CHISINAU, Moldova -- European leaders started gathering in Moldova Wednesday on the eve of a sprawling summit aiming to show a united front in the face of Russia's war in Ukraine and underscore support for the Eastern European country’s ambitions to draw closer to the West and keep Moscow at bay.
Moldova, Europe’s poorest country which is cradled by Ukraine on three sides, is putting its best foot forward for the second meeting of the European Political Community, a gathering which will bring together around 50 leaders from 47 countries in what organizers are calling the largest international event in the country’s history.
The choice to hold the summit in Moldova, a former Soviet republic of around 2.6 million people, is seen as a message to the Kremlin both by the European Union and by the pro-Western Moldovan government, which received EU candidate status in June of last year at the same time as Ukraine.
“The presence of 50 European leaders, 50 heads of state and government right now in Moldova, in Chisinau, gives a very strong message. Moldova is at the heart of Europe. Moldova is Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said upon her arrival in the capital.
The attendance of heavy hitters like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and von der Leyen speaks to the commitment of ensuring Russia’s ambitions to control Moldova don't go unchallenged.
In Chisinau, and on the 35-kilometer (21-mile) route to the rural summit venue in Bulboaca, roads were being resurfaced, crosswalks painted and EU flags hung in anticipation of the arrival of the heads of state and government from European Union countries and other continental nations.
Russia is chronically critical of Moldova’s lean toward the West, claiming this presents security concerns and shows the hegemonic intentions of the United States and its allies in the EU.
Last week, after the deployment of the EU Partnership Mission to Moldova, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Gazulin said that “the EU seeks to consolidate the pro-Western course pursued by the current leadership of Moldova (and) set up the country for confrontation with Russia, ignoring the interests and mood of the population.”
“The increase in cooperation between Chisinau and NATO and the EU in the military-political sphere, of course, cannot but cause us concern,” Gazulin said in an interview with state news agency RIA-Novosti.
Von der Leyen wasn't shy about highlighting Moldova's Western credentials and promised new financing and investment steps that would leverage around 1.6 billion euros for the nation.
There has been consistent speculation that Russia would use the war in Ukraine as a bridgehead for taking control of Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria, where Russia already has a military contingent.
On Monday, the head of the defense committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, Viktor Bondarev, called for strengthening Russia’s military presence in Transnistria, along with other places, citing the growing malign influence of the United States in the region.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu has warned of plots by Moscow to overthrow her government using external saboteurs. Several incidents have also occurred in recent months involving missiles that have traversed Moldova's skies and apparent debris from the war in Ukraine that has been found on its territory.
Sandu has called the summit “a testament to growing unity on the (European) continent,” while Moldovan officials have pointed to the summit’s venue at Mimi Castle, an opulent late-19th-century winery only around 12 miles (20 kilometers) from both Ukraine and Transnistria, as a defiant signal of the EU’s dedication to the region in the face of Russia’s aggression.
The summit is a "resolute reaffirmation of our unwavering dedication to peace, a strong condemnation of Russia’s invasion (and of Moldova's) continued solidarity with Ukraine,” Sandu said.
It is the second such meeting of the EPC, the brainchild of Macron, who envisioned it as “a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons and in particular, of our youth.”
Yet while the war in Ukraine has served to boost unity between the EU and countries to its east, the unwieldy group of leaders won't be able to hide some of its internal conflicts.
One major meeting is expected to include European Council President Charles Michel, Scholz and Macron, along with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, two Caucasian neighbor nations that have been fighting a war over a contested territory.
Another lighting rod will be the recent flare-up in ethnic tensions between neighboring Serbia and Kosovo, whose leaders are also expected at the summit.
Raf Casert reported from Brussels, and Jim Heintz from Tallinn, Estonia.