What is Russia plotting in Moldova?

Prime minister Natalia Gavriliţa resigns following months of rising Russian pressure

The Russian and Transnistrian flags fly next to each other
Soviet-era statues still stand in the contested Moldovan region of Transnistria
(Image credit: Sergei Gapon / AFP via Getty Images)

Moldova’s government collapsed on Friday after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that Russia was planning to “destroy” the tiny former Soviet republic.

In a surprise press briefing, Prime Minister Natalia Gavriliţa stood down “amid the worsening economic fallout from the war in neighbouring Ukraine”, said The Wall Street Journal. Inflation has “soared”, peaking at 30% in December “after Moscow’s decision to throttle natural-gas supplies, and prompting a wave of street protests”.

Gavriliţa said the country could have “advanced further and faster” had its government “had the same support at home as we had from our European partners”. She said the country was “entering a new phase, one in which security is our priority”.

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Moldova, together with Ukraine, was granted candidate status to the European Union last June, but “the government has faced intense pressure from Moscow, which has sought to undermine its authority”, said Politico.

Her resignation “came shortly after a Russian missile fired at Ukraine violated Moldova’s airspace”, said the Financial Times (FT), and “a day after the country’s intelligence agency said it was aware of plans by Moscow’s security services to undermine the Moldovan state”.

President Maia Sandu said security adviser Dorin Recean would take over as PM.

Russian plotting

In another remarkable press briefing on Monday, Sandu confirmed that her intelligence officials had uncovered a plot to put the nation “at the disposal of Russia” and use external saboteurs to overthrow her country’s government.

She told reporters the plan involved “diversionists with military training, camouflaged in civilian clothes, who will undertake violent actions, attack some state buildings, and even take hostages”.

The purpose, said Sandu, is to “overthrow the constitutional order”, change the legitimate power to an illegitimate one and “stop the European integration process”.

Zelenskyy made a similar claim to EU leaders last week, saying that his country’s intelligence services had intercepted Russian plans to “destroy” Moldova.

“These documents show who, when and how Russia is going to break democracy of Moldova and establish control,” he told a summit in Brussels.

In the early days of the Ukraine invasion last year, “there were fears the conflict would spill over into Moldova, or that Russia might invade it too”, said the BBC.

That concern has “receded for now”, but as Moldova moves ever closer to joining the EU, “pressure has increased from Russia – which has tried to undermine the former Soviet state, and the EU’s influence”, added the broadcaster.

Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of trying to turn Moldova against Russia – labelling it as the West’s new “anti-Russian project”.

Heightened tensions in Transnistria

Moldova has accused Russia of using its forces inside the separatist-controlled Transnistria to “destabilise the country via attacks on its infrastructure, including on energy links that run through the enclave to the rest of the country”, said the FT.

Russia “illegally stations about 1,700 soldiers in the region and has a significant influence on the political class in both Tiraspol and the southern autonomous region of Gagauzia”, said Balkan Insight.

It added that “both areas are subjected to heavy Russian propaganda directed against the pro-European government in Chisinau”, the capital of Moldova.

Last December, according to Euractive, Moldova’s spy chief Alexandru Musteata warned of a “very high” risk of a new Russian offensive towards his country’s east in 2023 and said Moscow still aimed to secure a land corridor through Ukraine to Transnistria.

EU accession hopes and fears

The collapse of Gavriliţa’s administration came as her pro-EU government had been “attempting to ram through reforms demanded by Brussels before it can begin EU accession talks, weakening public support in the post-Soviet republic where pro-Russian sentiment has deep historical roots”, said the FT.

Bordering Ukraine, Moldova has found itself “precariously close to the war”, added Politico, and has been “keen to strike a balancing act as it seeks to protect itself militarily without provoking Moscow”.

Sandu told the website last month: “Now, there is a serious discussion... about our capacity to defend ourselves, whether we can do it ourselves, or whether we should be part of a larger alliance.”

But “devoting resources to rebuilding Moldova’s puny defence capabilities is controversial” when the cost-of-living crisis has “left huge numbers of Moldovans struggling to pay their bills”, said The Economist.

While EU accession would be difficult, it would be welcomed, as “salvation can only come in the form of European integration and genuine strategic autonomy”, argued EuroNews’s Claudiu Degeratu.

“The defence strategy of the Republic of Moldova and its armed forces have become the most critical priorities,” he added. “Moldova needs modern defence capabilities, assistance programs and defence resources” and with these it “could be one of the European success stories”.

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