by a former Special Forces Officer
As the war in Ukraine marks its tragic one-year anniversary, Russia’s “special military operation” continues to falter against fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces. Russia’s recent attempts to secure gains in the Donbas have achieved little militarily and at tremendous cost in soldiers, material, and morale.
With each stymied Russian advance, President Vladimir Putin’s plan to achieve his strategic objectives becomes increasingly less feasible. A number of analysts suggest that Putin has already lost the ability to attain any of the calculated objectives first laid out at the beginning of the war.
With Russian forces facing an even more determined and lethal Ukrainian military, Moscow may be searching for ways to regain the strategic initiative. Looking to carve out a modicum of success, Putin may very well be considering another target, one in line with his overall strategic objectives and one in which he can attain victory and recuperate from his miscalculation in Ukraine.
Some strategists believe that the next objective is Moldova. After stinging defeats in Ukraine, attacking Moldova may appeal to Moscow as a way to salvage victory from what has thus far been an unprecedented military disaster.
Indeed, recent media reports suggest that Moscow has laid the groundwork for a false-flag provocation, to be used as a pretext for military action against Moldova. Putin’s recent declaration rejecting Moldova’s legitimate claims of territorial sovereignty in Transnistria further suggests Russia’s next move may be to position itself for action against Moldova. But why Moldova? How would a Russian invasion of Moldova unfold, and would it have any chance of success?
In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner described Moldova as perhaps one of the most miserable places on earth. Moldova suffered much under communism and today it remains one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in Europe. To compound its misery, Moldova’s geography puts it in the crosshairs of Moscow, and it now finds itself in the unenviable position of being sandwiched between NATO and the war in Ukraine.
Much like Ukraine, Moldova has a complex history with Russia. For much of Moldova’s modern history, Russia has been its oppressor. In 1812, following one of several Russian-Turkish wars, the eastern half of the Moldovan principality, Bessarabia, was annexed by the Russian Empire. In 1918, Bessarabia briefly became independent as the Moldavian Democratic Republic and reunited with Romania. During the Second World War, Moldova, now part of Romania, fought with the Germans against Russia. With the collapse of German forces in the east, Moldova was conquered by the Soviets who reclaimed the territory from Romania. At the end of the Second World War, Moldova officially became a part of the Soviet Union as the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic and remained a part of the Soviet Union until its collapse. In 1991 the country declared its independence and became the Republic of Moldova. Since its independence, Moldova has struggled as a nation on many fronts, but it has sought to cast off the shadow of communism and align itself with Europe and the West.
Moldova’s overtures to the West put it at odds with the Kremlin. With historic ties to Russia and a minority ethnic Russian-speaking population, Putin views Moldova as yet another former Soviet Republic that rightly falls within the Russian sphere of control and is a necessary buffer to prevent further NATO expansion. Keeping Moldova out of the Western camp is a strategic imperative for Russia, one that could lead to its invasion.
The key terrain for any invasion of Moldova would be another so-called “independent” Russian-controlled territory, one that was once a part of Moldova, the quasi-state of “Transnistria.”
Prior to the war in Ukraine, few had heard of Transnistria. Officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), Transnistria is an unrecognized, breakaway state, located in the narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Moldovan–Ukrainian border. Internationally recognized as part of Moldova, in 1992, Moscow-backed separatists took control of a thin 250-mile sliver of land that runs along much of the eastern bank of the Dniester River as well as parts of the western bank. After a brief, but intense conflict, a negotiated settlement created Transnistria and it became its own quasi-state, locked in a frozen conflict, with Russian “peacekeeping” forces stationed on its territory.
To date, Russia has maintained a force of approximately 1,800 soldiers in Transnistria, nominally to keep the peace and to guard a Soviet-era munitions depot. Since then, the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) as they are known, may have increased in size and would play a pivotal role in any invasion plans of Moldova.
That said, contemplating an invasion of Moldova and carrying out such a plan are two very different sides of the coin. Thus far, Russian military operations in Ukraine have shown a remarkable lack of Operational Art in the conduct of its campaign. Russian military operations have been characterized by a basic lack of application of the principles of war. Its lackluster battleplans, poor logistics, obsolete tactics, and equipment have not portrayed the Russian military as a very capable force, certainly not one that could wage major battles on multiple fronts. Plagued by such key problems and planning shortfalls, any Russian invasion of Moldova would likely reflect the same lack of campaign planning already demonstrated in Ukraine.
With many of Russia’s best units already committed to fighting in Ukraine, Russia would need to either shift considerable forces from Ukraine or generate a significant amount of new combat power to create an invasion force for Moldova. The ability to amass the necessary additional manpower would likely require another unpopular mobilization. It would take weeks, perhaps months, to adequately train and equip such a force. In addition to manpower, a Russian invasion force will require at least a three-to-one advantage in armor, artillery, and combat aircraft, weapons they just do not possess given their heavy losses in Ukraine. Even if Russian military planners could muster such a force, unmotivated, ill-trained, and ineptly led forces are unlikely to achieve victory, even against much smaller and less equipped Moldovan forces.
Assuming Moscow could generate such an invasion force, deploying that force is also fraught with difficulties. A direct assault on Moldova would most likely come through Transnistria. This would require Moscow to either transport the invasion forces by air and sea to reinforce the Russian units already in Transnistria or fight through Ukraine until reaching friendly territory in Transnistria. In either scenario, Ukrainian forces are likely to engage and decimate any invasion force before it could reach its destination.
The buildup of any Russian invasion force would certainly tip off Ukrainian and NATO intelligence. Once Russian intentions became clear, Moldova would undoubtedly prepare its defenses and request assistance. Although not a NATO or European Union country, Moldova has close ties with Ukraine and its NATO neighbor Romania and would certainly garner their support.
One clear indicator of imminent Russian plans against Moldova would be any declaration by Putin incorporating Transnistria as sovereign Russian territory. How accepting Transnistrians would be to such an annexation and if the Transnistrian armed forces would then be incorporated into the invasion force is uncertain. Regardless, such a move by Russia would be a dangerous and provocative expansion of the war and an invasion of Moldova would bring Russian forces face to face with US and NATO troops stationed in Romania.
And, like their neighbors to the North, the Moldovans will fight back. Any Russian invasion force will not be greeted as liberators and will likely face stiff opposition, particularly if the West comes to Moldova’s aid. From NATO bases in Romania, supplying weapons and equipment to support Moldovan resistance would be a much less daunting task, in terms of distance, compared to Ukraine.
Strategically, an invasion would ultimately fail and provoke a wider confrontation with the US and its NATO allies. Even if Russian forces succeeded in capturing Moldova, securing its territory would require a vast occupation force that would face a hostile population and aggressive resistance. Tragically, the only objective achieved by a Russian invasion of Moldova would be untold suffering and destruction.
Fortunately, the threat of military action against Moldova at this moment appears to be only aspirational. Unless Moscow achieves some spectacular battlefield victory against Ukraine and miraculously turns the tide of that conflict, the possibility of an incursion into Moldova seems remote. Any diversion of forces to exploit what it perceives as a defenseless Moldova will simply weaken Russian forces in Ukraine, making it more vulnerable to successful counterattack and defeat.
As the Kremlin ponders its next moves, an invasion of Moldova is clearly a no-win course of action and would be a foolhardy gamble for Putin. However, given Putin’s desperation and penchant for missteps, preparing to fight is precisely the right course of action for Moldova, one that should be supported by the West.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.
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