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

Photo: Michaal Nigro /​ Imago Images

Many refugees from Southern Ukraine use the border crossing point “Palanca” to get into the Republic of Moldova. 

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 toward 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. 



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