A former Soviet republic, independent since August 1991, sits in the long and threatening shadow cast from the Russian behemoth that sits just over the horizon to the east. The country straddles a fault line separating east from west. Exact measurements of public sentiment are difficult to capture, but one portion of the population sees integration with Europe as the country’s best hope for a brighter future, while another wants closer ties with Russia. A Russian-backed separatist region in the country’s east presents a longstanding challenge to the government. Smaller and weaker than Russia by virtually any metric, there is a constant vigilance for signs that Russia might take military action.
Welcome to Moldova.
In May of this year, when Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko televised Russian war plans that appeared to include an invasion of Moldova, many were shocked. For years, Moldova seemed a quiet relic of the Soviet Union’s breakup, with little military or economic value. While best known for its wine and simmering tensions surrounding its Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, Moldova’s unique physical location presents a particular opportunity for Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia. In some ways, Moldova’s challenges vis-à-vis Russia are remarkably similar to Ukraine’s—a government friendly to Moscow would make it a strategic buffer between Russia and the West, for example. But there are also key differences, chief among them being that the disparity in military power between Moldova and Russia is vastly larger than that between Ukraine and Russia. With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine near a stalemate, Moldova cannot reasonably hope to achieve anywhere near such an outcome in the event of Russian aggression. For a small country with limited military capability, deterring such aggression can only be accomplished with deep and deliberate reforms—specifically, offloading outdated armored vehicles, increasing dismounted antitank systems, and investing in a mobilization model more optimized to both the most likely threat and Moldova’s limited resources.
Putin concerns himself deeply with the history of the Soviet Union, especially the strength and stability it provided. With borders that pushed into central Europe, the Soviet Union offered a physical security unmatched during any other period of Russian history. But following its collapse, the independence of former Soviet states would leave Russian borders that enhanced its sense of vulnerability. In Putin’s view, the vast open plains between the borders of NATO’s easternmost member states and Moscow are an unacceptable threat to Russia’s strategic viability. From the Kremlin’s strategic perspective, therefore, Russia must secure physical roadblocks that could slow or stop NATO armored formations in a long-feared invasion of the country. Situated adjacent to the Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine and Moldova could achieve these objectives—if brought under Russian control.
Modern-day Moldova is a product of Soviet attempts to create a culturally distinct vassal state and is still grappling with the unresolved conflict of its breakaway region, making it particularly vulnerable to Russian aggression. Transnistria, the unrecognized Moldovan breakaway region, bases roughly 1,500 Russian “peacekeepers,” a potential flashpoint for any future hostilities. Complicating this, Moldova is also home to Gagauzia, an autonomous territorial unit in the southern region whose population overwhelmingly supports Russia. Recent polling has showed a nearly 50/50 split among Moldovans on whether to join the European Union or the Eurasian Economic Union, led by Russia. President Maia Sandu benefited electorally from the votes of the Western-leaning Moldovan diaspora residing in the EU, but residents are more evenly divided. Fractured by these many divisions, Moldova has faced a myriad of challenges since its inception.
Moldova’s current security situation is uncertain as the country deals with possible false-flag attacks in Transnistria attempting to enflame greater violence. A war was fought between Transnistria’s separatists and Moldova in the early 1990s, and tensions remain three decades later. That Transnistria has a disproportionately large Russian minority compared to the rest of the country and is supported by Russia raises obvious similarities with Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions—and makes fears of an invasion justified by Moscow on similar grounds reasonable. These fears, combined with reports of weapons fire from Transnistrian territory, have led officials to increase security at the border, but Moldovan national boundaries are far from secure. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees and potentially even Russian provocateurs cross into Moldova each week, largely moving through to the relative safety of the EU. More threatening, however, Transnistria’s Russian “peacekeepers” have a long history of rehearsing contested river crossings across the Dniester River, a prerequisite for an invasion of Moldovan.
From an international perspective, this comprehensive vulnerability should be understood as a risk to the post–World War II stability that, in surviving even the Cold War, had come to be taken almost for granted. It creates another opportunity for Russian revanchism—a chance for Moscow to reset rules and expectations by transforming its invasion of Ukraine from a shocking act of aggression into a pattern that began in 2008 in Georgia, is continuing in Ukraine, and could place Moldova in jeopardy next. The current international order is at a major inflection point, with great power challengers attempting to rewrite the acceptable norms of behavior, especially as they relate to the sovereignty of established territorial borders. The peace and economic prosperity that has grown over the last several decades has been predicated on the reassurance that the post–Cold War borders are inviolable. A weak Moldova could provide the opportunity for a greater fraying of this foundational assumption and further contribute to what some analysts are calling deglobalization. While Moldova may suffer from a divided population, a poor economy, and a troubled past, it should not be allowed to serve as the next victim of Russia’s aggression. In short, it would take an impressive feat of cognitive flexibility to conclude that Russian aggression against a Western-leaning government in Kyiv is dangerous while similar aggression against a Western-leaning government in Chisinau would not be.
So what steps could Moldova take to enhance its deterrence and, in the event of armed conflict, impose costs against the Russian military? With only six thousand active duty troops, one of the smallest defense budgets in the world, and a largely obsolete Soviet-era fleet of vehicles, the Moldovan military is not capable of serious military resistance to a Russian invasion. Sandu, the Moldovan president, has acknowledged this frightening vulnerability. This is, however, understandable given Moldova’s fiscal constraints. Despite its historical troubles with violence, Moldova is Europe’s poorest country and can ill afford to invest in its military. While the EU has promised some token overtures of military assistance, this is largely focused on humanitarian assistance for Ukrainian refugees and is entirely nonlethal. What can be done to deter Russian invasion, build Moldovan resilience, and accomplish it all on a budget? To answer this, we should look to lessons that can be learned from Ukraine’s most recent defensive battles and the employment of its reserve forces and mass mobilization.
During the early invasion of Ukraine, man-portable antitank missile systems (like the Javelin) and drones were credited with significant kill counts against the invading Russian forces. These systems are substantially less expensive than tanks and armored vehicles. The missile of Ukraine’s signature Stugna-P, for example, costs as little as $20,000, while Russian T-80 and T-90 main battle tanks can cost between $2 million and $4.5 million. Of course, Moldova does not field these relatively modern tanks, and yet the costs associated with upkeep on the older armored vehicles in Moldova’s inventory almost certainly increases each year. While Russian tanks are frequently capable of surviving multiple hits from these systems, there is a strong value proposition for countries of limited means. Not only are these systems much cheaper than the tanks they defend against, they can be successfully trained on in a fraction of the time it would take to produce an effective tank crew. There are also significantly fewer logistical requirements when compared to tanks, adding to the savings on investment. While tanks continue to fill a necessary doctrinal role in the offense, this is not the position where Moldova is most likely to find itself in the event of a Russian invasion.
This disparity in utility during the defense provides an opportunity for Moldova to add to its security, while optimizing for a potential future invasion. Moldova should follow the lead of Poland, Slovakia and others, transferring its old Soviet-era armored vehicles for eventual use in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military is capable of putting these assets to use immediately, which indirectly contributes to Moldova’s defense. Moldova would also benefit by ridding itself of the logistical and training burden required with such vehicles, allowing it to divert funds toward the purchase of antitank missile systems. A few hundred Moldovan armored vehicles with unproven crews do not compare with the deterrent effect of hundreds of Javelins or thousands of other antitank systems, which could be afforded with little appreciable increase in spending if the military divested its aging fleet of vehicles. But these systems need an army to wield them, which leads to a potential advantage if the Moldovan force structure were adjusted.
Mass mobilization, the kind seen during the two world wars, has many advantages. It enables a small cadre of peacetime soldiers to rapidly expand during wartime, saving money while still providing deterrence. Mobilized forces can largely be categorized—broadly speaking—as active duty personnel, trained reservists, or ad hoc militia. While these formations and their composition, training, and duties will vary significantly between countries, the utility of leveraging such a tiered approach has been valued since the Middle Ages. Key to understand in this model is that while a military reservist will traditionally cost less than one-third of his or her active duty counterpart, paramilitary or militia forces are significantly cheaper. In Ukraine, this model saw Ukrainian defense manpower grow rapidly from roughly three hundred thousand before the invasion, as trained members of the Territorial Defense Forces—a reserve component—were quickly mobilized and as civilian volunteers were organized.
It is not only Ukraine that has adopted such an approach. The Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have all taken steps toward implementing a total defense concept, which is fundamentally a means of shoring up small, professional military forces with reservists and civilian volunteers in the event of war. This same model can be used in Moldova, creating a credible force for relatively cheap. Investing in a larger reserve force while operating a selective service system in the event of increased hostilities could pay significant dividends. Finland and Sweden show the deterrent capability of comparatively large reserve forces, properly equipped and funded. Each has a long history of signaling a credible deterrent despite not being members of NATO. While their examples are more aspirational than realistic given Moldovan budgetary constraints, they serve as a proof of concept of an optimized military composition for a country facing an increasingly realistic Russian threat while existing outside of NATOs protective Article 5. Combining a readily available infantry force with large numbers of dismounted antitank missile systems is the solution that Moldova needs now.
This may be a bitter pill for Moldova to swallow. While the current president is very supportive of Western institutions—Moldova applied for and received EU candidate status since Russia’s invasion and is a close partner of NATO—the country has had a challenging history with corruption and remains influenced by its difficult Soviet past. These hurdles are not uncommon in the region, but they must be addressed rapidly if the hopes for EU membership are to be achieved. More importantly, the lessons that the Ukrainians learned through battle can prevent a widening of this conflict with relatively minimal investment. Moldova must grow its deterrent capability now, while the opportunity is still available.
Reuben Morris is a civil affairs officer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California working toward his master’s degree in defense analysis. He previously served as the team leader of the civil-military support element in Moldova, working with the US embassy, the Moldovan Ministry of Defense, and the US State Partnership Program in 2018–2019.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Lance Cpl. Jacqueline Parsons, US Marine Corps