Time to join NATO? Moldova eyes joining ‘a larger alliance’ – POLITICO

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DAVOS, Switzerland — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is prompting soul-searching in neighboring Moldova about whether the country needs to shift away from its constitutionally-enshrined neutrality and lock itself into a “larger alliance.”

When asked about potential NATO accession, Moldova’s President Maia Sandu said in an interview with POLITICO the country was still weighing its next step, and whether it would require a constitutional change to do so.

“Now, there is a serious discussion … about our capacity to defend ourselves, whether we can do it ourselves, or whether we should be part of a larger alliance,” she said. “And if we come, at some point, to the conclusion as a nation that we need to change neutrality, this should happen through a democratic process.”

In her response, Sandu was careful not to name-check NATO, anathema to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is already trying to destabilize Moldova’s pro-EU government. Russia has warned against further military cooperation between Moldova and Western allies.

Although Moldova is not a member of NATO, it does cooperate with the organization and contributes to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Sandu, along with other leaders, met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in New York during the United Nations General Assembly in September last year. Moldova’s foreign minister, Nicu Popescu, attended December’s NATO meeting in Bucharest — the first time a Moldovan foreign minister has participated in a NATO ministerial. At that gathering, allies reconfirmed support for Moldova, including through the provision of training for Moldovan defense forces. Neighboring NATO member Romania is also particularly keen to increase military cooperation.

The most glaring obstacle to Moldova’s further integration is that Russian soldiers are based inside the country, within the breakaway region of Transnistria.

Still, the military calculus is becoming more pressing. Moldova has found itself dangerously close to the conflict that began almost a year ago. Just last week, missile debris was found again, in the north of the country. Attacks against energy infrastructure in Ukraine also knock out power in Moldova.

Moldova must perform a delicate dance: on one hand staying true to its pro-Western and EU trajectory, on the other, not aggravating Russia to the point where it might use military force.

‘Peaceful country’

Russia has repeatedly warned Moldova about military cooperation with the West, viewing the former Soviet state as under its sphere of influence.

But Sandu pushes back against any perception that Moldova’s move to strengthen its defense — either by increasing its own military capacity, or by forging closer relations with other allies — is provocative, saying that Russia, not Ukraine or Moldova, is the aggressor.

“Moldova is a peaceful country. It’s not Moldova that started a war against its neighbors,” she said. “Russian propaganda managed to convince part of the population that neutrality means you don’t have to invest in your defense sector, that neutrality means you do nothing and you have no capacity to defend yourself, which is wrong.”

Sandu, a former World Bank official, was elected in 2020 on an anti-corruption drive. In June, the country will host the second meeting of the European Political Community, a Europe-wide forum for EU and non-EU countries, which first convened in Prague last year.

Moldova, which under the pro-Western Sandu government is committed to joining the EU, was granted candidate status in June. While discussions on accession are ongoing, the prospect of membership is still years away.

Nevertheless, the EU has increased its support for the country, allocating hundreds of millions of euros to Moldova in the form of loans and grants since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To help facilitate Moldova’s move away from Russian gas, the country’s electricity grid was synchronized with the EU last year — a significant further step towards the West.

Overall, Sandu says the country remains highly “vulnerable,” and is subject to Russian hybrid war through propaganda and misinformation. But for the moment, it’s not facing military threats. The reason? Ukrainian bravery and resilience. “Thanks to the Ukrainians’ courage and resistance, we are not facing military threats as of now,” she says. “We are facing a range of risks, but none of it compares to the situation in Ukraine and, and to the price that Ukrainians are paying.”

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