Victoria Rosa: Euro­pean values at the core of unprece­dented Moldovan human­i­tar­ian efforts amidst the tragic war in Ukraine

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Moldova, A country in the heart of Europe, its current lead­er­ship and first and fore­most its people, opened not only its borders but also their homes for the suf­fer­ing neigh­bours. The war in Ukraine has chal­lenged the Eastern Euro­pean secu­rity archi­tec­ture, empha­siz­ing the need to take deci­sive steps towards grant­ing a clear Euro­pean per­spec­tive to the Asso­ci­ated Trio countries.

The prospect of the Asso­ci­ated Trio coun­tries’ acces­sion to NATO and/​or the EU, long regarded in these coun­tries them­selves as a key to ensur­ing secu­rity and pros­per­ity, is seen as posing an exis­ten­tial threat by Russia. The con­tro­versy “insti­tu­tions vs. geopol­i­tics” or “EU vs. Russia”, viewed before Feb­ru­ary 2022 as a strictly polit­i­cal dilemma, has now been trans­formed into a con­ven­tional war in Ukraine with direct impli­ca­tions for adja­cent coun­tries and for Europe as a whole.

The ongoing war in Ukraine both under­lines the imper­a­tive of adapt­ing the Euro­pean secu­rity concept to reflect the vital role played by the partner coun­tries in Eastern Europe and shines a spot­light on destruc­tive depen­den­cies, and specif­i­cally depen­den­cies on Russian gas and money.

The spectre of war

The Repub­lic of Moldova has been faced with the very real pos­si­bil­ity of a mil­i­tary con­flict in the Eastern Euro­pean region for over 30 years, con­fronted, as it is, with Russian troops on its ter­ri­tory – the Oper­a­tional Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) in the Transnis­trian region. The 1992 war in Moldova, as well as the posi­tion and actions taken by the Russian Fed­er­a­tion during the nego­ti­a­tions, the 2008 war in Georgia, the annex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014 and the seces­sion­ist move­ments in Donbas: all of these, were har­bin­gers of large-scale vio­lence in the Eastern Euro­pean region, the only ques­tion was when and where the vio­lence would erupt.

Nonethe­less, the mem­o­ries of the atroc­i­ties of World War II, as well as the peace and pros­per­ity being enjoyed in Europe, and specif­i­cally in the Euro­pean Union, allowed vig­i­lance to wane, even making the idea of a poten­tial war in the heart of Europe appear incon­ceiv­able. Though the wor­ry­ing polit­i­cal and social devel­op­ments in Russia drew atten­tion and dis­cus­sions on the need for a renewed secu­rity archi­tec­ture in Europe which would accom­mo­date Russia’s “needs and demands” were held, the sug­ges­tion that a massive Russian mil­i­tary attack might be in the offing did not sound con­vinc­ing enough. Even in the face of clear warn­ings that the Russian Fed­er­a­tion intended to launch a mil­i­tary attack on Ukraine, it was still hard to believe that “the moment” that peace in Europe came to an end had actu­ally arrived.

Euro­pean perspective

The Russian inva­sion of Ukraine gen­er­ated the momen­tum pro­pelling the three asso­ci­ated coun­tries of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to sign a formal appli­ca­tion for EU mem­ber­ship. Once Ukraine had lodged its own appli­ca­tion in late Feb­ru­ary, expec­ta­tion ran high that Moldova’s Pres­i­dent Maia Sandu would swiftly follow suit, given that she was elected on a pro-Euro­pean plat­form and that the war in Ukraine poses an exis­ten­tial threat for her country as well.

Poten­tial can­di­date status is viewed as the only oppor­tu­nity to ensure peace, sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic recov­ery in the region. Though the war has not yet ended – Ukraine is subject to heavy and con­tin­u­ous attacks by Russian forces – it is already clear that the con­flict will have severe impacts on Moldova’s eco­nomic and social well-being. Moldova has already begun to seek new export and import markets due to the impos­si­bil­ity of con­tin­u­ing “busi­ness as usual” with Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Accord­ing to the Moldovan foreign min­is­ter, Nicu Popescu, we “…can easily look ahead at a lost decade in terms of demo­c­ra­tic con­sol­i­da­tion and eco­nomic devel­op­ment for Ukraine, for Moldova.”

A clear Euro­pean per­spec­tive for Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine at this par­tic­u­lar point in time would carry a double sig­nif­i­cance. Firstly, it would rein­force the right of these coun­tries to exer­cise their sov­er­eign choice and serve as an acknowl­edge­ment of the con­tin­u­ous respect for inter­na­tional law, norms and prin­ci­ples. Sec­ondly, by offer­ing the prospect of mem­ber­ship, the Euro­pean Union could demon­strate its unity and power, and that it stands ready to protect the Euro­pean values upon which it is based. Given that appli­ca­tions for mem­ber­ship have been made, the grant­ing of can­di­dacy status would be a major step towards con­cep­tu­ally reshap­ing Euro­pean secu­rity and a sign of strength, unity and desire to protect peace in Europe by safe­guard­ing the inde­pen­dence, sov­er­eignty and ter­ri­to­r­ial integrity of the partner coun­tries. A hes­i­tant Euro­pean Union would encour­age the Russian Fed­er­a­tion to con­tinue its “geopo­lit­i­cal and impe­ri­al­is­tic” Novorossiya plan, through either hybrid or con­ven­tional warfare beyond Ukraine.

Despite the recent state­ments by Ukraine’s Foreign Min­is­ter Dmytro Kuleba,  who pleaded for a fast track to EU mem­ber­ship for his country alone, sug­gest­ing that Moldova and Georgia’s failure to align with the sanc­tions against Russia indi­cated that they are unwill­ing to make a genuine con­tri­bu­tion towards secu­rity in Europe, the EU is still seen to regard the three coun­tries as a group and to appre­ci­ate the del­i­cate nature of the secu­rity sit­u­a­tions of its Eastern part­ners. Both Moldova and Georgia have expe­ri­enced war on their ter­ri­tory, both have been facing ter­ri­to­r­ial seces­sion­ist move­ments backed by the Russian Fed­er­a­tion for more than 30 years and both con­tinue to be depen­dent on Russia in crucial areas, such as energy sup­plies or trade. More­over, while Moldova’s con­sti­tu­tion­ally enshrined mil­i­tary neu­tral­ity limits its scope for mil­i­tary action, that same neu­tral­ity is respon­si­ble for enhanc­ing the country’s resilience and capac­ity to act as a human­i­tar­ian hub: Moldova has stepped up to take respon­si­bil­ity in a major regional secu­rity crisis sit­u­a­tion and pro­vided refuge to huge numbers of Ukrainians.

Coping with the refugee crisis

In the first 19 days of the war in Ukraine, Moldova received over 328,000 refugees and their numbers have been increas­ing hour by hour. At the time of writing, about 101,000 of these refugees remain in Moldova and a bit more than 48,000 of them are minors. In rel­a­tive terms, Moldova is shel­ter­ing 4,124 refugees per every 100,000 of its pop­u­la­tion, a pro­por­tion unmatched else­where in the region. Put dif­fer­ently, the number of Ukrain­ian refugees in the Repub­lic of Moldova cur­rently amounts to 4% of the country’s pop­u­la­tion. This is more than six times the country’s esti­mated capac­ity. [Effec­tive 15th March]

Since the first day of the war, tremen­dous efforts have been made to mit­i­gate the refugee crisis and cope with the largest human­i­tar­ian oper­a­tion in the region, both on the part of the Moldovan author­i­ties and on the part of ordi­nary cit­i­zens. Ukrain­ian refugees have found shelter in refugee centres and in private accom­mo­da­tions or flats gen­er­ously pro­vided at no cost by Moldovan cit­i­zens. The Moldovan author­i­ties list 166 refugee centres, 80 of which have been accred­ited by the National Agency of Social Assis­tance (ANAS); busi­nesses, NGOs, or other enti­ties have opened the others. The Moldovan gov­ern­ment is cur­rently cov­er­ing one-third of the costs for feeding and accom­mo­dat­ing each refugee, amount­ing to about 1.1 million USD per day. Though Moldova has demon­strated an unan­tic­i­pated capac­ity to mobilise both insti­tu­tion­ally and in society to respond to the human­i­tar­ian needs of Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens, it is quickly running out of options for pro­vid­ing com­fort­able shel­ters and care for refugees. Foreign Min­is­ter Popescu recently described his country as being in urgent need of addi­tional resources from foreign part­ners in terms of equip­ment, finan­cial aid and help with the relo­ca­tion of refugees as Moldova is rapidly “approach­ing the break­ing point”.

Vic­to­ria Rosa is an expert in inter­na­tional rela­tions, Euro­pean affairs, secu­rity & defence, con­flict studies & gender issues, civil society devel­op­ment, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on EaP countries.