It might be hard to believe that a country like Moldova would be able to stand up to the might of Putin’s Russia. A nation of 2.6 million people, Moldova relies on Ukraine and Russian-controlled territories for 90% of its energy, making it vulnerable to Russian aggression. Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to be stationed on Moldovan territory in the internationally unrecognised breakaway republic of Transnistria, which has operated independently from Moldova since 1992.
This winter, a combination of power cuts in energy-starved Ukraine, power shortages in Transnistria, and politically-motivated pressure from Russian gas giant Gazprom plunged Moldova into an energy crisis. Gas and energy prices skyrocketed as inflation soared, sparking widespread frustration over the cost of living. Ever since, the country has been in the throes of anti-government protests, which have been exacerbated by Moscow’s attempts to undermine Moldova’s pro-European Union, Western-aligned government.
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And yet, Moldova is holding on. Russia is doing all it can to halt its Westward drift, but Moldova has so far managed to stay one step ahead of Russia’s powerful influence operation. In the same way that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine showed the world the limits of Moscow’s military power, his pressure campaign against Moldova may well show us the limits of Russian hybrid warfare in the 21st century.
Last month, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made a thinly veiled threat against Moldova, saying it could soon become the “next Ukraine”. Russia’s ambitions in Moldova have been clear from the start of the war in Ukraine, when Russia’s plan was to march its troops northward from Crimea through Kherson and Mykolaiv toward Odesa, and then onward to the borders of Transnistria to incorporate Moldova’s breakaway territory into its newly-conquered lands.
Clearly, this plan failed: Ukrainian forces instead pushed Russian troops back across the Dnipro River where they remain to this day. Meanwhile, Russia’s force in Transnistria numbers a mere 1,500 soldiers, too few to mount any kind of offensive against the Moldovan state, especially since reinforcing them would require flying over Nato or Ukrainian-controlled airspace. As a result, Russia is out of military options in Moldova and has resorted to a more covert but far less effective plan B: waging an information war and financing saboteurs to take down the state from the inside. While this approach is certainly menacing, it reeks of impotence. Unfortunately for Putin, the Moldovan government has so far proven to be highly competent in dealing with his threats.
Like Ukraine before it, Moldova had its own Maidan moment in 2020 when pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu was elected president, replacing pro-Russian leader Igor Dodon. Although much less dramatic than former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ousting in 2014, Sandu’s election was no less significant. In snap elections in 2021, her party swept into power, and in 2022, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moldova was granted candidate status to join the EU. In November, Sandu’s government took one step further toward European integration by securing a $250 million aid package from the EU aimed at helping the country mitigate its energy woes, demonstrating that it may one day be able to manage without Russia.
As Moldova has continued to build stronger ties with the West and taken steps to demonstrate support for Ukraine, Russia has refused to let it go without a fight. Since February 24, 2022, Moldova has reportedly weathered 400 false bomb threats. Pro-Russian actors such as exiled oligarch Ilan Shor have escalated protests in the capital Chișinău while leveraging Facebook ads to drive online influence operations in the country on Russia’s behalf. Moldovan security forces said they recently detained alleged Russian FSB agents who were orchestrating destabilising protests, and barred a potential Wagner member from entering the country. Yet perhaps most dramatically, over the last few weeks, Ukrainian, American, and Moldovan intelligence have each confirmed that Russia is using the anti-government protests as cover to try to stage a coup against the Moldovan state. All the while, Russia has hammered the country with disinformation about Ukraine’s intentions to threaten Transnistria, whose leaders alleged this month that Ukraine had been preparing plans to assassinate several members of its government.
This litany of threats seems intimidating — until one realises that what Russian agents are relying on is the ability of ordinary people whom they’ve paid off to stage an insurrection that will be powerful enough to topple the government in Chișinău. According to documents obtained by Ukraine’s intelligence services, Russia has funnelled tens of millions of dollars to its representatives in Moldova to achieve this end, and Moldovan security forces have routinely confiscated cash being smuggled to Ilan Shor’s Șor Party over the last month. The party reportedly used some of this cash to send more than 80 young people to Turkey to be trained in, among other things, using smoke bombs and breaking police barricades.
A few dozen aggressive agitators are certainly a security risk, but hardly constitute the beginning of a revolution. “Shor is dangerous not because he can create unrest tomorrow and seize power, but because he destabilises Moldova politically, creating chaos,” says Armand Goșu, an associate professor in Political Science at the University of Bucharest. “I don’t think that at this moment the opposition parties want and have the strength to bring to power a Moscow-oriented government.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Russia has tried such methods, but they have rarely proved successful. In 2016, Russia allegedly planned a similar coup in Montenegro ahead of a vote to join Nato, assembling a “powerful organisation” in the words of the country’s special state prosecutor. This organisation, however, was dismantled and its primary members arrested before any coup attempt could take place, and Montenegro went on to join Nato the following year.
Where Transnistria is concerned, officials and their backers in Moscow have been complaining about Ukraine’s malign intentions for almost a year, but have hardly acted on them. Any military confrontation between Transnistria and either Chișinău or Kyiv could have disastrous consequences for the breakaway territory’s fragile autonomy, and its leaders surely understand this. According to Goșu, Transnistrian leaders are likely only spreading such spurious claims to satisfy their backers in Moscow, who may also be hoping to use their hybrid war in Moldova to divert the Ukrainian military’s attention away from the ongoing battles in the Donbas.
But perhaps the best guarantee of Moldova’s future is the Sandu government’s defiance in the face of Russian pressure. Over the past month, the country’s security services have proactively barred malignant Russian-aligned actors from entering Moldova, broken up a ring of Russian-backed saboteurs, and apprehended tens of thousands of dollars in illicit funds, all while maintaining airtight security at anti-government protests. In May 2022, a Moldovan court charged former president Dodon with corruption and treason offences, and Sandu’s government has sought to arrange Shor’s extradition from Israel, where he fled in 2019 after being charged with fraud.
No doubt the Sandu government has its work cut out for it; more powerful countries than Moldova have fallen victim to the scourge of Russian hybrid warfare. But having been given support on the international stage by both US President Joe Biden and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis last month, Moldova is in the best position possible to counter Russia’s ambitions. So long as Sandu continues to keep up the pressure against Russia’s collaborators in Chișinău while addressing quality-of-life concerns for all Moldovans, this too shall pass, and the Kremlin will have wasted millions of dollars in another Quixotic quest to keep its empire from falling apart.
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