For almost two decades, Russia has been interfering in the domestic politics of other nations. According to one report, Russia has interfered in the political processes of at least 27 North American and European countries since 2004. The Kremlin has several goals for this assault: first, to undermine the legitimacy of Western governments and principles such as the rule of law and human rights; second, to weaken major institutions such as the European Union and NATO; and third, encourage the formation of pro-Russian governments.
A wide variety of techniques and tactics are being employed, including generating false news stories about pro-democracy movements, hacking the communications of government institutions and political parties, funding pro-Moscow political movements, and using international organizations such Interpol to harass political opponents. The effects of this undeclared war are particularly pernicious in so-called semi-consolidated democracies, such as Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Moldova.
One of the Putin regime’s favorite tricks is to support pro-Russian political parties while simultaneously doing everything possible to undermine the credibility of pro-Western parties and politicians. In some instances, Russian money has gone simultaneously to both pro-Russian and extreme nationalist parties. This would seem to be a self-contradicting strategy. However, the Kremlin’s primary objective is to undermine the power of centrist parties that have dominated European politics for decades and to encourage those countries to pursue anti-Western and anti-EU policies.
It is not just the big countries such as Ukraine or NATO members like the Baltic States, Hungary or Romania that are under pressure from Moscow. Even one of the smallest, the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, is a target of Russia’s information warfare. Moldova is strategically significant to Russia. It abuts NATO member Romania as well as would-be member Ukraine. A pro-Russian Moldova advances Moscow’s goal of encircling Ukraine.
Russia has a long history of interfering in Moldovan politics. Soon after Moldova split from the Soviet Union, Russia fomented a separatist movement in that country’s Transdniestria region, which is in the northeast along the border with Ukraine. The local government invited in Russian troops who have been there for more than two decades.
Having subdivided small Moldova, Russia has conducted a decades-long campaign to influence local politics, support pro-Russian parties and undermine the credibility of pro-Western groups and leaders. One way Russia has tried to interfere in Moldovan politics is by attacking national leaders who are insufficiently subservient to Moscow. Russia planted false stories in European news outlets that accused the former head of the pro-EU Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc, of financial crimes. There were even Moscow-generated stories that a request to detain, known as a Red Notice, had been issued by Interpol. Red Notices call on police around the world to locate and detain an individual pending their extradition to the country making the accusation; in this case Plahotniuc’s adversary, Russia. Facing these bogus charges, Mr. Plahotniuc fled Moldova for sanctuary in the West where his civil and human rights would be protected.
The most recent turn of events centers on the collapse of Moldova’s coalition government on November 12. The pro-Russian Socialist Party and the Democratic Party, now without the leadership of Mr. Plahotniuc, passed a vote of no-confidence against the centrist coalition government of Prime Minister Maia Sandu. The Prime Minister had been moving Moldova closer to the EU and fighting efforts by the Socialists to push the country closer to Russia. The particular issue that brought down the Sandu government was reform of the office of the chief prosecutor, a critical first step in fighting corruption and foreign influences in Moldovan politics.
But the larger effect of the ousting of Prime Minister Sandu was to move Moldova away from the West and towards Russia. Moldova’s current President and the former head of the Socialists, Igor Dodon, has been a staunch advocate of closer relations between Moldova and Russia. Following Sandu’s ouster, Dodon quickly replaced her with one of his closest advisors, Ion Chicu, who immediately appointed a raft of Dodon advisors to the Cabinet.
In addition to seeking to keep Moldova out of the West’s “sphere of influence,” the Socialist Party and other groups in the country were intent on blocking Sandu’s efforts to rein in the rampant corruption that has weighed the Moldovan economy down. Sandu’s government had opened a criminal probe into whether Dodon and the Socialist Party received illegal campaign contributions from Russia.
For Russian oligarchs, Moldova is like a private piggy bank. It is reported that between 2010 and 2014 Russian oligarchs laundered between $20 and $80 billion dollars through banks in Eastern Europe, particularly in Moldova.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been unstinting in his support for Dodon. As soon as the Sandu government took office in June 2019, Putin announced that Russia would back President Dodon against what he termed “usurpers.”
The sad case of Moldovan politics is a cautionary tale for all of Eastern Europe. Russia will go to almost any lengths to prevent any more of the former Soviet Republics from escaping its clutches and entering the orbit of the EU.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.