Since its attack on Ukraine, the Kremlin has sought to destabilize the ex-Soviet country of Moldova. The small republic of 2.6 million inhabitants is sandwiched between Ukraine and NATO member Romania and has few resources to oppose Moscow.
Transnistria, a Pro-Russian enclave
The Russian plan originally envisaged creating a land corridor across the entire south of Ukraine into Moldovan territory.
But because Ukrainian military pushed back their attackers, Moldova has so far been spared. Now, however, there are renewed indications that Russia is planning to overthrow the constitutional order by a wide variety of means.
One destabilizing factor is Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist republic in eastern Moldova. There are 1,500 Russian soldiers stationed there, plus 10,000 to 15,000 pro-Russian paramilitaries. Chisinau has de facto no control over the area, although it is officially part of the state territory.
He's resorted to such tactics in the past to make its own attack look like a response to a threat.
Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin is playing the role of protector of the people living there, using arguments similar to those he used in the Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine.
On the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, for example, Moscow warned of alleged military provocations by Ukraine against Transnistria. It has resorted to such tactics in the past to make its own attack look like a response to a threat.
Diverting Ukraine with Transnistria
Iulian Groza is a former deputy foreign minister of Moldova and now heads the think tank IPRE. He says that artificially maintaining supposed tensions between Transnistria and Ukraine is a Russian tactic to concentrate parts of the Ukrainian armed forces in the south — and thus to weaken the eastern front.
If Kyiv has to reckon with a war near Moldova, it will have to station soldiers and weapons there that would be lacking elsewhere.
But the main reason for Putin's actions, according to Groza, is to "undermine Moldova's democracy and sovereign decisions and to put pressure on the country and its citizens."
Moscow wants to exploit Moldova's vulnerabilities "to incite people against the government and the constitutional order and to bring about a change of power, hoping to install loyal proxies who will oppose the West and Ukraine," Groza says.
Disinformation with anti-Western sentiment
What sounds abstract becomes ominously concrete on the streets of Chisinau. This week's protest was organized by a group calling itself the "Movement for the People" and backed by members of Moldova's pro-Russia Shor party. The group had already organized a demonstration in mid-February as well as actions last fall.
The party's founder is the entrepreneur and politician Ilan Shor, who lives in exile in Israel. He is accused of multimillion-dollar bank fraud. A U.S. State Department sanctions list says he works for Russian interests. In the fall, the then government asked the Constitutional Court to ban his party. Anti-corruption prosecutors accused it of being financed by Russian money.
Groza, the former foreign minister, says that actors like Shor's party make use of anti-Western social sentiments, which, coupled with targeted disinformation and Russian proxies, become a serious challenge for the Moldovan government. "This poses a much higher risk than a conventional military strike against the country," he says.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference with the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, and the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö.
The Russian threats prompted President Sandu to take an unusual step in mid-February: she publicly warned of Russian attempts to overthrow her country.
Moscow's plan, she said, involves instigating violent riots and attacks on Moldovan state institutions and disguising them as protests: "The goal is to transform the constitutional and legitimate order into an illegitimate one (...) so that Russia can use Moldova in its war against Ukraine."
In the process, she said, attacks on government buildings, hostage-taking and other violent actions by saboteurs are planned. Sandu wants to lead her country to become part of the EU, which is a thorn in the Kremlin's side.
Earlier this year, Ukraine said it had intercepted plans by Russian intelligence to destroy Moldova's political order. Last month, prime minister Natalia Gavrilita resigned. Sandu appointed her security advisor, Dorin Recean, to succeed her. The extent to which the change in government is related to an acute threat situation is unclear.
During this week's protests, a camera crew from the Moldovan media organization Nord News filmed a reporter approaching a man in a black hoodie. "I don't understand your language," the man said. "'Your' language?" the reporter replied. "Moldovan," the man answered, adding, "I'm not from here."
Where was he from, the reporter wanted to know. The answer, "From Russia."
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