In the Shadow of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
The Russo-Ukrainian War has shaken the foundations of Europe’s security architecture set by the Helsinki Final Act, 1975
11 November 1989, the day when the Berlin Wall fell, and 24 February 2022, were tectonic shifts of unparalleled magnitude. What followed the fall of the Berlin Wall was not “the end of history” but the hope that wars would not be waged anymore, at least on the European continent. Yet, only a couple of years later, the then Yugoslavia was engulfed in a violent internal conflict that led to its dissolution. However, no one ever expected that a major nuclear power, the largest country in the world, would militarily invade a sovereign European state of 44 million people, Ukraine.
The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its fifteenth month. The suffering of the Ukrainian people is immense and the devastation of the country is hard to fathom, and the pending reconstruction will be a long and arduous process. The war has also led to a cascade of grave global consequences. Most obviously, the European security architecture set by the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 has been put in question, putting the future functionality of international organizations such as the United Nations and OSCE into question. Inflation is pressing hard on households in all countries, with governments facing citizen discontent caused by deteriorating standards of living. Issues of energy and food security, the worldwide supply of grain and agricultural fertilizers, top the agenda. The tighter cooperation in trade and economy between Europe and Russia proved unable to prevent Russia from marching to conquer Ukraine.
The strength of resistance of the Ukrainian army and people and their determination to preserve their freedom was a positive surprise to many. Vice versa, the unity, solidarity, and commitment shown by the overwhelming majority of EU members, with all the challenges, also surprised many. In 2019, the current European Commission declared itself as a geopolitical one. Hence, in June 2022, spurred by the violent attempt of the Russian military to change the map of Europe, the Council of the European Union, representing 27 member states, granted Ukraine and Moldova the status of candidate countries for EU membership, making them join the countries of the Western Balkans on this arduous journey towards joining the European peace project. Here again, transatlantic unity has proved crucial. Europe alone could not alone muster all the financial, military, and other types of assistance necessary for Ukraine to have a chance at fending off the attempted occupation. European states welcomed nearly five million refugees from Ukraine. In Poland alone, about a million and six hundred thousand Ukrainians found refuge.
Optimism in Moldova
Against this backdrop, the “Europe’s Futures” Fellows 2022-23 at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna traveled to Moldova and Ukraine on 17-22 April 2023.
Our first stop was Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, which is, as mentioned above, now a candidate country for EU membership. Notable at every step is the determination of the state and society to catch the train to Europe. The country hopes to meet the necessary criteria for EU accession negotiations in due time for the European Council meeting in December 2023. The energy and passion we encountered in the meeting with state officials and their teams were palpable.
Chisinau has been selected by the European Political Community as the location of its next (Second) Summit in June 2023 which will gather 44 states; a considerable honor and obligation for one of Europe's least developed countries with a population of roughly 3,2 million, a third of which lives abroad, mostly in Italy. Remittances make for a significant portion of the national budget. In all the meetings we had – with Prime Minister Dorin Recean, with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, with the ministers of Economy, Digitalisation, and Energy, as well as at the Presidential Office (President Maia Sandu was away at the time) – a devotion to the cause of reforming society and fighting corruption was paramount. Optimism and a clear commitment to the aim of European integration were pervasive. But an equally deep sense of realism was there given the severe economic difficulties the country is facing, topped by a 30-point inflation.
Moldova has its own frozen conflict in Transnistria, a region that seceded in 1990 in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Transnistria is a narrow strip of land between the left bank of the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border to the East with a population estimated at around 300,000. It houses a base for a Russian military unit of some 1500 (conscripts predominantly from Transnistria, officers from Russia). Also located on its territory, in the town of Kobasna, is one the largest ammunition depots in Europe holding some 20,000 tons of, largely obsolete, ordnance. Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Ukraine has closed the border with Transnistria, thus cutting routes for legal and especially illegal inflow. Parties to the conflict, the Republic of Moldova and the secessionist region of Transnistria, are still “talking” to each other, with the common aim of keeping peace at all costs.
The two sides have brokered a complex energy arrangement. Russian gas comes in via Ukraine to Transnistria where it is used for producing electricity. Moldova buys the gas for 1,000 US$ per cubic meter and receives an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Transnistria, in turn, does not pay for its electricity. However, the high price of electricity in Moldova is the principal cause of trouble, as it makes up for the greatest part of the inflation.
After attempting to conquer Ukraine in February 2022 in the span of a couple of weeks, Russia, it is now known, also intended to continue further and occupy Moldova. We now know how that plan ended. But the Russians continued their intense hybrid war against Moldova using all possible means. It is exactly for that reason the European Union reached a decision on 24 April to establish a mission to help the Moldovan authorities and society to counter interferences in internal affairs and the hybrid threats and attacks, named the EU Partnership Mission in the Republic of Moldova.
During our stay, Moldova declared a Russian diplomat as persona non grata. It also prohibited the leader of the Russian Federation's Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minichanov, who wanted to show support to pro-Russian leaders in the Gagauz autonomous province (where a majority of 130000 inhabitants, Christians of Turkic descent, is deemed pro-Russian), from entry.
Moldova’ President, Maia Sandu, is popular but her ratings are slipping due to the socio-economic hardships of the citizens. The determinedly pro-European coalition Government holds a clear majority of 63 seats in the 100-seat Parliament. It has managed to successfully engage in de-oligarchization or rather uprooting some of the key causes of corruption. Two leading oligarchs have been sidelined: Vladimir Plachotniuc (on the run since 2019, residing now in Northern Cyprus) and Ilan Shor (in Israel), who was sentenced this month to 15 years of prison in absentia. Based on pro-European politics and a strong anti-oligarch, anti-corruption campaign, President and Government are working strenuously on improving Moldova’s socio-economic situation, while at the same time endeavoring to meet the conditions for starting the EU accession negotiations by the end of this year.
Enchanting Odesa Lives and Breathes
Traveling by car from Chisinau to Odesa takes roughly three and a half hours, notwithstanding the queues of cars at the border crossing near Palanka on the Moldovan side. Entry to Ukraine, a country under a wholesale military invasion by Russia, is marked by army checkpoints, but the traffic on the 60-kilometer leg to Odesa is still very intense and runs smoothly. Endless rows of trucks transport produce in both directions, towards Ukrainian ports on the Danube or to the Black Sea ports in Romania and Bulgaria.
The large port of Odesa is visible from the city but cannot be accessed for obvious reasons. It is from the port that the grain is still being exported under the UN-brokered deal between Ukraine and Russia that is in force until the end of May this year, hopefully to be renewed. To a short-term visitor, the mood in this enchanting city so rich in culture and remarkable architecture seems perfectly normal beyond the military checkpoints. Everything is open for business and stores, restaurants, and cafes are full; the streets lively. However, in conversations with locals, it becomes clear this is a city in a country under attack. Should you wish to walk closer to the shore on Primorski Boulevard, you will, understandably, not be able to access the famous Potemkin Steps eternalized in Eisenstein’s film. Early in the war, there was talk of a possible Russian amphibious attack on Odesa. Monuments to Pushkin and other significant personalities stand fast. The monument to Catherine the Great had been removed and taken away to a museum, the pedestal now proudly carrying the Ukrainian blue and yellow flag. In the many conversations with Odesans, a determination to fight and resist shines through. Now and then, people check into the mobile app alerting them to possible drone or rocket attacks. In a city where Russian culture and language had held such prominence, we were told by our interlocutors that the Russian invasion has spurred a strengthening of Ukrainian identity. Sociologists we spoke to have registered a marked shift whereby the vast majority of citizens of Odesa consider Russia the aggressor and feel more and more Ukrainian.
Odesa has a distinct and very proud local identity, just like other major coastal big port cities with a multi-ethnic and multicultural history such as Thessaloniki, Istanbul, and Trieste, just to name a few. The wealth of the civic culture is visible at every corner. Understandably, the war has made people turn people more intensely toward the capital Kyiv for help and support. The controversial mayor of Odesa, Genadiy Truchanov, now staunchly pro-Ukrainian, had held pro-Russian positions before the invasion. War and circumstances change people.
These cursory insights from a week’s journey take us back to the omnipresent question that stays unanswered: when and how will this war end or, at the very least, the hostilities be suspended? Ukraine will clearly be the one that decides when and how.
Not least, whether the European Union will be able to gather and wield its geopolitical power and continue the integration process with Ukraine and Moldova, as well as with the Western Balkans countries under the current circumstances, remains an open question. Giving both Ukraine and Moldova an opportunity to begin accession talks at the EU Summit in December would be the least to be expected of a geopolitical Commission and the Council of EU Presidents and Prime Ministers.
An amended version of a text published in the Belgrade weekly Novi Magazin, no.626/627, 27.4.2023.
From 17 to 22 April 2023, the 2022/23 cohort of Europe’s Futures Fellows of the Institute for Human Sciences and ERSTE Foundation went on a study trip to Moldova and Ukraine, led by Ivan Vejvoda. A report on the trip is availble here.