held socially conservative values or their long-held affinity to the Russian Federation, they are remarkably pragmatic when it comes to economic opportunities. Most notably, their labour migration patterns are shifting away from Russia and towards the EU or third countries such as Turkey. Moldova’s candidacy status creates an opening for the EU to further engage the region, to enhance the (public) impact of its activities in Gagauzia and to become more active with regard to the functioning of the autonomy.

Similar opportunities exist for the EU in the breakaway region of Transnistria, although much will depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Due to Russia’s military and political presence in Transnistria, the region remains a critical vulnerability for Moldova that Moscow could exploit if it so desired. That said, the region’s military significance is limited as long as Ukraine controls the Odesa oblast. The relatively lightly armed soldiers of the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF), most of whom are Transnistrian residents with Russian passports, are not in a position to mount much of an offensive towards Ukraine. While many Transnistrians may have hoped for a Russian victory that would connect them to Russian-controlled territory, they are also fearful of a potential Ukrainian attack, following inflammatory statements from Kyiv. The authorities in Tiraspol prefer to wait quietly and see how the war unfolds.

In reality, Russia’s grip on Transnistria is not as strong as it sometimes seems and there are different factions in Tiraspol with different outlooks on Moldova’s EU candidacy status. Russia exercises control over Transnistria through the presence of its armed forces and security agencies, but also through political, economic and cultural means. First and foremost among those is the supply of cheap Russian gas that makes Transnistrian businesses competitive in energy-intensive sectors such as electricity generation and scrap-metal processing – which also pose opportunities for kleptocratic enrichment. Russia also holds sway over Transnistria’s education system, as students from the unrecognised entity struggle to find other countries to study . However, Russia is gradually losing out in the economic sphere. Transnistrian businesses have gradually reoriented their exports following Transnistria’s inclusion in the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in 2015. This strengthens the hand of Brussels and Chișinău, especially after Ukrainian territory and the port of Odesa became inaccessible for Transnistrian trade. As such, economic elites in Transnistria, that is, those involved with the Sheriff business conglomerate, have been adjusting their calculations. Moldova’s candidacy status offers the EU a chance to engage with different factions in Tiraspol and support the 1+1 direct talks between the sides more actively. This could compensate for the suspension of the official 5+2 conflict-settlement process, which stands little chance of being resumed while two of its official mediators are effectively at war with one another.

By simultaneously granting EU candidacy status to Ukraine and Moldova, the EU implicitly acknowledged that the fates of both countries are to a large extent linked and that the EU enlargement process is also a geopolitical instrument. Much of Moldova’s future, including that of Transnistria and Gagauzia, will depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Both Kyiv and Brussels should be mindful of Moldova’s many vulnerabilities and give the country some space to manage its complex relationship with Moscow, as long as it gradually aligns with EU foreign policy goals – such as sanction regimes – and in the meantime is not used to circumvent those goals. But the EU accession process and the upscaling of EU support for reforms in Moldova also offers the EU a number of possibilities to engage actively to address Moldova’s vulnerabilities, help it circumnavigate the difficult waters ahead this autumn and winter, and reduce the potential of the Russian Federation to destabilise the country in the future. This report puts forward several recommendations to that effect that can be found in the concluding chapter.