As Ukraine defends its independence and democracy against Russia’s invasion, tiny Moldova confronts a parallel Russian “hybrid war” — and the past 12 weeks have sharpened this battle for Moldova in 2024. Moldova advanced its accession to the European Union and joined EU sanctions against Russians driving the war on Ukraine. Moldova’s government scheduled a referendum to ratify the country’s future as a European democracy after more than 150 years as a militarized frontier of Russian empires. Russia’s malign uses of information, election interference and capacity to trigger a real war — a second front against Europe — heighten the urgency to strengthen Moldova’s resilience and energize its pro-democracy constituency in 2024.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks at the United Nations in 2022. Moldova faces Russian hybrid attacks on its effort under Sandu to join the European Union. That conflict will sharpen as she seeks reelection in 2024. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)
Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks at the United Nations in 2022. Moldova faces Russian hybrid attacks on its effort under Sandu to join the European Union. That conflict will sharpen as she seeks reelection in 2024. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

Moldova’s Rising Struggle

Like the other countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea that Moscow ruled as Soviet border republics with Europe, Moldova has ever since been rebalancing its relations between Russia to the east and Europe to the west. Like all but Belarus, Moldova has sought to join the European Union, which last month offered formal talks on its accession, alongside Ukraine and Georgia. In 32 years since the Soviet collapse gave Moldova nominal independence from Moscow, Russia has tried to block Moldova’s moves toward Europe with a hybrid campaign of political, economic, military and criminal actions. Since November, the fight over Moldova’s full independence from Russia has been part of signals from Moscow and warnings by German and Belgian defense officials over a possible new front of real warfare in Europe.

“In 2024, the United States and European allies should act to prevent the human, moral and economic costs that we all will pay by leaving Moldova’s young democracy to slide into Russia-instigated chaos or warfare,” said Don Jensen, a USIP specialist on Russia and Europe. “Some efforts will need time to help Moldova build more responsive, transparent governance that’s accountable to its people. But we can take immediate, concrete steps,” he said. One option would be for the United States to invite President Sandu to Washington in the next months “to both signal and consolidate U.S. support for her country’s courageous campaign for independence and democracy.”

Russia’s 2024 assault on Moldova’s independence will rely most on political interference, “strategic corruption,” manipulated media narratives and cyberattacks, all heavily focused around the presidential election — and now the national referendum on the country’s future — scheduled for this fall, say Moldovan officials and independent analysts. Events since November raises the stakes for those votes.

President Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity, which is leading the push to join the European Union, won the largest vote totals, and a third of local government councils, in November elections. But its victories were partial, coming in the countryside and not the main cities. In an omen for this year’s presidential election, heightened Russian interference in that local vote burdened Moldova with its toughest challenge yet in maintaining the fairness and publicly accepted legitimacy of the ballot.

Moldovan authorities and independent media investigations laid bare, in detail, the interference campaign. The political machine of pro-Russian businessman-politician Ilan Shor (living in Israel to avoid his conviction in a massive Moldovan banking fraud) paid ordinary Moldovans to join anti-government street protests. The newspaper Ziarul de Garda detailed an anti-government cyber-offensive run through fake social media accounts. An independent civil society project, Watchdog, documented Russian campaigns of manipulated media information. Moldovan, U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence agencies, plus news media, have reported on covert Russian weaponization of information and corruption to undermine Moldova’s democracy and governance — and Sandu has said Russia plotted a coup against her government.

Moldovan authorities responded more assertively than in years past. In October, they blocked dozens of Russian state-controlled media websites and suspended six TV channels belonging to Shor and another Russia-aligned oligarch charged in the bank fraud case, Vladimir Plahotniuc. Two days before voting, Moldova’s Commission for Emergency Situations banned a party aligned with Shor after the state intelligence agency reported that it had funneled more than $50 million from abroad to sway the vote. The party, called Chance, last month won a court appeal against the ban, which analysts say is likely to be weighed by the Supreme Court. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other European institutions expressed support for Moldova’s efforts to counter the evident foreign interference and electoral corruption. But they voiced concern at the sweep and lateness of the restrictions.

In December, President Sandu announced her plan to run for reelection this fall. “Our future is in the European family,” she declared, urging a referendum, alongside the presidential vote, “in which the voice of the citizens will be decisive.”

The referendum “is clearly aimed at energizing Moldova’s pro-Europe, prodemocracy constituency, but it faces some challenges,” said USIP’s Jensen. “It’s somewhat uncertain whether the constitution will be interpreted as permitting both votes at the same time. And while overall Moldovan support for an alignment with Europe remains strong, a big part of that vote is among Moldovans living abroad. At the same time, Moldova’s domestic population remains quite vulnerable to Russian propaganda and political interference, as we saw last year.”

The Hybrid Battle in 2024

Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Russia has tried to control Moldova through four main efforts. Its military, intelligence services and allied oligarchs control the easternmost slice of the country, Transnistria. As Moldova’s supplier of energy and buyer of farm produce, Russia has selectively throttled Moldovans’ incomes and inflicted inflation. It illegally funds and facilitates corruption by political agents such as Shor, Plahotniuc and former President Igor Dodon, according to U.S. and Moldovan government investigators and Moldovan and international investigative journalists. Finally, Russia spreads manipulated information, including “deepfake” videos, through its state-controlled media and Moldovan proxies, notably television channels owned by Shor and his allies. The decades of calculated pressure, pain and poverty have cultivated nodes of pro-Russian sentiment, notably in southern Moldova’s ethnic Gagauz minority.

Since 2022, Moldova has painfully weaned itself off Russian-controlled gas (although not electricity), blunting Russia’s ability to freeze Moldovans during winter. “This winter, we are … much better prepared,” Moldovan Ambassador Viorel Ursu said at a USIP discussion of Russia’s hybrid war on Moldova. Russia’s ability to use Transnistria as a military asset against Moldova has “waned” with Russia’s stalled military assault on Ukraine, said William Hill, a former U.S. ambassador who led the OSCE mission in Moldova. Still, Russia could use Transnistria to foment violent insurgency, notably in Gagauzia, and to heighten tensions.

“Moldova is an extremely soft target” for Russia, partly because “many Moldovan citizens use Russian as their lingua franca,” and so for decades have received a worldview largely from Russia’s propaganda-laden news and social media, Moldovan political scientist Dmitru Minzarari told Al-Jazeera. Public attitudes have been fairly fluid. In 2020, voters replaced the pro-Russian Dodon with the pro-European Sandu, and the next year gave her party a parliamentary majority. But Sandu’s challenges include the painful inflation from the costs of replacing Russian gas and Moldovans still receptive to Russian strategic narratives — a constituency that “varies between 30 and 40 percent,” Minzarari said, citing years of polling.

Moldova’s top leaders, some of them aligned with Moscow, tolerated Russian propaganda for 30 years. Sandu’s government hesitated to cut off Russian broadcasts amid a strenuous effort to show commitment to unfettered speech, said Mihai Popsoi, a leader of Sandu’s party and deputy speaker of Parliament. “Having lived in the Russian propaganda bubble,” many Moldovans have absorbed “heartbreaking” distortions of reality, Popsoi told the USIP audience last month. For example, Moldovans now shelter 110,000 Ukrainians uprooted by war, yet have neighbors who are “denying the fact and the horror of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, while in the neighboring house, you have Ukrainian refugees living.”

“We need to educate the citizens so that they can understand what are the threats toward Moldova’s security,” Popsoi said; hence the government is investing more effort. A critical step, he said, is “creating a public broadcaster channel that is in Russian language that will provide quality content.”

A huge step for U.S. and European democracy advocates would be to bolster Moldovans in standing up journalistically solid, Russian-language media this year. “The U.S.-Moldovan partnership is hitting the right priorities — throttling corruption, which is a main Russian weapon, and building resilient democratic institutions,” said Jensen. “For 2024, Moldova simply needs more of that help, faster, from America and Europe in what could be a make-or-break year to consolidate democracy and undercut Russia’s ability to foment violence and instability. As always, preventing a war will be vastly cheaper than fighting or cleaning up from one.”

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