Adam Zivo: Moscow wants Moldova. Canada can help
Providing resources and intelligence to the beleaguered republic could aid Ukraine
By: Adam Zivo
While all eyes have, understandably, turned to Ukraine, neighbouring Moldova — a tiny, impoverished nation of 2.6 million people — is at risk of being turned into a Russian client state. Moscow is using aggressive tactics, including energy warfare and, allegedly, an attempted coup, to destabilize the country and potentially gain control over it.
To help preempt this, it would be prudent for Canada and the West at large to provide the Moldovan government with police equipment and intelligence support. If we do not, and Russia establishes control over Moldova, we risk creating a second, western front in the Russo-Ukrainian war, dispersing Ukrainian troops and undermining Kyiv’s capacity to defend itself and recapture its territories.
A Russian-dominated Moldova would also dramatically increase the vulnerability of Ukraine’s southwestern coast, sandwiching Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port, in between a Russian client state to the west and Moscow’s occupying forces to the east.
Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Moldova has stood at a crossroad between the east and west. Moldovans are almost identical to Romanians, ethnically and linguistically, and, in reflection of this, approximately a third of the population holds Romanian citizenship. These intimate ties with Romania tether Moldova to the West, providing cultural and political fuel for those who want to integrate with the EU.
At the same time, Russian influence within the country is strong. A sizable portion of Moldovans speak Russian in addition to Romanian. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union remains high, particularly among older generations.
Over the past 10 years, Moldovan voters have been fairly evenly split between pro-Russian and pro-European parties. While Russophile parties governed the country throughout the 2010s, Moldova swung Westward in 2019, allowing the pro-European Party of Action and Solidarity to establish a majority government.
This did not sit well with Russia.
In March, a consortium of international journalists published a leaked Russian report outlining Moscow’s plan to establish full control over Moldova by 2030. The report was drafted before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and took a relatively tame approach towards pulling Moldova back into Russia’s orbit. For example, Moscow planned to grow its media presence in the country and foster Moldovan dependency on Russian imports.
The attack on Ukraine changed things considerably. Moldova’s government applied for EU membership just one week after the invasion began, and, since then, has been Kyiv’s staunch ally: Moldova declared a national day of mourning in response to the Bucha massacre and banned Russian pro-war symbols early last year.
Moscow responded with an aggressive campaign to destabilize the country. Last October, Russia, which has a monopoly on Moldova’s gas imports, slashed the nation’s gas supplies by a third. At the same time, because Moldova imports a significant portion of its electricity from Ukraine, Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure led to Moldovan power shortages, too.
Energy prices have since skyrocketed, leading households to spend as much as 70 per cent of their income on utility bills, while overall inflation has soared to over 30 per cent. This has created mass discontent, especially among pensioners.
Beginning last autumn, pro-Russian parties have also been organising mass protests and fomenting unrest in the country. In September, tens of thousands of protesters marched through Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, on several occasions to call for new elections.
These protests have been primarily spearheaded by the Sor Party, which, despite winning only eight per cent of the vote in 2019, has managed to have an outsized impact on Moldova’s political discourse. The party is controlled by Ilhor Sor, a fugitive oligarch who now lives in Israel after embezzling $1 billion from the Moldovan government. This week, one of Sor’s leading figures, Marina Tauber, tried to flee to Israel but was arrested at Chisinau’s airport on corruption charges relating to illegal funding of the party.
In early February, Ukraine alleged that it had intercepted Russian plans to overthrow the Moldovan government and install a puppet regime there. Shortly afterwards, the Moldovan government corroborated the allegations, which were denied by Moscow.
Allegedly, Russia planned to use foreign military-trained saboteurs, predominantly from Serbia, Montenegro, and Belarus, to take hostages and stage attacks throughout Chisinau. Additionally, provocateurs were to foment unrest during anti-government protests. The plot closely resembled Russia’s 2016 foiled coup plot in Montenegro, wherein Russian and Serbian agents allegedly planned to assassinate the country’s prime minister and create chaos by shooting into crowds of protestors.
Moldova was able to preempt the plot by barring the entry of approximately 1,000 Serbian soccer fans and a Montenegrin boxing team. Additionally, at least 180 foreign nationals were denied entry into the country.
Throughout all of this chaos, everyone has been uneasy about Transnistria, an unrecognized, Russian-sponsored breakaway republic which snakes down Moldova’s eastern border, along the Dniester river. Almost a third of Transnistrians are ethnic Russians — a byproduct of Soviet-era policies that encouraged tens of thousands of Russians to immigrate to, and industrialize, the region.
Approximately 1,500 Russian troops have been stationed in Transnistria since the breakaway republic, with Moscow’s military aid, asserted its quasi-independence in 1992. However, 90 per cent of these soldiers are actually local Transnistrians who have been given Russian passports.
For decades, these “Russian” soldiers have guarded the Cobsana ammunition depot, which is widely believed to be the largest ammunition depot in eastern Europe — up to 20,000 tons of Soviet-era weapons are stored there. For now, these weapons have no way of making their way out of Transnistria. Moldova won’t permit their passage, and neither will Ukraine, obviously.
Moscow has had a longstanding desire to annex Transnistria and, at the very least, connect it to Russia via a “land-bridge” across southern Ukraine. One week after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarus accidentally leaked a war map confirming Russia’s intent to invade the area after conquering Odesa. A month later, in April 2022, Moscow allegedly tried to use false flag attacks to pull Transnistria into the war with Ukraine, but the breakaway republic remained neutral.
This winter and spring, Russia flipped the script and claimed that Kyiv was planning on using false flag attacks of its own to justify a Ukrainian invasion of Transnistria. The accusations were dismissed by both Moldova and Ukraine.
In early March, I spent a day in Chisinau and interviewed locals about their perceptions of the war. It was my second time in the city and, amid a cold and damp morning, no one was smiling.
There was concrete, rust, and mud. Babushkas selling miscellanea on the street. Post-industrial. Soviet.
Younger interviewees seemed disdainful of Russia. One young man, Ioan, called Putin an “imperialist” and said that he was afraid that, should war come to Moldova, he would have to leave the country. A young woman, Olena, said that the situation around Transnistria was “tense” and that Moldova should not allow pro-Russian rallies and should “defend its territory.”
Another young woman, Maria, said, “What is happening now in Transnistria, or rather, what could happen, is very similar to the situation in Ukraine. So of course it’s scary.” According to her, “it would be better if the situation remained as before,” because “at least there was stability here.”
Older Moldovans seemed to have a different perspective.
“It’s not a Russian rally. It’s the poor, destitute people who gather — pensioners like me. I have a pension of 2,500 lei ($190 CAD), and then the bills for my apartment come, for heating: 3,500 lei. Everything becomes more expensive. Every day you go to a store and there are new prices. People cannot live,” said Grigoriy. He said that Moldovans “don’t need revolutions” and “want peace and silence,” but that economic issues are forcing people to protest.
Two babushkas, Antonia and Lyudmila, who were sitting on a bench had disagreements about the situation. Antonia was highly critical of the pro-Western government, which she blamed the international Moldovan diaspora for, and said, “Our pensions are meagre. You can’t buy anything in a store. They mock us. All the youth are leaving. This is some kind of nightmare.”
“Why is (the president) listening to this Zelenskyy? What does he know? Are there spies? We don’t have them here. Why are you talking if you don’t know anything?” said Antonia, who was then interrupted by Lyudmilla, who said, “Saboteurs were sent. Spies. They escalate the situation on purpose.”
Slightly more than a week later, mass anti-government protests erupted throughout Chisinau.
Thousands of police officers were deployed throughout the capital, and, ultimately, no riots developed. Moldovan officials arrested 54 protesters, as well as groups of “diversionists” (some of who were Russian citizens) who were allegedly promised $10,000 to create “mass disorder.”
Since then, Moldova has continued to teeter onwards. A new, pro-Western government has been sworn-in (the previous prime minister and government resigned in February), but, amid the ongoing storm of economic and political crises, its position is fragile.
Canada should provide aid to prop the government up, especially because the cost of such aid would be tiny relative to the potential strategic payoffs. Since the main threat is civil unrest, there is no need to send troops or military weapons. Moldova needs enough police equipment and intelligence support to ensure that future pro-Russian protests aren’t used to launch coups.
Providing those resources would be common sense.
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