Two weeks ago I explained why Romania will fight Russia if Putin expands his war from Donbas further into Ukraine. A few commented that Romania wouldn’t fight – they are mistaken. Romania will fight, as abandoning Moldavia to Russia’s imperial ambitions would end the freedom and sovereignty of Romania itself. Romania has every right to go to war against Russia, even in another country, as Putin himself approved of this, when he declared that Russia “has the right and the obligation to protect Russians anywhere in the world.” Therefore Romania equally has the right (and obligation) to come to the aid and defense of Romanians living in Moldova.
To defend Moldova Romania needs to prepare, by arming its military and training its troops, for four scenarios:
- Hybrid war in Gagauzia
- Transnistria attacking Moldova
- Russian forces coming by sea
- Russian forces coming by land
The Kremlin could commence hostilities by any one of the four scenarios or enact them all in sequence. Therefore Romania must prepare for all four with equal vigor, and prepare quickly because after a year of being rewarded again and again by the corrupt and atrociously ignorant heads of government of the European Union, Putin now lives under the belief that might is right.
1. Hybrid war in Gagauzia Scenario
Gagauzia is an autonomous territorial unit in the South of Moldova. It is the only area not settled by a majority of Romanians. The Gagauz are Turkic-speaking, Orthodox Christians from Bulgaria, who were invited to settle in the Budjak region by Tsarist authorities after the Russo-Turkish War of 1806–12. At the start of that war Russia had deported the Budjak’s entire original population of Muslim Nogai-Tatars to Crimea, considering them to be a security risk because of their religion.
Today about 150,000 Gagauz live in Moldova. Since 1989 Russia used the threats of a secession movement in Gagauzia, renewed war with Transnistria and economic blackmail to stymie Moldovan efforts to move closer to the EU and Romania. Now that Moldova has finally decided to untie its fate from the backward mafia-fiefdom of Transnistria and is bravely fighting Russia’s economic blackmail by re-focusing its economy towards the West, Gagauzia is Russia’s last lever and Putin is already pulling it: on 2 February 2014 Gagauzia held a Russian organized “referendum,” which produced some amazing results, that were announced while ballots were still (!) being “counted.” According to the announcement 98.4% voted for joining Putin’s Customs Union, 97.2% rejected EU association and 98.9% voted for independence. Something “over 70%” was announced as the “turnout,” though naturally voter turnout was not actually calculated. A month later the Kremlin repeated this kind of farce on Crimea, but there just 96.77% “voted” for Russia. Still those are fantastic “results” compared to, for example, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who only got a measly 88.7% in the 2014 Syrian presidential “election.”
Everyone, but Russian propaganda, having ignored the Gagauz “referendum,” Russia threw money and candidates at the Moldovan parliamentary election. But that attempt at meddling in the internal affairs of another nation failed too, and Moldova now has a young, pro-EU Prime Minister in Chiril Gaburici. In a last ditch effort to retain leverage over Moldova, Russia threw all its intelligence, criminal and monetary capabilities into the Gagauz local elections and thus got its local henchwoman Irina Vlah elected. Now Russia showers Gagauzia with financial largesse and threatens daily that this largesse will disappear if Moldova’s EU association deepens.
These Russian lies will lead to war. Moldovans will not stray from their pro-EU course and they will not let the 4% Gagauzians of the population dictate what direction the nation can take. Russia will lie and fear-monger until the situation in Gagauzia will escalate to uncontrolled violence and then Russia will provide arms, mercenaries and money to stoke this hybrid war.
This war could be prevented if the EU would provide Moldova with generous financial subsidies to strengthen its Western oriented and reform-minded government. This war could be prevented if the EU would invite Gagauz leaders to visit South Tyrol in Italy, which has the most wide-ranging and most-secure autonomy globally, and assure the Gagauz leaders such autonomy could be theirs if they were to support closer EU association. This war could be prevented if the EU would spend a mere 1% of the funds destined for Greece on Moldova.
But this war won’t be prevented, because the EU is mismanaged by incompetent, uneducated and terrified politicians, who would rather have a war in Moldova or Latvia, than reducing their nation’s social system or raising their nation’s taxes. Therefore one day armed, masked men will take over government buildings in Gagauzia, with Moldova having neither the military nor police to squash this Russian coup.
Moldova’s armed forces and police are minuscule and underfunded, as every attempt by Moldova to raise its defense budget from its disastrously low 0.25% of GDP has been met by Russian threats that raising the budget would “inflame tensions with Transnistria.” Russian also claims that there is no need to raise the budget as Russian forces in Transnistria were “enough to keep the peace.” Thus Moldova is now unprepared to defeat an uprising in Gagauzia and Russia counts on this. Just as during its attack on Ukraine, Russia assumes it will have ample time to occupy a large swath of Moldovan territory, drive out Romanians as well as train Gagauz mercenaries and criminals. When Moldova’s armed forces would be finally ready for an assault, it would, just as in Sloviansk, require heavy military equipment, cost hundreds of lives and lead to more war.
Therefore Romania must prepare to squash any kind of armed unrest in Gagauzia quickly and with utter ruthlessness. Ukraine’s corrupt police and its under-financed, unprepared military did not squash Russia’s little green men in Donetsk, Luhansk and Sloviansk fast enough. On the other hand the citizens of Odesa squashed Russia’s attempt to establish a bridgehead in their city quickly, efficiently and with the required ruthlessness to dissuade others. Theirs is an example to follow. Not just for Romania and Moldova, but also for Latvia and Estonia: if they are armed and masked and occupy buildings – wipe them out as quickly as you can.
Hybrid War in Gagauzia would commence with the occupation of government and police buildings in the Gagauz capital of Comrat. This city of 26,000 is a mere 140km from Bacău in Romania, where the Romanian Air Force’s 863rd Helicopter Squadron and the Romanian Army’s 630th Paratrooper Battalion are based, or in other words: Bacău is home to Romania’s Polite Green Men.
Just as Russia did in Crimea and continues to do in Donbas, Romania should keep a tiny veil of deniability when its helicopters fly troops from Bacău to Comrat to wipe out Russia’s agents there. What can Putin say, when men in insignia-less uniforms with “weapons bought from a shop,” fight his men in insignia-less uniforms with weapons bought from a shop?
Additionally the Romanian Army’s 620th Special Forces Battalion in Buzău and the troops of the Special Brigade of Intervention of the Romanian Gendarmerie in Bucharest should be readied for deployment as Polite Green Men to Gagauzia. When combined these anti-terrorism units of Romania are trained, armed and numerous enough to quell any attempt by Russia to replicate the Donbas or Crimea scenario in Gagauzia. Romania doesn’t need to buy new equipment or increase the number of its Special Forces. All Romania needs is to be ready to move these troops to Gagauzia within hours of any unrest and have them quell it as efficiently as possible.
2. Transnistria attacking Moldova Scenario
The Kremlin could also decide to renew the Transnistria War it created, stoked and then “resolved” in 1992. Since that time the war has been frozen, but Russia has kept enough material, troops and ammunition in Transnistria to heat it up again at any time. Currently the armed forces of Transnistria and the Russian forces based there outnumber the Moldovan Army 2:1 and with a large superiority in tanks, artillery and helicopters. Moldova’s army is also widely dispersed over its territory while Transnistrian troops are based where they will be needed in case of war:
- One Transnistrian brigade is based in Rîbnița in the North with the task to tie down Moldova’s 1st Infantry Brigade in Bălţi
- One Transnistrian brigade is based in Dubăsari and tasked to overrun the Moldovan enclaves on the Eastern side of the Dniester River
- One Transnistrian brigade is based in Tiraspol and one in Bender, which would have to drive just 45km to reach Moldova’s capital Chișinău, which is defended by just one Moldovan brigade.
If Putin were to order a resumption of the war in Moldova, either as a pretext to demand a corridor from Odesa to Transnistria or in angry response to the failure of a Russian organized uprising in Gagauzia, Moldova could not defeat such an attack on its own. Moldova’s army is too small, too badly trained, too under-equipped and too dispersed. Moldova’s only advantage is that almost the entire front would run along the Dniester River, with the bad news that almost all bridges are located in cities or close to cities with Transnistrian troop concentrations, which will prevent Moldova from blowing up the bridges in time.
In short Moldova cannot defend itself. Russia knows this and Romania knows this, which is why Romania’s 15th Mechanized Brigade is based in Iaşi, 15km from Moldova’s border and 2 hours’ drive from Chișinău. In case of war the 15th Mechanized Brigade would be the first to come to the aid of Moldovan forces, followed by the 282nd Mechanized Brigade based in Focșani. The 15th and 282nd are Romania’s best equipped brigades and are both under command of the 2nd Infantry Division “Getica” in Buzău, which could also draw on Romania’s 8th Artillery Brigade in Focşani and the 10th Engineer Brigade in Brăila for rocket artillery fire and river-crossing capabilities. Additionally four MiG-21 LanceR-A ground attack squadrons of the Romanian air force based at Feteşti and Bacău would pound Transnistrian forces relentlessly if they ever advanced into Moldova.
Together with Moldova’s 3rd Infantry Brigade in Cahul and its Artillery Brigade in Ungheni this combined Romanian-Moldovan force will be enough to stop and defeat any Transnistrian advance towards Chișinău, but these forces are not strong enough and not well equipped enough to cross the Dniester and defeat Transnistria for good. To truly defeat Transnistria Romania would have to send at least three additional mechanized brigades to Moldova and call up large numbers of reservists to bring all brigades to full strength. However it is not in Romania’s interested to cross the Dniester and eliminate Transnistria; as such a turn of events would definitely see the Russian military intervene directly against Romania. Russia will keep its forces out of direct combat until Romanian-Moldovan forces reach the city of Bender, which lies on the Western side of the Dniester but is currently under Transnistrian control. Also any attempt to cross the Dniester further north would see Russia’s “peacekeeping” forces intervene directly in the conflict.
Russia’s intervention would consist of two things: ground forces joining Transnistrian forces at the front and artillery support, but with Romanian air superiority such artillery support would be quickly destroyed. Luckily for Moldova and Romania Russia cannot provide modern artillery, air-defense and tank support, because, unlike in Donbas, Russia has no direct land connection to Transnistria, and every piece of equipment and all troops sent there have to pass through Moldova’s Chișinău airport. Therefore the only way for Russia to provide quick battlefield support is to fire ballistic missiles from Crimea over the Black Sea and over Ukraine at Romanian force concentrations along the Dniester.
Last December Russia moved Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles, which can also carry nuclear warheads, to Crimea and with a range of nearly 500km these missiles are the only ones able to reach Transnistria from Crimea. However Russia won’t fire nuclear warheads against Romanian forces in Transnistria, it would fire them at Romanian or Moldovan cities in case Romanian and Moldovan forces cross the Dniester in force.
But while an uprising in Gagauzia or a rekindled Transnistria war would be easy for Romania to defeat with its current military forces, and even a Russian attempted airborne landing of troops to reinforce Transnistria could be defeated by the combined air-defense and air forces of Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, Romania is badly prepared if Putin decides to land Russian forces in Odesa and engage Romania militarily.