Washington ignores Putin’s designs on Moldova at its peril

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One of Europe’s most modest countries is becoming a major center of conflict. Russia is targeting the small-but-strategic lands of Moldova as the next big front in its war on Ukraine.

While Washington is focused on the fight for eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin could snatch a victory in Moldova.

The White House revealed over the weekend that US intelligence shows Russia plans to organize protests in Moldova with the goal of overthrowing the pro-Western government.

The Kremlin deployed similar hybrid-warfare tactics against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

Indeed, the Kremlin has been on a mission to sow political mayhem in Moldova for months. 

The US interest in thwarting Russia’s plans could hardly be clearer.

Moldova, a country of around 2.5 million people, is wedged between NATO’s eastern border in Romania and Ukraine’s soft underbelly in the west.

A pro-Russian government there would give Putin leverage to threaten both Ukraine, to which America has a massive commitment and NATO itself. 

Russia intensified its attacks on Moldova’s government in February after President Maia Sandu nominated pro-Western Dorin Recean as prime minister. Shortly thereafter, Ukrainian intelligence intercepted Russian plans to destabilize Moldova. 

Sandu then exposed details of a Russian plot to stage a coup on Moldova’s government.

These plans involved opposition protests and attacks on government buildings with help from citizens from the Russian Federation, Belarus, Serbia and Montenegro.

Russia’s foreign ministry claims Moldova’s accusations are “completely unfounded,” but given Moscow’s behavior in the region the past year, its denials have no credibility.  


The Kremlin’s foreign ministry claimed Moldova’s accusations are “completely unfounded.”
Getty Images/iStockphoto

In his mission to destabilize Moldova, Putin has weaponized energy.

Last year, he cut the natural-gas supply to Moldova and hiked the price. The result? The nation’s gas prices rose sevenfold, and inflation increased 35%. 

By autumn, as Moldova struggled to mitigate this crisis, pro-Russian politicians and citizens mobilized against the pro-Western government.

Ilan Shor, exiled pro-Russia leader of the Shor Opposition Party and convicted fraudster, organized — and in many cases paid — thousands of people to protest for Sandu’s resignation.

These demonstrators have capitalized on Moldova’s economic strife, claiming a closer relationship with the Kremlin would help the nation increase its supply of cheap Russian gas.

Russia has also launched information operations and conducted cyberattacks to polarize and destabilize the country.

The US Treasury launched sanctions against Shor in October for “capturing and corrupting Moldova’s political and economic institutions” and acting as an instrument of “Russia’s global influence campaign, which seeks to manipulate the United States and its allies and partners.”


Several thousand protesters calling Moldova's pro-Western leaders to leave the high office march toward the Constitutional Court for the ninth consecutive Sunday, on November 13, 2022 in Chisinau, Moldova.
The White House revealed that the Kremlin plans to organize protests in Moldova.
Vudi Xhymshiti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Despite Shor being a target of US sanctions, Facebook still ran ads on his behalf, profiting from a disinformation campaign that reached millions of viewers in Moldova while both the White House and Congress sat on their hands.

As Putin intensifies his hybrid war against Moldova, America can expect Moscow to employ the same playbook it’s used to justify its Ukraine war.

Putin likes to claim his invasion was necessary to counter NATO enlargement into Russia’s strategic territories. But Moldova is a neutral country. It cannot join NATO.

Russia’s justifications for meddling in Moldova grow more bizarre by the week.

In late February, its defense ministry asserted without evidence that “Ukrainian saboteurs” planned to unleash an offensive “false-flag attack” in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova.


Moldova's parliamentary candidate Ilan Shor, businessman, leader of his self-named party and the mayor of the town of Orhei, arrives to meet with supporters during a campaign event in the city of Comrat on February 15, 2019.
Moldova is a country of around 2.5 million people.
DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images

The Kremlin’s disinformation machine has likewise alleged Ukrainian soldiers may attack Moldova wearing Russian military uniforms. 

Moscow has even pulled NATO into the narrative, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov claiming, again without evidence, that unrest in Moldova is being “provoked externally.” Russia’s foreign ministry advised, “We warn the United States, NATO member countries and their Ukrainian wards from the next adventurous steps.”

Western leaders are whistling past the graveyard by ignoring Russian moves against Moldova.

Although the White House’s recent revelation about the Kremlin’s designs on Moldova are welcome, President Joe Biden has issued no warning of “Hands Off Moldova” to Putin. Neither has French President Emmanuel Macron nor German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Worse still, the Biden administration has not enforced its own sanctions against Russian proxies in Moldova.

Why should Putin take the West seriously? 

America and Europe must help to fortify Moldova against Russia’s escalating hybrid war.

Western leaders should not be afraid of deploying their own hybrid-warfare strategies to counter Russian disinformation and cyberattacks aimed at this strategically important country.

And the European Union should step up with additional financial support to provide Moldova with alternatives to Russian energy dependence.

Most important, a united West must show Putin his worst fears are true: Moldova and Ukraine are moving towards us — not him.

Western institutions will fight tooth and nail to protect them. The EU has already granted Moldova candidate-member status, and Sandu appears determined to eliminate the opportunities for strategic corruption that Russia exploits in her country.

The best way to help Ukraine at this pivotal moment in its war of self-defense is to ensure Moscow cannot open a second hybrid front on the country’s western border.

Western leaders can do this by unequivocally asserting to Moscow: Hands Off Moldova.

Peter Doran is a senior adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ivana Stradner is a research fellow.



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