In Moldova, Europe bids to show Putin united front

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European leaders meet Thursday at a summit held on one of the most vulnerable points on the continent’s strategic frontline, in a show of diplomatic force designed to pressure Moscow.

The European Political Community (EPC), which groups 27 EU members with 40 of their allies and excludes Russia and Belarus, chose Ukraine’s tiny neighbour Moldova for its second summit.

Less than an hour’s drive from a Russian-backed breakaway Moldovan region and not much further from war-torn Ukraine, they will try to send a message to Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin.

First and foremost, holding the summit outside Chisinau shows solidarity with Moldova in the face of Russian destabilisation operations and support for its EU membership bid.

It is also an opportunity for European states — whether EU members, recent leaver Britain or candidates for future membership like Ukraine — to work together on regional crises.

“We must also think of a wider Europe,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who first promoted the EPC, told reporters in Bratislava on the eve of the summit.

“We must think of our Europe not simply from a security point of view within the framework of NATO and not simply within the framework of the European Union.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s travel plans are never announced in advance, for security reasons in the wake of Russia’s invasion of his country. 

But if he takes up his invitation to the EPC, he will be seeking not just solidarity but progress on Ukraine’s parallel bids to join NATO and the European Union.

The Moldova summit also came as NATO ministers, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, met to discuss the agenda of the alliance’s next summit.

The NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11 will debate how formal a promise to give Kyiv on how and when to join the alliance, but in the interim Europe is keen to show support.

Macron acknowledged that Ukraine’s forces battling Russian invaders in the east and south of their country are “protecting Europe”.

And he said the allies should find a way to offer “tangible and credible security guarantees to Ukraine” while the eventual questions of EU and NATO membership are pending.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose country left the European Union but remains in NATO, said, “Putin’s utter contempt of other countries’ sovereignty” showed the need for unity.

“We cannot address these problems without Europe’s governments and institutions working closely together,” he said.

With up to 47 heads of state and government invited, not much time has been set aside for a general group discussion, but diplomats hope side meetings will deal with practical issues.

Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz will convene a meeting between foes Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

Yerevan and Baku have fought for decades over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, but have both been invited to the EPC as Washington and Brussels push for a peace deal.

Another long-standing European conflict, the standoff between Serbia and Kosovo will be on the agenda, with leaders from Pristina and Belgrade under pressure to dial down tensions. 

Finally, for Moldova itself, the summit will mark a crucial step on its route from being a former Soviet republic part-occupied by Russian “peacekeepers” towards a European future.

Summit host President Maia Sandu wants — as do Ukraine and Georgia — to begin formal EU membership negotiations this year, to “save our democracy” from Russian interference.

She received powerful backing on the eve of the summit from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who hailed Moldova’s “big progress” in EU-requested reforms.

“Moldova is at the heart of Europe. Moldova is Europe. And today and tomorrow, the whole of Europe is Moldova,” von der Leyen said.

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