Moldova’s Fate Is Tied to Ukraine’s: Now Is the Time for the West to “Go Big” on Moldova

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Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, a stark manifestation of post–Cold War tensions, has had a dramatic impact on Europe’s security and political landscape. Moldova, a small country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, is at a historic crossroads. With a pro-Western government in power and a highly capable president at its helm, Moldova is poised for European integration but imperiled by its historic linkages with Russia and its proximity to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

While Ukraine defends itself against a full-fledged Russian military invasion, Moldova is confronting a parallel Russian “hybrid war” that aims to destabilize the regime of President Maia Sandu and torpedo the country’s prospective alignment with the West. The political futures of both countries are now intertwined: Moldova’s independence will ultimately rely on Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s kinetic aggression, and Ukraine’s chances of victory and post-war stability increase with the assurance of a resilient and reliable partner in Moldova.

Moldova’s independence will ultimately rely on Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s kinetic aggression, and Ukraine’s chances of victory and post-war stability increase with the assurance of a resilient and reliable partner in Moldova.

With this context in mind, Moldova’s near-term fate will be determined by five factors: (1) whether the United States continues to provide assistance to Ukraine and Moldova, (2) whether Ukraine manages to hold off Russian forces on the battlefield, (3) whether Sandu is reelected this fall, (4) whether Moldova’s reform agenda and economic opening with the European Union continue to progress, and (5) whether Moldova is able to handle a slow-motion energy crisis coming in December 2024.

Now is the time for the West to “go big” on Moldova as an extension of its support for Ukraine’s war effort and the liberal democratic principles that underpin it. U.S. policymakers should view Moldova’s current pro-Ukrainian government and path to economic resilience as critical to Ukraine’s success in the war, given that the alternative—a pro-Russian or corrupt Moldovan leader—could thwart Moldova’s aspirations of Western alignment, leave Ukraine cornered, and ultimately dim Kyiv’s prospects for survival. As an end goal, Moldova should aspire for the success of Estonia—another post-Soviet state of relatively equal size, which is nonetheless four times richer, free of any dependency on Russian energy, a member of both the European Union and NATO, and home to a thriving democracy with a developed market economy and a firm handle on corruption. A bright future for Moldova is within reach, but it cannot get there without sustained international support.


Moldova is a landlocked country of approximately 2.5 million people, bordered by Ukraine to the east and Romania to the west. As a contested region once claimed by both the Ottoman and Russian Empires, the historically Romanian-speaking territory spent more than 100 years under Russian imperial rule between the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After briefly uniting with neighboring Romanian-speaking territories under Greater Romania (1920–40), it was reannexed by the Soviet Union under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviets and Nazi Germany and spent the next 51 years as a Soviet socialist republic. When Moldova gained its independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, “strong gravitational pulls from Romania and Russia” opened deep social divisions that continue to define the country’s major political fault lines. Moldova’s economic ties with Russia and the presence of a significant Russian-speaking minority have worked to Moscow’s advantage, but the resurgence of nationalism among the Romanian-speaking majority—1 million of whom now carry Romanian passports—generated a powerful Moldovan-Romanian reunification movement that has clashed with Soviet nostalgia. Languishing in geopolitical uncertainty between Russia and Europe, the country has struggled to navigate its post-Soviet transition and failed to establish robust, functioning institutions.

As of 2024, Moldova is the second-poorest country in Europe after Ukraine, with a current GDP per capita of $7,490. In comparison, Estonia’s current GDP per capita is $31,850. Moldova’s economic potential has been stifled by institutional weakness, political dysfunction, endemic corruption, and Russian interference, which have long blocked its path to EU membership and pushed as many as 1 million Moldovans to emigrate in search of better opportunities abroad. Russian pressure campaigns have further boxed the country in, using Moldova’s dependencies as a lever to keep the country within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. Internal divisions within Moldova have been an additional source of Russian influence and obstacle to reform: pro-Russian sentiments have felled all previous Western-leaning governing coalitions and remain politically salient in the autonomous Gagauzia region as well as in the breakaway region of Transnistria.

Two watershed events have recently shifted the winds in favor of Moldova’s European integration and transformation into a free-market economy: the election of pro-Western Sandu as president in 2020 and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Two watershed events have recently shifted the winds in favor of Moldova’s European integration and transformation into a free-market economy: the election of pro-Western Sandu as president in 2020 and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Sandu, a Harvard graduate and former World Bank staffer, is widely considered to be the strongest leader in Moldova’s 30-year history. Her Eurocentric vision and record of uncompromising integrity have put Moldova on a clear path toward democratic accountability and economic prosperity. Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) has launched an aggressive and ambitious reform agenda. This agenda is aimed at bringing the country’s institutions in line with those of the European Union, with a particular focus on overhauling the judiciary and rooting out corruption.

The Moldovan government has also supported Ukraine without formally renouncing the country’s constitutionally enshrined neutrality. It has responded to the invasion by condemning the Kremlin’s aggression, imposing unofficial sanctions on Russia, and cracking down on Russian media manipulation. Moldova has also accepted more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other country.

Whether Moldova maintains its trajectory of rapid growth or slows significantly will depend on the next six months. Sandu’s government has achieved a degree of progress unique in the country’s history, but this momentum cannot be sustained without greater Western engagement. As the Moldovan government grapples with Russian-incited political turmoil, the slow pace of institutional reform, and the economic shocks associated with the war in Ukraine and the decoupling of Moldova’s economy and energy grid from Russia, the country’s path to EU accession may get derailed. Moldova’s future will ultimately turn on the results of the November election and upcoming referendum on EU accession, the resilience of its new energy supply, and the steadfastness of the West’s support for Ukraine.

Sandu’s government has achieved a degree of progress unique in the country’s history, but this momentum cannot be sustained without greater Western engagement.

Will the United States Continue Aiding Ukraine and Moldova?

More than nine months after U.S. president Joe Biden first requested supplemental aid for Ukraine’s armed forces, Congress passed a $95.3 billion foreign aid bill in late April that included $61 billion for Ukraine and an additional $25 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to support the recovery of reclaimed Ukrainian territory and assist resilience efforts in Moldova. The earmarking of aid for Moldova reflects an awareness of the two countries’ interdependence in the conflict; given Ukraine’s frosty relationship with its other neighbors, strengthening Moldova is critical not only for Ukrainian port access but also for the advantages of a friendly neighbor with shared ambitions of Western alignment. Although it was a major victory, the long-overdue passage of the bill underscored the fragility of U.S. support for Ukraine. After breezing through the Democrat-controlled Senate with a 70 percent vote in favor, the legislation faced a much chillier reception in the Republican-controlled House, leaving Ukraine and Moldova in dangerous suspense while an emboldened Russia began revving up its air assaults and testing for weak spots along the front line. The stated reasons for the delay included a growing wariness of Ukrainian corruption and increased opposition to subsidizing foreign conflicts with taxpayer dollars, with a strong contingent of hard-right Republicans being the major obstacle. Republicans insisted on a number of “important innovations” to the bill, including options to provide loans rather than grants, use frozen Russian assets to support Ukraine, and ramp up U.S. natural gas exports to squeeze Russia’s budget revenue.

Photo: Viktor Kovalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky (M), President of the European Council Charles Michel (L), and President of the Republic of Moldova Maia Sandu (R) during the press conference on November 21, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Viktor Kovalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Photo: Viktor Kovalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

The concerns that held up this most recent aid package may still derail future assistance efforts. Ukraine will require steadfast U.S. backing for the remainder of the conflict and for the country’s reconstruction, but the current appetite for such support in Congress is low. Without greater efforts to mobilize a higher level of engagement and political support for Ukraine, this $61 billion aid deal will “almost certainly [be] the last package of such magnitude.” The uncertainties associated with the potential outcomes of the U.S. presidential and congressional elections this November exacerbate the challenge of building a favorable consensus on Ukraine. With both chambers of Congress expected to flip and majorities likely to remain slim, the leadership and composition of key congressional committees will shift, leaving support for Ukraine at the mercy of new partisan logjams. The implications of a possible change in administration present another hurdle. Former president Donald Trump—the presumptive Republican nominee—has said that any additional assistance to Ukraine would be made conditional on issuing aid in the form of a loan and greater burden sharing, namely the requirement that NATO members divert 2 percent of their budgets toward defense. If Western allies fail to step up, a Trump administration could attribute a future cessation of or reduction in U.S. support for Ukraine to European countries’ inability or unwillingness to meet their defense commitments. Experts have warned that there is “no substitute” for Washington’s military and financial firepower—as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky stressed in early April, Ukraine “will lose the war” if Congress shuts off the tap.

Will Ukraine Manage to Hold Off Russian Forces on the Battlefield?

Two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion captured nearly a quarter of the country, the stakes could not be higher for Kyiv. After a string of victories in 2022, the Ukrainian military now finds itself dug in, outgunned, and outnumbered against a larger and more powerful opponent. As the war enters its third year, Kyiv is facing critical shortages of manpower, ammunition, and money amid intense attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure. Defense experts widely predicted that the conflict was headed for a stalemate after the Ukrainian military’s much-anticipated summer counteroffensive failed to yield any breakthroughs in 2023. That projection now appears optimistic: Russian forces seized the embattled city of Avdiivka in mid-February, and the Kremlin continues to mobilize Russia’s defense industry to maintain momentum on the front lines. New reports suggest that Russian forces “may soon be able to fire 5,000 artillery rounds a day,” while their Ukrainian counterparts have been able to meet only 10 percent of their ammunition needs. Although the long-awaited approval of additional U.S. aid will help relieve pressure on the Ukrainian military, significant damage has already been done to Ukraine’s war effort. The dynamics of the war have changed dramatically in the past nine months, and growing concerns about Ukraine’s military strategy and overall chances of victory are contributing to waning support for Ukraine in Congress. Even if Kyiv embraces a more defensive long-term strategy, Ukraine’s need for help remains open-ended—and it remains uncertain whether Washington or Brussels will heed the call moving forward.

The potential collapse of Ukraine’s war effort has significant implications for Moldova as one of the probable next targets of Russian military adventurism against former Soviet states. Just as the Kremlin began planting narratives to justify the 2014 invasion of Crimea during its 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia’s criticism of Moldova’s “Western capture” represents “the telegraphing of foreign policy goals that have in the past been chased with Russian aggression.” Moldova, which ranks 144th out of 145 analyzed countries in military strength globally, is within direct missile and drone range of the Ukrainian conflict. Odessa is only an 111-mile drive from the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, closer together than Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Transnistria provides an obvious corridor for a Russian invasion, particularly given the presence of roughly 1,500 Russian soldiers in the region. Russian president Vladimir Putin has spoken openly about reaching Transnistria through Ukraine, meaning that a break in the Ukrainian lines would leave Moldova defenseless. Without foreign aid, Ukraine’s front line will crumble and take Moldova with it—putting Russian troops right on the border of NATO and the European Union, a development that is not in the interests of the United States or its partners and allies. In the meantime, the recent sale of French airspace monitoring systems to Moldova and Estonia’s efforts to support Moldova’s cyber defense capabilities provide examples of ways in which the West can help Moldova modernize its military.

Without foreign aid, Ukraine’s front line will crumble and take Moldova with it—putting Russian troops right on the border of NATO and the European Union, a development that is not in the interests of the United States or its partners and allies.

Will President Sandu Win Reelection This Fall?

Moldova is set to hold presidential elections on October 20, 2024. There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about Sandu’s chances of reelection: the president’s approval rating reportedly increased from 40 percent in 2022 to 46 percent in 2023, and current polls put her ahead of the opposition candidate Igor Dodon, the leader of the pro-Russian Party of Socialists. At the same time, the electoral margins appear worryingly thin compared with 2020. A December 2023 poll shows Sandu leading the presidential race 30 percent to 24 percent over Dodon, who has gained 8 percentage points since September. Yet although she is projected to win the first round, Sandu is projected to lose the second—not only to Dodon (35 percent to 46 percent) but also to the next-highest-ranking opposition candidate, Ion Ceban (34 percent to 42 percent).

The situation is especially precarious in light of Russia’s disruption of previous elections and the uncovering of a Kremlin-backed coup plot in early 2023. The stakes of this election virtually guarantee Russian destabilization efforts, either to rig the results in Dodon’s favor or, in the case of a PAS victory, to discredit the electoral outcome. Moldovan authorities and independent media investigators have exposed the extent of Russia’s interference campaign, which includes cyberattacks, weaponized disinformation, and Russian-sponsored public protests. The “unprecedented levels of Russian interference” in Moldova’s recent local elections can be considered a test run for larger-scale disruption efforts this fall. The information war within Moldova ultimately favors Russia, not Moldova. Since the country’s independence, Moldovan institutions have been weak—victims of Russian undermining, plundering by oligarchs, and the brain drain of mass emigration. These challenges have weakened the pro-reform government’s ability to counter malign narratives. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that many of Moldova’s native Russian speakers look to Russian sources for their news. Even though the Kremlin-backed news channels were banned in Moldova in mid-2022, the replacement of these networks with more balanced Russian-language programming has been slow.

Will Moldova’s Economic Opening with the European Union and Reform Agenda Continue to Progress?

Other than the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, Moldova’s near-term future hinges on its ongoing economic opening with the European Union and its ability to execute the requisite reforms that will keep the country on track for EU accession. By all accounts, Moldova’s progress toward European integration is the one area in which Sandu and the PAS have seen “unmitigated success,” but the slow pace of institutional reforms has left the public agitated. The high hopes that followed the PAS’s initial victory have now been offset by several years of turbulence. Since 2020, Moldovan society has been rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic, an energy crisis, an influx of Ukrainian refugees, supply chain disruptions, and the loss of traditional markets. Taken together, these challenges have overshadowed the government’s comparatively subtle steps toward long-term development. Like Ukraine, Moldova’s path to EU membership is steep, requiring major administrative, political, judicial, and economic reforms, as well as the alignment of domestic laws and standards with those of the European Union. These major structural changes will take time to crystallize; as growing pains test public patience and put pressure on Sandu, the country’s visible rapprochement with the European Union has become her strongest source of political capital. Sandu’s pledge to make Moldova “a full member of the European family by 2030” appears more in reach than ever: although Moldova remains in an “early stage” of the reform process, the European Commission’s approval of the country’s liberal trajectory prompted the European Council to open formal accession negotiations with both Moldova and Ukraine on December 14, 2023.

If domestic reforms and deeper economic engagement with Europe continue to move forward without further disruptions, Moldova’s entry into the European Union by 2030 might be possible. Russian subversion efforts have not managed to dim public support for the bloc: recent polls conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) found that 63 percent of Moldova’s population pins the country’s future on EU membership, and 67 percent ranks the European Union as Moldova’s most important economic partner. Forty-two percent of adults also believe that Moldova is moving in the right direction—a 14-point increase from IRI’s 2022 poll and the highest it has been in nearly a decade. Given the divisions within Moldovan society and the volatility of its political landscape, Sandu has moved to capitalize on favorable winds by announcing a referendum on EU accession this November. By focusing the government’s efforts on her most popular issue, Sandu is more likely to assuage those whose support for EU integration outweighs any current dissatisfaction with the PAS. One of the reasons that polling on EU membership is higher than PAS favorability is the fact that many Russian speakers, including some of Transnistria’s leaders and business elite, stand to benefit from European integration and are supportive of deeper EU-Moldovan relations. In light of Moldovan ambivalence toward Russia and the risks of a pro-Russian backlash, the European Union can support Moldova’s trajectory by prioritizing accession talks, extending support for ongoing reforms, and making additional efforts to strengthen EU-Moldovan trade, thereby offering the population a preview of the advantages of EU membership.

Will Moldova Handle a Slow-Motion Energy Crisis Coming in December 2024?

Until recently, Moldova sourced 100 percent of its energy from Russian gas delivered through Ukraine to Transnistria, the site of the country’s only power plant. Although Transnistria received the gas for free, with associated revenues constituting the bulk of the region’s income, Russia billed the Moldovan government for the costs. This arrangement gave Russia an annual opportunity to strong-arm Moldova for concessions by dangling the threat of price hikes and throttled gas supplies. The unbundling of Moldova’s energy sector became a top government priority after the invasion of Ukraine, which plunged Moldova into its worst energy crisis since its independence. Last fall, the government broke Moldova’s dependence on Russian gas by drawing on a pipeline running through Romania, and it also conducted an audit that disproved the country’s debt to Russian energy giant Gazprom.

These efforts have dashed Russia’s “gas blackmail” in all but one area: 70 percent of Moldova’s electricity still comes from the Russian gas-powered plant in Transnistria. While the path toward long-term energy independence—including the development of renewable energy alternatives—will take time, more immediate efforts can be made to accelerate Moldova’s integration into the European energy grid through projects such as the EU-backed construction of new electric transmission lines between Moldova and Romania. Current initiatives will need to accelerate before the year’s end: Russia’s contract with Ukraine to transport gas via pipelines in Ukrainian territory will expire on December 31, 2024, and failure to replace it could trigger a second energy crisis and mass emigration. Furthermore, because Transnistria will no longer be receiving heavily subsidized Russian gas, the potential collapse of the region’s economy risks leaving Moldova with another refugee crisis that it is ill equipped to handle, as Transnistria’s residents pour over the banks of the Nistru river in search of opportunities. The international community must make every effort to ensure the operability of new electricity networks, help Romania increase its electricity production, and support Moldova’s own domestic capacity. This planning and negotiation must include Transnistria, both in negotiation with Transnistrian leaders to continue using the region’s electrical plant with gas supplied from non-Russian sources and in ensuring that there is a plan to help support the Transnistrian economy.


Western investments in both Ukraine and Moldova over the next several months have an enormous potential for return—a democratic and prosperous Moldova supports a free and open Eastern Europe, and Moldova’s pro-Western government offers a strategic opportunity to usher a country deprived of democracy into the European fold and create a template for good governance in the region. The end state for Moldova is a flourishing democracy with a strong GDP, resilient institutions, energy independence, full EU membership, and the protection of regional security partnerships with Romania and Ukraine.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Thomas Bryja is a research assistant and program coordinator with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development
Thomas Bryja
Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Project on Prosperity and Development