When the analysts at the Eurasia Group mull the risks ahead in 2015, their spinning globe stops at one spot: Moldova. You know, Moldova:
Or at least, it’s a likely candidate for three of the consulting firm’s forecast trends to intersect: European political instability, Russian intransigence, and the weaponization of finance.
With Europe’s economy still stagnant after the financial crisis, there are already fears that populist political movements will create uncertainty in the EU. Meanwhile, Russia isn’t letting up on its aggressive anti-Western policy, despite a currency crisis and recession. President Vladimir Putin will continue to put economic pressure on Europeans, even as the US pushes for—or refuses to relax—existing financial sanctions that are hurting Russia, but also making life difficult in Europe.
And all of that could come into sharp focus in Moldova, a post-Soviet republic that is expected to continue moving toward integration with the European Union after pro-EU politicians there won a December election. Of course, those are the same sorts of agreements that precipitated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. And Russia already has a break-away province in Moldova—Transnistria, a Russian enclave protected by some 2,000 troops.
“When I was in Moscow recently, I met with the guys who run Russia,” Eurasia group Chairman and former US diplomat Cliff Kupchan told reporters. “They were warning that Moldova’s on the radar, that if they keep heading toward the EU and NATO, they better watch out what they wish for. The destablization wouldn’t be very hard. The guys in Transnistria, they take their uniforms off, little green men with masks, and towns in Moldova start to go. We’ve seen the Russian playbook.”
The US is turning toward a presidential election, which would ratchet up rhetoric about shows of force in response to Russia executing its Ukrainian playbook, should it come to that. But that rhetoric would clash with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s attempts to steer the EU on a middle-path around Russian provocation without damaging lucrative economic ties between Putin’s dictatorship and Europe’s largest economy. That in turn would strain European cooperation with US over financial sanctions that have increasingly become America’s main foreign policy tool.
In sum, that means a crisis in Moldova could be more difficult to resolve than last year’s in Ukraine. Which, incidentally, hasn’t been fixed to anyone’s satisfaction yet.