The past week underscores a rising threat in Europe from Russia’s savage assault on Ukraine: the Kremlin’s parallel destabilization of tiny Moldova, between Ukraine and Romania. The Kremlin is escalating a hybrid subversion campaign against Moldova’s effort to build a stable democracy and join the European Union. It is choking off vital gas supplies to tank the economy, sponsoring mass anti-government protests and helping a fugitive Moldovan oligarch launch the latest of several pro-Russia political parties. European policymakers say Moldova, partly occupied by Russian troops, is one of the countries most vulnerable to a spread of the war in Ukraine.
The United States announced sanctions last week against Moldovan and Russian politicians, business moguls and companies that Russia has coopted to derail the government of President Maia Sandu, according to the Treasury Department, Moldovan investigators and independent news accounts. The Kremlin has escalated its subversion efforts since its February re-invasion of Ukraine and Moldova’s subsequent formal application for membership in the European Union, the disparate reports say. Moldova’s chief prosecutor announced Monday a formal investigation of Russia’s subversion efforts.
Moldova’s vulnerability, as a formally neutral nation with minimal military forces, was underscored Monday when debris from a Russian missile shot down by Ukraine rained onto a Moldovan village. Moldova has protested Russia’s firing of missiles from its Black Sea naval force over Moldova to hit eastern Ukraine. Sandu declared Tuesday that “Moldova chooses to be free and continue on its European path” despite what she called Russian “blackmail.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s subversion of Moldova is part of his overall effort to reassert Russian control or influence over countries that Moscow ruled in the past. Czar Alexander I seized Moldova, then called Bessarabia, from the Ottoman Empire in 1812, establishing for Russia a strategically coveted forward frontier in Europe’s Balkan region. Russia ruled it, as a fortified border zone, for all but 20 of the next 180 years. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russian troops based in Moldova grabbed control of easternmost Moldova, creating a separatist enclave, called Transnistria, that Moscow still controls through its military presence and proxy forces.
Russia’s Gas, Moldova’s Vulnerability
For the past 30 years, Russia has tried to sustain its own, and weaken Europe’s, influence in Moldova with largely the same tools it applies to that purpose in Ukraine, Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics. These include energy supplies, the strategic corruption of local politicians, Russian military or proxy control over parts of each country’s territory, cyber-attacks and other subversion. Like other Eastern European nations over recent decades, Moldova has made progress in building a democracy, with credible elections and transitions of power. Yet the country remains deeply vulnerable to authoritarianism, corruption and Russia — especially because of the Kremlin’s grip over energy supplies that are Moldova’s economic aorta.
Weeks after Sandu’s party won a parliamentary election last year with its promise to strengthen Moldova’s integration with Europe, Russia used its near-monopoly position as Moldova’s gas supplier to impose a price increase and threaten a cutoff of supplies if Moldova did not make concessions to help sustain Russia’s economic and political leverage in the country. Sandu’s government made minimal concessions, declared an energy emergency and accelerated projects to let Moldova import more gas or electricity from Poland, Romania or other countries.
Russia enhances its energy dominance over Moldova by delivering its gas through the country’s tiny, Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria. There, a Russian state-controlled power plant generates 70 percent of Moldova’s electrical power. This arrangement keeps the Moldovan state dependent on Russia both for electricity and gas, and helps discourage Moldova from assertive actions against Russia’s Transnistrian interests.
Russia Threatens a Winter Freeze
Amid Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine this year, Moldova has voiced support for Ukrainians and welcomed their refugees — a stance applauded by European officials who have underscored Moldova’s vulnerability. The Kremlin has retaliated with new pressures that, like its missile strikes on Ukraine’s cities and power grid, are confronting Moldova with a choice of either bending to Russia’s will or freezing in the coming winter.
Russia further increased gas prices to Moldova and last month again slashed supplies — by 40 percent, Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spinu said Monday. The gas cuts are reinforced by Russia’s missile strikes on Ukraine’s electrical grid, which forced Ukraine to halt its own electricity exports to Moldova. The plunge in supplies led Sandu’s government to warn of blackouts and plead with citizens to cut back on all energy use.
Even before Russia’s new energy cuts, the Ukraine war had stalled Moldova’s economy, cutting its growth from 14 percent in 2021, a significant recovery from COVID, to zero this year. Moldovans face inflation of an estimated 30 percent or more for 2022. Despite significant economic progress in the years before the COVID lockdowns of 2020, Moldova remains arguable Europe’s poorest country — yet this year also has taken in an estimated 85,000 Ukrainian refugees. “The poor help the desperate,” the Guardian newspaper observed last spring.
Russian Clients, Rented Protests
Alongside its economic squeeze, Russia is renewing a longtime tactic in former Soviet republics — buying political support through strategic corruption, according to a U.S. Treasury Department report accompanying last week’s sanctions. Russia’s covert roles in Moldovan politics also have been documented in Moldova’s indictment of one of its former presidents; an investigation by a nonprofit Moldovan journalism project, RISE Moldova; and a report last week by the Washington Post.
Those reports and indictment detail how Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, provided funding and other support to President Igor Dodon during his 2016-2020 administration. After Moldovan voters ousted Dodon in 2020, Kremlin political strategists working for the FSB forged a new alliance, with Ilan Shor, a millionaire businessman and former mayor of the city of Orhei, the Post reported, citing FSB documents. Shor was tried and convicted for stealing $1 billion from Moldovan banks, causing their collapse, and has fled to Israel to escape a prison sentence. Still, Shor has used his ample funds and a populist appeal to impoverished Moldovans to maintain his Shor Party, which took almost 6 percent of votes in last year’s parliamentary election.
The economic pain for ordinary Moldovans, intensified by Russia’s chokehold on energy, has helped Shor’s party generate pro-Russian street protests this fall. About 7,000 people marched in the capital, Chisinau, on October 23, demanding Sandu’s replacement with a pro-Russian government, Reuters and others reported. Shor has given speeches at the protests via video link from Israel. The independent Moldovan newspaper Ziarul de Garda, as well as other journalists, have reported in detail on how Shor’s adherents are paying protesters, many of whom confirmed their take of 400 Moldovan lei ($20) per day — or more if they spend the night in protest encampments. Ziarul de Garda also detailed a cyber-offensive of fake social media accounts being used to promote the protests.
The eventual outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine will powerfully shape conditions for other countries in the region where populations are seeking more stable democracies and integration into Europe — particularly Belarus, Georgia and Moldova. U.S. and European policymakers say they are attuned to the dangers facing Moldova and the need to support its democratic evolution. Last week’s examples of that effort included the U.S. sanctions and new financial assistance announced by the European Union for Moldova. The Moldovan government is working to expand gas and power lines to other countries to erode Russia’s control over its energy supplies. But as with Ukraine, Moldova’s 2.6 million people first will need help in surviving a cold winter, made the more bitter by Russia’s assaults.