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Putin's Covert Move On Moldova Has Begun — A Replay Of Eastern Ukraine In 2014

Recent protests in Moldova confirm that the ex-Soviet country is in the Kremlin's sights. If Putin manages to politically destabilize the ex-Soviet country, he could win an important ally in the war against Ukraine. The tactics are strikingly familiar to what the Kremlin pulled off in Donbas nine years ago.

Photo of an anti-government protest last month in Chisinau led by the pro-Russian Sor party

An anti-government protest last month in Chisinau led by the pro-Russian Sor party

Beniamin Demidetsky/TASS via ZUMA
Carolina Drüten


"Down with dictatorship!" protesters roared, "Down with Maia Sandu!"

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Thousands of people were gathered earlier this week in the streets of Chisinau, the capital of Moldova to demand the overthrow of the country's democratically elected president. It was not a spontaneous demonstration: they had been carted to the central location in tour buses.

The "dictatorship" they were railing against was Sandu, its pro-European president, who is orienting the country toward the West. To Russia's displeasure.

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.

The small republic is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania

USAID Digital Development

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.


Russian meddling

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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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