Moldova faces blackouts this winter as Russia weaponizes energy

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The Republic of Moldova faces power outages this winter. The country is already suffering from an energy crisis and domestic energy prices are soaring. The situation in one of Europe’s poorest countries could get even worse, with the looming possibility that Russia’s Kremlin will completely cut gas supplies, as Putin weaponize energy against the pro-EU Moldovan government.

In October, Ukraine had to cut its electricity exports to Moldova after Russian missile fire targeted the country’s energy infrastructure. A few weeks later, Gazprom announced that it cut off daily gas supplied to Moldova by half of the agreed volumes, at 5.7 million cubic meters per day. On November 15, Moldovans faced power outages across the country after Russia launched new missile strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure and one of the power lines carrying electricity from Ukraine. to Moldova automatically disconnected accordingly.

“Parts of Moldova are experiencing power outages following Russian missile strikes hitting Ukrainian towns and vital infrastructure,” said Nicu Popescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, in a tweet during outages. “Every bomb that falls on Ukraine also affects Moldova and our people.”

Powering Moldova from contested regions

Moldova is particularly vulnerable to energy destabilization because the country’s energy self-sufficiency is among the lowest in the world. The country, a former Soviet republic, has always been one of the most dependent on Russia for its gas supply. On top of that, Moldova has always been dependent on a power station in the breakaway region of Transnistria for electricity.

Transnistria is located in the east of Moldova between the Dniester River and Ukraine. A conflict between the independent Republic of Moldova and separatists, backed by the Russian Federation, resulted in the breakaway state of Transnistria in 1992. Although it is globally recognized as part of Moldova, Moldovan authorities do not have no de facto control over the region. Since then, Russia has maintained a military presence in the region.

According to the IEAthe internationally recognized state of Moldova builds on Transnistria Cuciurgani-Moldavskaya GRES (MGRES) power station for 80% of electricity consumption, while only 20% was produced in uncontested areas of the country.

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As Transnistria has a predominantly Russian-speaking population and is supported by the Kremlin, the former Prime Minister of Moldova expressed fears that they would suffer the same fate as Ukraine. The conflict has already spilled over into Moldova – in April a series of explosions took place across Transnistria and in October the remains of a Russian missile shot down by Ukrainian defenses landed in the Moldovan border village of Naslavcea.

On September 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that any action deemed to endanger Russian “peacekeepers” in Transnistria would be seen as an attack on Russia, further increasing tensions between the nations. “Everyone must understand that any kind of action that will pose a threat to the safety of our military will be considered in accordance with international law as an attack on the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said. in a report.

Russia also supports Transnistria financially, with the energy sector playing a crucial role. Significant parts of Moldova’s energy infrastructure have been built in Transnistria, including the power plant, which means the country has to rely on Transnistria for most energy needs and, by proxy, on Russia. After the 1992 conflict, Transnistria stopped paying gas to Russia. The “free” gas is resold to the Transnistrian power plant and a steel mill at discounted rates for finance half of Transnistria’s budget.

However, Gazprom has added Transnistria’s gas bill to Moldova’s already large gas debt, which society has grown since the country’s independence. According to Gazprom, Moldova’s debt stood at more than $700 million in October last year, which the Moldovan government said it would only recognize after a (currently delayed) audit. Transnistria is estimated to owe an additional $7 billion in unpaid gas bills.

Survive winter in Moldova, without Russian gas

Current deliveries of 5.7 million cubic meters of gas per day should be enough to see Moldova through the coldest winter months, says Sergiu Tofilat, a Moldovan financial and energy policy analyst. According to his calculations, Moldova has already reduced its gas consumption by 35-40% by converting a power plant in Chișinău from gas to heavy fuel oil, at the same time other measures approved by the government this summer. This means that in January, the month of peak consumption, Moldova would need about 140 million cubic meters of gas, which amounts to 4.5 million cubic meters per day.

Moldovan refineries receive gas from Russia, with one part of the country writing checks for the other to cash. Credit: iStock/Getty Images.

The problem, however, is that the gas supply is not only intended for Moldova, but also for Transnistria. Gas is now distributed at a rate of 3.4 million cubic meters for Moldova, and 2.3 million per day for Transnistria. While the population is only a fifth of Moldova’s population, the region normally consumes more gas per year than Moldova due to the region’s energy-intensive power and steel plants.

“Transnistria cannot survive without gas, both from an energy and financial point of view. Their only chance to overcome this winter is to lean on [Moldova’s capital] Chișinău,” says Tofilat.

By reducing the overall gas supply, Russia is pressuring Moldova to split its limited supply. President Maia Sandu made it clear in October that the Moldovan government was ready to help Transnistria with gas, but only if they pay. This creates a complicated political situation.

“Putin would not want to take responsibility for completely cutting off the gas supply to Transnistria, because they will face a humanitarian crisis,” says Sergiu Tofilat. “Instead, it limits the supply and gives the responsibility of deciding how to distribute these volumes to the government of Chișinău.

“If the Moldovan government decides that Transnistria won’t get gas if it doesn’t pay, that would give Putin the opportunity to say that [Transnistria’s declared capital] Tiraspol is freezing because the government disconnected them, and that would justify completely cutting off Moldova’s gas supply.

Russia has already cut off supplies to several European countries. It wouldn’t be the first time Moldova’s gas supply has been disconnected either: in 2006, Russia cut off gas to Moldova over a price dispute and in 2009, Russia cut off gas to Moldova. Gas flows through Ukraine, which left more than 50,000 people. without gas refueling for several weeks. Late last year, Russia repeatedly threatened to cut off gas supply over debt. Even if there is no gas coming from Russia, Sergiu Tofilat believes the country should be able to manage with help from the EU and neighboring countries.

“For the whole winter, we will need about 650 million cubic meters of gas. We have already purchased 150 million cubic meters,” explains the energy analyst. “The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is lending 300 million euros to Moldova. On Thursday, the European Commission provided an additional 250 million euros, including 200 million euros specifically earmarked for emergency gas acquisitions. So on the gas side, we’re covered.

Prevent the worsening of fuel poverty

According to Tofilat, energy security issues are of greater concern. Moldova has two main electricity transmission lines, one from Romania through Transnistria to Moldova, and the other from Ukraine to Moldova. With Ukraine’s energy infrastructure under fire, Transnistria threatening to cut electricity supplies and limits on alternative remedies, the issues are more complicated to resolve.

In addition, Moldova has a limited ability to pay consumers. According to United Nations Development Program, 60% of Moldovans live in fuel poverty. During a recent visit to Romania, Maia Sandu told the Romanian Parliament that families already spend about 75% of their income on energy.

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Cost of living assistance is already available to residents. The Moldovan government announced in August that it subsidize the cost of firewood to ensure that those who depend on wood as their main source of heating will still have access to it despite soaring prices. The Romanian government has agreed to sell electricity to Moldova at a capped price. Yet more subsidies are needed to help vulnerable households through the energy crisis.

“The question is how can we provide sufficient subsidies to consumers to avoid backlogs and disconnections from the grid,” Tofilat explains.

But even if, in the worst case, Moldova faces power outages this winter, any situation will only be amplified in Transnistria. The energy crisis may well push separatists to find a way to resolve conflicts between regions as they are running out of options, Tofilat thinks.

He explains: “In the worst-case scenario, Moldova will still go through this energy crisis. Transnistria, on the other hand, will go bankrupt within a few months. The current situation is untenable for them, and they understand that. They only have enough reserves to last two months. After these two months, they will either have to leave their home or find a way to solve the problems with Chișinău.

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