Foreign policy
Post-Soviet space

Russia’s leverage in Moldova

Denis Cenusa assesses three main non-military vectors that pose a threat to Moldovan national security

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Photo: Scanpix

Since Russia’s Ukraine invasion began in February 2022, Moldova’s security has been under extra strain. There are many vulnerabilities that Russia can exploit there, spanning from energy supplies to guaranteeing public order. And Moldova was all too aware of this before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky public warned Moldova from Brussels on February 9 about Russia’s intention to carry out subversive actions there.

Zelensky is not the first to see Moldova as a Russian target, a perception that has its grains of truth. However, such views require more nuance. It is not easy to say how much the ongoing tension in Moldova has been the result of direct Russian pressure, or simply collateral damage due to Moldova’s economic interconnectedness with Ukraine. Understanding that balance is of key importance to explain the baseline risks and novel types of threats that Moldova now faces.

The return of old threats

The harsh reality is that Moldova now has multiple crises on its hands. Fuelling its political implosion are a legacy of poor governance and low living standards, compounded by supply chains severed by months of war. Chisinău’s relations with its Russia-backed breakaway region of Transnistria have reached new lows, while its electricity sources are intertwined with Ukraine’s war torn grid and its gas supply requires Russian goodwill. The country has, meanwhile, also been struggling to house and feed tens of thousands of refugees pouring in from Ukraine.

Considering how other countries are feeling a deep impact from this war too, it should come as no surprise that Moldova is easy collateral damage. However, this does not mean that Russia is not interested in exploiting the situation further. To do this, hybrid warfare is being used, much of which is familiar to local observers. Russia is using hybrid warfare to undermine the positions of pro-EU forces in a way that is tailored to the idiosyncrasies of the local Moldovan context. Russian strategy follows three main vectors: 1) internal power struggles and personal-political survival instincts; 2) the impoverishing effects of the energy crisis; and 3) the distorted public perception of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Domestic power dynamics and political-personal survival

First of all, Russia tries to weaponize internal political animosities. Pro-Russian populist forces, made up of fugitive oligarchs and organized criminal groups, are seeking to regain power or simply avoid jail. Their interest in hampering the fight against corruption by pro-EU forces at all costs overlaps with Russian interests in weakening the Western-oriented government.

The most feared pro-Russian political force in Moldova is the Șor Party. The leader of this party, Ilan Șor, is currently hiding in Israel from Moldovan justice. The court had sentenced Ilan Șor to 7 years in prison for his involvement in a 2014 bank fraud where billions of euros went missing; but the final decision is still pending due to judicial and bureaucratic bottlenecks since 2017. Șor’s partner is considered to be the fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who allegedly found refuge in Northern Cyprus. Then again, the aggressive anti-Russian policy used by Plahotniuc during his political reign in Moldova (2015−2019) makes him quite incompatible with current Russian plans in Moldova.

In October 2022, the US designated sanctions on Șor for his and his own party’s involvement in supporting Russian malign influence in Moldova. The Moldovan authorities did not so far report on the efficiency of preventing the flow of money from offshore jurisdictions or through crypto platforms to facilitators in Moldova. Yet despite US sanctions, Șor manages to be active on social media, where he has more than 100,000 followers. Meta-owned Facebook was slow to block Șor’s political ads inviting people to join the anti-government protest on February 19.

The ruling party is seeking to ban Ilan Șor’s party, which has more than 10% of public approval. This will not solve much of the problem for the government because there are other pro-Russian forces in parliament, such as the Bloc of Socialists and Communists, which have gained popularity in the face of public criticism of the government’s handling of the energy and socioeconomic crises rippling through Moldova.

Impoverishing effects of the energy crisis

The deteriorating living conditions of the population, exacerbated by the energy crisis, is an important ingredient of instability in Moldova. The impact of inflation of approximately 30% on average in 2022 is due to the increase in electricity and gas rates, which oscillate between 5 and 7 times, respectively. These shocks were understood differently by the population depending on their political opinions and the information they consume.

The pro-government segments tolerated the socioeconomic decline; others were galvanized by it and did not accept the geopolitical causes, particularly the destructiveness of the Russian factor invoked by the ruling elites. Moldova managed to remain governable thanks to loans and grants worth up to € 250 million from the EU and other international partners to pay up to half of energy bills. However, the majority of the population is still feeling the socio-economic consequences in 2023.

The optimistic forecasts of the Moldovan Central Banks about the stabilization of prices below 20% annual inflation in 2023 do not help either. This creates a perfect ground for the justified public discontent that is being used by pro-Russian forces to undermine the legitimacy of the central authorities. With a higher incidence of poverty, socially vulnerable people accepted payment from the Șor Party to participate in anti-government protests in the country’s capital. Moldovan intelligence services reported that not more than € 300,000 (in Moldovan lei, euros and dollars) were identified as cash transferred from abroad to Șor Party affiliates in 2022−23. However, the capital’s population consisting of pro-EU voters has been reluctant to join the protest.

The most desperate segment of society outside of Chișinău, the capital, is likely to ignore the Șor Party’s criminal record and the government’s rigid position that any anti-government protest could have imminent links to Russia. The stigmatization of the protest as something that could serve Russian interests pushes the pro-EU opposition parties towards self-censorship and political hibernation.

Distorted public perception of the Russian aggression against Ukraine

It must be admitted that the Moldovan public has its agency and the more disconnected it is from Moldovan or regional reality, the more difficult it is for the ruling party to maintain legitimacy. There is a wide understanding that Russian propaganda still leaves deep marks on collective thinking in Moldova. As explained above, Russian disinformation would be less efficient and impermeable if the pro-Russian opposition could not weaponize local poverty.

Vulnerability to Russian misrepresentation of the war in Ukraine correlates strongly with the purchasing power of Moldovans, who traditionally look to the ruling party for scapegoats. In other words, Russia can reach and/or form a loyal audience much more easily in Moldova than in a Western country due to its low household incomes. This does not mean that Moldova does not have a pocket of pro-Russian communities in the Russian-speaking Gagauz Autonomy or in the Transnistria region.

The key triggers that favor the Russian narratives in Moldova are based on two main tensions: 1) joining NATO versus neutrality; 2) sovereignty versus external control; and 3) entry into the EU versus the strategic association with Russia (CIS). A less prominent clivage exploited by Russia and the pro-Russian opposition is that of religious conservatism versus liberal values that revolve around protecting the LGBTQI+ community.

The latest polls (CBS-Research) show a high presence of Russian narratives in the minds of Moldovans. Thus, 34% believe that Crimea belongs to Russia compared to 42% who recognize the peninsula as Ukrainian territory. The seizure of parts of Luhansk and Donetsk by Russia in 2022 is approved by 23%, while almost 50% argue that it is an illegal act. Only 36% believe that Ukraine is right in the ongoing war and almost 19% of Moldovans are on the side of Russia. An important feature of the surveys is that the Russian worldview is more widespread among Russian-speakers in 30−50% of cases. However, up to 20% of the Romanian-speaking population is also biting Russian propaganda. The fact that the reach of Russian propaganda is high in all language groups shows that the socio-economic situation plays an important role in the predisposition of citizens to become pro-Russian supporters.

Internal vulnerabilities to focus on in 2023 and beyond

Unlike the obvious military component of the aggression against Ukraine, Russia is using other tools and tactics in Moldova. Nor can surgical interventions be ruled out through subversive actions. They can be organized with the participation of the Russian forces in Transnistria and the political elites within the country, without waiting for Russian intelligence from abroad. However, that scenario was more actionable last year in the midst of the energy crisis than it was in 2023.

With external support, Moldova has diversified its energy supply and is less affected by Russian attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. In addition, the EU has established a security center in Moldova and Frontex is operating on the border with Ukraine.

While keeping a close eye on Russia’s subversive plans in Moldova that have a lower probability, the Moldovan authorities must properly monitor and manage internal socio-economic stability. That is the weakest point exploited by pro-Russian forces, and one that Moscow managed to inflame in 2022. If Russia fails with short-term tactics, it could succeed with longer-term strategies involving democratic means taking into account Moldova’s local elections in 2023, the presidential ones in 2024 and the legislative ones in 2025.

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