Russian efforts to destabilise Moldova were stepped up on February 28 when supporters of the Russia-linked Shor Party demonstrated in Chisinau, while Moscow continued its propaganda offensive related to the separatist Transnistria region, claiming an invasion by Romania is imminent.
Moldova is increasingly pictured by the Russian officials as a potential next threat that may need to be addressed after Ukraine. Ukrainian intelligence warned Moldovan officials recently that Russia is planning to destabilise Moldova. However, at this moment there is no clear sequence of events that may lead to an accelerated deterioration of the situation.
Moscow appears to prioritise a scenario of social turmoil in Moldova, rather than a military scenario that for technical reasons can not involve Russian troops at this moment; Russian troops in Transnistria are limited in number, and the separatist republic is far from the parts of Ukraine controlled by Russia.
Protesters disrupt traffic
On February 28, a group of several thousand people organised by the Shor Party attempted and partly succeeded to disrupt transportation, particularly public transport, in the capital city, Chisinau.
However, the protest was not joined by the population, with Chisinau residents more annoyed with the public transport disruption than sympathetic to the protesters.
The Shor Party, controlled by fugitive businessman and politician Ilan Shor, has been organising anti-government protests for months. It is now urging pensioners and other people coming from low-income categories to ask the government to pay their utility bills, pointing to the financial support received by Moldova from its foreign development partners.
The day before, on February 27, the Moldovan intelligence services, SIS, announced that two foreign citizens who “were caught carrying out espionage operations”, were expelled from the country and banned from entry for ten years.
Reportedly, the two were collecting intelligence for a foreign “political technology and social engineering” group from abroad, with the final goal of organising actions aimed at undermining stability in Moldova and overthrowing the authorities.
On February 23, the SIS said that together with the Prosecutor's Office for Combating Organised Crime and Special Cases (PCCOCS) they are investigating "a network of agents formed by citizens of the Republic of Moldova and of another state involved in actions of treason and espionage”.
At the same time as the street protests in Chisinau on February 28, social media channels were flooded with pictures of Romanian military troops allegedly heading to Moldova’s border, and allegedly en route to Transnistria’s.
The Romanian authorities warned against the fake news being circulated based on pictures taken at a military parade that took place last year on Independence Day (December 1), in Alba Iulia, central Romania.
This follows on from Russian claims in the preceding days that Ukraine was planning to invade Transnistria.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser responded on February 24 that Ukraine does not plan any action in Transnistria.
Moldovan officials also said that they had not received an reports of an imminent Ukrainian invasion, and that Russia’s statements are instead part of a hybrid war.
The separatist regime in Tiraspol, meanwhile, urged citizens “not to succumb to panic”. The self-declared republic’s leader Vadim Krasnoselsy has constantly advocated for caution and is striving to keep radical factions under control and prevent Transnistria becoming embroiled in the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
The developments of February 28 appear to be part of an effort to destabilise Moldova, currently governed by the pro-EU Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS).
President Maia Sandu shared details of the alleged Russian plot to destabilise the country earlier in February.
“The plan for the next period involves actions with the involvement of diversionists with military training, camouflaged in civilian clothes, who will undertake violent actions, attacks on some state buildings and hostage taking. Through violent actions masked by opposition protests, the change of power in Chisinau would be pursued,” Sandu told a press conference on February 13.
She responded by appointing her former national security adviser, Dorin Recean, as Moldova’s new prime minister.
Kirilo Budanov, the head of Ukraine's military counterintelligence service, told Digi24 TV station that the change of government in Moldova thwarted Moscow's destabilisation plans.
Moldova’s westward course — the country secured EU candidate status in 2022 and Sandu has recently hinted it may lift its military neutrality and seek membership of Nato — has angered Russian officials.
The operations taking place in Moldova have received vocal support from the authorities in Moscow. The rhetoric came from by lower-rank politicians in the past, such as MPs, state secretaries and heads of various committees in State Duma, including Duma member Leonid Kalashnikov, who warned that joining Nato would risk Moldova’s “destruction”.
Now Dmitri Rogozin, the Russian presidency’s representative for Transnistria, has warned of a “European catastrophe” that might take place if the Russian troops in Transnistria are challenged.
“Of course, they [the troops in Transnistria] lack the weaponry that Ukraine now has, but they have heavy military equipment and ammunition. So they won't be easy prey. It will be a massacre of colossal proportions, if the Banderovites [Ukrainian nationalists] get involved," Rogozin stated.
According to media reports, Ukraine has admitted it placed troops along the border with Transnistria, a move related to threats from the region.
The Russian troops in Transnistria are rather limited — similar in side to Moldova’s army but not comparable to Ukraine’s potential or with the military support Moldova could get from its foreign partners.
The so-called peacekeeping troops in Transnistria launched a recruiting campaign to boost the contingent. However, since fighting started in eastern Ukraine back in 2014 the transport corridor through Ukraine was closed, and the Russian troops were rotated places between the peacekeeping force and the GOTR (former USSR 14th army), rather than renewed.