Tiny Moldova stands up to Russia’s might

Tiny Moldova stands up to Russia’s might
Moldovan President Maia Sandu meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv as both countries pursue EU accession. / presedinte.md
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow December 8, 2023

Moldova’s parliament is poised to adopt the country’s new national security strategy that for the first time explicitly names Russia as a threat to the state. This is the latest step in a serious of actions taken by the pro-EU government in Chisinau as it tries to throw off decades of Russian influence. 

Russia has taken a hybrid approach to Moldova, using multiple channels to destabilise the country and undermine the pro-EU government formed by President Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS). As well as Russia’s backing of separatists in the Transnistria region, the main battlefields are Moldova’s energy security, the spread of Russian propaganda via the media and explicit interference in Moldovan elections. 

It’s nearly two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the state that physically separates Russia from Moldova — in February 2022. At that time, it was feared that Russia posed an existential threat to Moldova too. There was speculation from the earliest days of the war that Moldova could get dragged into the conflict through the Russian military presence in the Transnistria region that lies on Moldova’s eastern flank bordering Ukraine. 

This was fuelled by rumours on social media in the early days of the war. Among them was a viral picture of Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko standing in front of what appeared to be a battle map, with a red arrow pointing from the Ukrainian port city of Odesa into Transnistria.

That Moldova did not get dragged into the war was partly thanks to the dogged determination of the Ukrainian army to fight back Russian forces, preventing them from making it to Odesa and an easy land route to Transnistria. Part of the credit also goes to the Transnistian authorities’ unwillingness to get dragged into the war, despite apparent provocations like the series of unexplained explosions within the separatist republic. 

As Russia became bogged down in the land war in Ukraine, and it was clear this was not going to be the expected walkover for Moscow, Moldova has become increasingly assertive against the regional great power. It has responded to threats — some more explicit than others — with steady progress towards EU integration and indications by top officials that it is considering scrapping its long-held neutrality and may opt for a closer partnership with Nato. 

“The next victim” 

Russia has not let up on its threats to Moldova. At the OSCE summit in Skopje at the end of November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Moldova is "the next victim of the hybrid war launched by the West against Russia”.

The Moldovan foreign ministry responded with a strongly worded statement condemning Russian destabilisation efforts, and stressing that Moldova is firmly on its European path. 

“Since the beginning of the brutal invasion of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, in Moldova we have felt the entire arsenal of destabilisation attempts that Russia has unleashed against us. Russia's statements, whether today or on previous occasions, are part of the series of hostile actions that the Russian Federation has been trying to implement towards our country over the past 30 years,” the statement said. 

“[W]e hope that our message — clear and sharp — will be understood by him [Lavrov] … the Republic of Moldova is going, irreversibly, on the European path.”  

In the following days, Russia took further action, re-introducing restrictions on imports of agricultural products from Moldova. Russian phytosanitary control service Rosselkhoznadzor said this was because insect pests were found in shipments from Moldova. However, the Moldovan side said there were no real grounds for the embargo. Bans on exports of Moldovan wine and other products have several times been used by Russia in the past. 

New approach to national security

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu unveiled the draft of the country’s new National Security Strategy on October 11, saying its aim is to strengthen security at "the most dangerous moment since independence”, and explicitly naming Russia. It has been submitted to the parliament, where Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) has a majority, and is expected to be approved shortly. 

"We have two great dangers to national security today: the aggressive policy pursued by the Russian Federation against our country and against peace, in general, and the corruption rooted in Moldova," said Sandu, a statement from the presidency said in October. 

“If we ignore the harsh reality, it will not go away. We must be prepared and make a clear choice on which side of the world we want to be on,” Sandu added.

EU membership is one of the strategy’s targets, besides boosting investments in the national defence system and revisiting the country’s international relations, notably with regard to Russia. Sandu and other officials have also mooted the possibility of dropping the neutral status adopted by Moldova back in 1994.

“We [the parliament] will be voting in the new National Security Strategy spelling out that Russia is the main national security threat and taking actions to build resilience in institutions with that threat in mind,” said Mihai Popsoi, deputy speaker of the Moldovan parliament, during a panel hosted by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) on December 5. 

“For too long some politicians have not avoided this truth, but have been actively engaged in promoting Russian malign influence in Moldova.” 

He argued that one of the strands of Russian propaganda is to promote the idea that neutrality is a guarantee of security. “That cannot be further from the truth. No neutrality clause has prevented an aggressor from taking advantage of the vulnerability of another country,” said Popsoi. “We need to break through the spell of Russian propaganda that neutrality is a guarantee of security.” 

Moldovan officials have also talked of increasing cooperation with Nato, as well as opening the discussion on alternatives to neutrality; they have stressed that such steps would only happen after consultations with the Moldovan population. 

Neutralising Russian attacks 

This comes after over a year during which Moldova has increasingly moved to tackle and neutralise Russia’s hybrid tools of attack on the country. 

Since its independence Moldova has faced daunting obstacles,” said Jorgan Andrews, USIP state Department fellow, listing the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Transnistria, the bank frauds that siphoned off $1bn from three local banks, state capture by a local oligarch, near complete energy dependence on Russia and heavy Russian interference in its elections. 

“Moldova seems determined to overcome these obstacles and reach its declared destination which is full membership in a community of European democracies and free markets. Never before has Moldova’s compass remained so fixed on its European future,” Andrews added. 

Commenting on Russia’s role, Moldova’s ambassador to the US Viorel Ursu, said: “We see continuous efforts to try to change and influence both politics and the population.” 

He detailed multiple approaches including illegal funding to new political projects ahead of the local elections. “Energy remains another weapon Russia continues to use,” he added, pointing to promises of cheap gas supply from “a very un-transparent offshore company” to a “specific region”, namely Gagauzia, where a pro-Russian bashkan (governor) was recently elected. 

When it comes to information and the media, Ursu added, “much of it is still controlled by Russian sources. It is very difficult to overcome, especially for democracies where we have to balance freedom of speech with curtailing some of those disinformation sources propagating hate, especially towards Ukraine.” 

Energy shackles removed 

When the invasion of Ukraine happened, Moldova was highly dependent on Russia for imports of natural gas, as well as for the electricity generated from Russian gas at power plants in the Transnistria region. 

“Moldova was 100% dependent on Russian gas, and Russia never hesitated to use that leverage,” said Ursu. 

In autumn 2022, Russia fulfilled the fears of the Moldovan government when Gazprom abruptly cut supplies. Chisinau then made the bold decision to stop importing Russian gas for consumption and send all its Russian imports to Transnistria. Instead, Chisinau secured new supplies from European sources — albeit at extremely high prices as this happened at the peak of the energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine. 

Moldova has weathered the crisis after a painful year during which inflation rose above 30%. Now energy prices have fallen, and Moldova’s inflation had moderated to just 4.75% as of November. 

By October 2023, Energy Minister Victor Parlicov was able to confidently declare that most of Moldova (with the exception of Transnistria) no longer needs to buy gas from  Gazprom. By that time, Moldova’s gas consumption had dropped to under half the volume consumed two years earlier. 

“We are entering this winter much more confident and better prepared,” said Ursu. “We managed to get through the challenges and provocations.” 

Destabilisation attempt 

The gas crisis didn’t only have an economic impact, it also had a political one, making the cut to gas exports doubly useful to Russia, panelists said. The hike in energy prices, and consequent squeeze on the incomes of one of the poorest populations in Europe, sparked a series of protests. 

The protests that started in autumn 2022 were backed by the Shor Party, the vehicle of fugitive politician and businessman Ilan Shor, who has been convicted in connection with the $1bn bank frauds. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Shor is also suspected of being backed by Moscow. 

In March this year, Moldova’s police announced they prevented a destabilisation plot carried out by Russian agents in connection to the protests. They claimed Russian special services were using the protests in an attempt to overthrow the pro-EU government. 

“People were struggling to pay their bills. We saw public protests — most probably genuine because people were really struggling — but Russia planned to use the protests, and infiltrate some violent elements, well-trained abroad, that would provoke violence … That Russian plan failed,” said Ursu, "as Moldova’s Western partners stepped in to help the country secure gas supplies and compensate its most vulnerable consumers.” 

Chisinau responded by controversially banning the Shor Party, which was followed up by a ban on its successor the Chance Party shortly before the local elections. Sandu and her party have also been criticised for some of the actions taken to clean up the judiciary, including through the removal of former head prosecutor Alexandr Stoianoglo, which was recently ruled unconstitutional

Popsoi addressed this controversy during the panel. “When it comes to Russia exploiting our vulnerability, they are now moving towards exploiting the democratic process against our democratic future. They are trying to hijack democratic elections in their favour, and that’s why we had to take drastic measures to defend our democracy by the Constitutional Court declaring unconstitutional the party of Shor, the oligarch that is a fugitive from Moldovan justice,” he said. 

“It doesn’t give me any pleasure to be announcing that we had to preclude certain political parties from participating in the democratic process when these political parties [were] actively engaging in corrupting citizens.” 

Having already banned Russian TV news channels, in October Chisinau also moved to block access to Russian news sites it said published "online content used in the war of information against the Republic of Moldova”, including Interfax, Tass and Russia Today.

The new front 

Chisinau has thus taken on Russia in the energy and media spheres. Transnistria — once seen as Russia’s Trojan horse within Moldova — no longer poises such a threat as it did previously. 

So where does that leave Russia’s hybrid war on Moldova? What’s left, participants in the USIP panel said, is politics. 

This was clearly highlighted in the recent local elections, where several panelists said there had been explicit vote-buying in the autonomous Gagauzia region — where a pro-Russian bashkan (governor) was elected — and elsewhere in the country. “There is no way any other political force in Moldova can compete against cash,” said Popsoi. “We can talk of reforms but if somebody offers some citizen €100 in cash, unfortunately nine times out of 10 people will take the money.”

This was backed up by a report from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR), which said: “Credible, persistent and widespread allegations of the use of illegal funds for vote buying were raised before and during the campaign, attributed to Mr Şor [Shor], who also publicly announced funding local infrastructural projects and pension supplements from his private funds. In general, the influx of illicit and foreign funds and the monetary incentives used to influence voters’ choice distorted the campaign.” 

The PAS ended the election in the lead across the country, with 291 mayors and around a third of elected county and municipal councillors, but did not gain control of any of the major cities including the capital Chisinau. This was most likely a combination of vote-buying and the struggles of Sandu and the PAS to carry out their reform agenda and convince the population they are steering the country in the right direction. 

It indicates that the reformers within the PAS will have a tough fight on their hands as Moldova approaches the next presidential and parliamentary elections. 

“The centre of gravity of Russian influence is the Moldovan public — they need to manipulate enough of the electorate to take control or particulate in control of one or more important institutions. That is going to be the parliament,” said Popsoi. 

“Transnistria has reformed a bit, Moldova has dealt with energy, now central is the political challenge that I think over next year or so is going to be the most important fight for those who want to keep Moldova on its present course.” 

“Politically the government is still vulnerable to Russian interference in the political process because of the portion of the electorate through poverty or their linguistic orientation that is vulnerable to propaganda or simply buying of votes,” agreed William Hill, global fellow at the Wilson Center. 

“In the local elections, the PAS did not do as well as they wanted to. It is clear the political battles for the presidency in 2024 and parliamentary elections by mid-25 are going to require serious effort.” 

Polls indicate that Sandu is still the most popular choice for president, but if current trends continue the PAS may well lose its majority in parliament to a group of Russia-backed parties. Russian influence via its energy diplomacy and media channels may have been muted, but the attacks in this hybrid war of attrition keep on coming.