John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, expressed deep concern about reports of a possible coup being plotted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moldova. This comes after Moldovan President Maia Sandu accused Putin of planning to overthrow her government and prevent Moldova from joining the European Union, using foreign saboteurs. Sandu also claimed that Putin wants to use Moldova in the war against Ukraine. Kirby's comments were made during a press briefing.
When he was asked about Moldovan President's comments, the US official replied by saying "deeply concerning reports. We absolutely stand with the Moldovan government and Moldovan people. We haven't seen independent confirmation, but it's certainly a page right out of Putin's playbook", as per a report from Newsweek. Earlier, Moldovan President Maia Sandu had stated that her country had received information from their Ukrainian partners about a Russian plan to carry out violent actions which include sabotage, attacks on government buildings, and the use of foreigners. The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had previously informed EU leaders of Russia's alleged plan to "destroy" Moldova, which was later confirmed by Moldovan intelligence services.
The resignation of Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita followed this confirmation and news that a Russian missile had crossed into their airspace. It is worth adding that whilst most of the public discourse about the chaos in Moldova is related to Russian interference, it is not at all the reason people attribute to Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita's ouster. It has a lot to do in fact with domestic factors, such as soaring inflation, which has led to a cost of living crisis. The fear of Russian interference in Moldova's affairs has always been there, especially considering the fact that Russia has maintained troops in the breakaway region of Transnistria. But, the fear of interference has been growing since the invasion of Ukraine.
Moldova's primary problem can be divided into three categories - public opinion, constitution and defence capability. Let's address public opinion first. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for a long time, has been the most popular foreign leader in Moldova. That gives an insight into how the general people of Moldova perceive Russia, which is quite different from what the rulers of Moldova living in Chisinau (Moldova's capital) think about Russia. The current political rulers are pro-western and they want closer relations with the west. The people? Not so much.
The barrier they face is not just the views of the people but also the constitution of Moldova. Moldova's constitution mandates its neutrality as a way to promote peace and stability in the region, and to prevent any potential involvement in military conflicts. The decision to adopt neutrality was made in 1994, during a time of political transition and regional instability following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The neutrality status was also seen as a way to establish Moldova as a neutral ground for negotiations between the conflicting parties in the Transnistrian conflict, which had erupted in the early 1990s.
The constitutional provision on neutrality stipulates that Moldova cannot join any military alliance, deploy foreign military forces on its territory, or participate in any armed conflict, except in the case of self-defense. This provision has been a key element of Moldova's foreign policy, and has been maintained despite pressure from some external actors. If Moldova were to abandon it, Moscow might perceive it as a provocation by the West. Neutrality has helped Moldova to avoid involvement in regional conflicts, and to maintain good relations with its neighbors, including Ukraine and Romania. It has also enabled Moldova to participate in a number of international peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the United Nations, which has enhanced its international standing.
However, some critics have argued that neutrality has prevented Moldova from fully integrating into European and Euro-Atlantic structures, and that it has limited its ability to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Nonetheless, the constitutional provision on neutrality remains in force, and any changes to it would require a constitutional amendment, which would be a lengthy and politically difficult process.
Now, let's address the third barrier - defence capability. Dorin Recean, who is Natalia Gavrilita’s replacement, has said that lifting wages is a priority, which he has to, but curiously enough, he also added that enhancing Moldova's defence capability is another priority. According to a report from the Economist, Moldovan officials have requested help from Western countries to protect their defenseless airspace, but some in the nation question the allocation of resources towards defense when most citizens are concerned with the cost of living.
Despite this, the defense budget for this year will increase by 68 percent compared to the previous year, with a sum of approximately €75m ($80m), or 0.55% of GDP, as per the report. The defense minister, Anatolie Nosatii, mentions that the country's defense capabilities are limited, with outdated equipment and only a small number of professional soldiers. 6,500 to be precise. The police, border guards, and reserves could increase the number of soldiers to 45,000, but they would still lack proper equipment and air support. In contrast, Russia already has 1,500 troops stationed in Transnistria, mostly recruited locally. As of now, it is too soon to tell if Moscow does indeed have any intention to destabilise Moldova. More importantly, it isn't clear if Moscow has the bandwidth and capability to oust the pro-western government in Moldova, whilst carrying out a new offensive against Ukraine.