Population-centric: Lessons from Russia’s hybrid war in Moldova

Russian political proxies are weaponising protests in Moldova, escalating Russia’s hybrid war in the country. Despite optimistic appearances, Moldovan authorities are ill-prepared to face this crisis.

Marina Tauber the vice-president of Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party speaks during a protest initiated by the Movement for the People and members of Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party, against the pro-Western government and low living standards, in Chisinau, Moldova, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. Thousands of protesters returned to Moldova’s capital Tuesday to demand that the country’snew pro-Western governmentfully subsidize citizens’ winter energy bills amid skyrocketing inflation. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja)
Marina Tauber the vice-president of Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party speaks during a protest initiated by the Movement for the People and members of Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Aurel Obreja

Protests represent one of the most critical elements of a functional democracy, fulfilling a number of important political functions. In Moldova, Russia is exploiting, misusing, and weaponising them as part of its campaign against the pro-Western government. During recent months, Russia has mobilised its political proxies in Moldova to protest against the government, and to pay people to join their rallies. The Moldovan government has made some attempts to respond to these influences, but its approach is deeply flawed.

Over several months, Russia has been directing its two main political proxies in Moldova – the Party of Socialists and the Sor Party – to implement its push-pull strategy of coercion

Russia’s weaponisation of protests is a core element of its hybrid war – a type of interstate aggression below the threshold of conventional war – against the pro-Western Moldovan government led by President Maia Sandu. Over several months, Russia has been directing its two main political proxies in Moldova – the Party of Socialists and the Sor Party – to implement its push-pull strategy of coercion.

On one hand, Moscow has used its monopoly over Moldova’s energy market to raise the prices of natural gas before the last two winters and threatened gas cuts, gravely impacting a majority of Moldova’s economically deprived population. On the other hand, it has guided its two proxies to rally segments of the mostly destitute population against the pro-European government, by shifting the blame for increased gas prices onto the incumbent authorities, and by paying protesters to join the rallies.

In doing so, Russia is attempting to stagnate Moldova’s cooperation with the West, increase pro-Russian feelings in Moldova, and ideally force the government to accept the Kremlin’s direction in its foreign and security policies. Its mid-term goal is to bring its political proxies in Moldova to power and consolidate an authoritarian system of governance in the country, which it could then use to block popular resistance while transforming Moldova into its satellite state.

In early March, the coordinator for strategic communications at the United States National Security Council, John Kirby, declared that according to US intelligence, Russian actors with ties to Russian intelligence plan to stage and exploit protests in Moldova “as a basis to foment a manufactured insurrection against the Moldovan Government.” In early February President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine had informed Moldovan authorities about Russia’s planned actions to overthrow the incumbent government and replace it with one loyal to the Kremlin, which Sandu acknowledged.  

Moldovan authorities attempted to respond to this threat. Right before the most recent public rallies on 12 March – led by the Sor Party – they declared that they had managed to prevent a conspiracy directed by Russian security services to instigate violent actions during the protests, including provocations and attacks against police. Moldovan law enforcement arrested over 50 people before the protests, declaring that they were part of some ten “special groups” coordinated by a Russian intelligence agent and tasked with violent attacks during the rally. Police seized tens of thousands in US dollars and euros from these groups and the Sor Party – allegedly coming from Russian sources – as well as surveillance material confirming their illegal activities. Furthermore, the Moldovan border police reported that it recently stopped a member of the Russian state-sponsored Wagner Group from entering Moldova, and refused entry into the country to over 180 foreigners during the week before the 12 March rally.

But the Moldovan authorities’ criminal investigation only targeted the external element of the insurrection, while doing little to undermine the internal ones. This is only feasible as a short-term, delaying strategy. It is almost impossible to prevent the gradual infiltration into the country of trained individuals that would form the violent arm of the insurrection. To minimise the threat, along with the removal of the external arm of the insurrection, Moldovan authorities need to also address the internal, domestic arm, formed of Russia’s local political proxies. These proxies provide Russia with political legitimacy in Moldova, local planning and organisation, and easy access to Moldova’s state institutions. The segment of the population whose political preferences have been successfully shaped by the Kremlin enables them. Their protests provide ‘legal’ cover for the Kremlin’s intervention and violence in Moldova.

There are strong indications that the 12 March rally was a preparatory and reconnaissance exercise for the Russian operatives. The information revealed by police suggests that the planned violence was likely aimed to test the law enforcement’s response and standard operating procedures, and the coordination mechanisms among relevant government agencies. This is because the number of people that planned to attack the police during the protests would not have been enough to take over the government buildings. The ‘attackers’ were also recruited from criminal and sport groups, suggesting that only their aggressiveness was needed. To overthrow the government, a few hundred trained operatives would be required, at the very least. The authorities also received four false calls about bomb threats on the day of the rally, including one targeting the Chisinau international airport, corroborating the probing nature of these actions.

Moreover, these rallies are likely designed to further radicalise the society and deepen the population’s distrust of the authorities, as the blame for violence would be placed on the police. By following this strategy, Russia would therefore be able to gradually increase the number of genuine protesters taking part in future protests.

Russian actions strongly suggest that Moscow is preparing for a full-scale insurrection in Moldova. The upcoming presidential elections in 2024 and parliamentary elections in 2025 provide a window of opportunity: elections offer the perfect context for an insurrection, as violent protests can be explained as stemming from popular dissatisfaction with election results. In parallel, Russia is conducting influence operations in Moldova, which are enabled by the authorities’ insufficient efforts to curb them. There are suggestions that Russia’s disinformation campaigns are working: polling data indicates that the number of respondents who consider Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as unjustified has decreased to 38.2 per cent in March this year, from 43.1 per cent in March 2022. The region of Gagauzia, where the population already shows signs of rejecting the authority of Chisinau, is especially vulnerable to Russia’s hybrid war actions in the run-up to the elections.

Moldovan authorities should be aware that a Russian hybrid aggression will not rely only on one line of attack. Moldova needs a new approach to national security and defence to protect against a Russian insurrection and connected threats. It should move away from its police-centred security sector, inherited from previous kleptocratic governments, and build up professional intelligence services that are more suitable to tackle these challenges. The police rushed to make petty arrests before the 12 March rally, and in doing so exposed their undercover agent and failed to collect evidence connecting the Russian spy agency with its local political proxies. In addition to strengthening its intelligence services, it needs to protect its population from Russia’s influence operations. Only by doing so can it successfully confront Russia’s hybrid war.

Dumitru Minzarari is a lecturer in security studies with the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College, Estonia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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