Apr 21, 2022 - World

Ukraine's "most fragile" neighbor welcomes Western wake-up call

The Moldovan foreign minister is seen meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) hosts Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu on Monday. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The war in Ukraine has awakened the U.S. and EU to the reality that engagement with former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states can't continue at the "snail's speed" of the past three decades, Moldova's Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu tells Axios.

Why it matters: Russia's invasion has triggered a flood of refugees throughout Eastern Europe. Many former Soviet states like Moldova have trended westward and bent toward democracy — but also been left dangling over the prospect of EU membership and NATO protection.

  • In the case of Moldova, a tiny landlocked country wedged between Ukraine and Romania, already an EU and NATO member, it's become home to about 100,000 of the 400,000 refugees who've fled Ukraine.
  • Those refugees now account for 3.5% of Moldova's population, and 10% of its youth.
  • That affects "every single little piece of the functioning of Moldova's state and society," Popescu says.

But, but, but: Russian troops already occupy Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway state internationally recognized as part of Moldova.

  • Moldova is also 100% reliant on Russian gas.
  • Those additional factors help make Moldova the "single-most fragile neighbor of Ukraine," Popescu said Tuesday during a roundtable organized by the German Marshall Fund.

Between the lines: Moldova-EU engagement on future membership was virtually nonexistent before the war.

  • States up and down the nearby Balkan Peninsula have been in a similar limbo.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine, have formally expressed their NATO membership aspirations.
  • A week after Russia's invasion, Ukraine and Moldova also formally applied to join the EU.

What they're saying: Earlier this month, Moldova received an EU membership questionnaire Popescu hailed as a "game changer."

  • Now, European foreign ministers are flocking to the capital city of Chișinău to show solidarity.
  • "It's not going to be quick, it's not going to be easy. We don't want to do shortcuts, and we'll do our homework," Popescu said.

Popescu visited Washington this week to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and renew a strategic dialogue he says has been stagnant since 2014.

  • "We in the United States strongly support Moldova’s independence, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and we continue to work very closely together in practical support of all of those things," Blinken said at the outset of their meeting.
  • Investing in Moldova's resilience and democracy, including via a path to EU membership, will pay major dividends when it comes to regional stability, Popescu contends.
  • Moldova had begun preparing for a range of war scenarios beginning in November 2021 thanks to U.S. intelligence-sharing, and was thus prepared to take in refugees in a "dignified" manner, according to Popescu.

The backstory: Moldova has been led by pro-EU President Maia Sandu since 2020, but pro-Russian parties and media retain considerable influence in the former Soviet republic.

  • Moldova's constitutional neutrality and economic, security and energy vulnerabilities have forced a delicate balancing act in a divided society.
  • The government in Chișinău has condemned Russia's invasion and this week banned pro-Russian war symbols, but has not formally applied sanctions or supplied weapons to Ukraine.

The bottom line: The war and resulting refugee crisis have put great strains on Moldova and forced the government to delicately balance its solidarity with Ukraine and its reliance on Russia.

  • But they've also turned Moldova’s EU ambitions into a “shared endeavor,” which Popescu stressed is "a really big deal."
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