CHISINAU, Moldova — On Friday, John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, made a surprise announcement at a White House press briefing. U.S. intelligence, he said, had determined that the Kremlin was plotting to topple another European democracy. “Russian actors, some with current ties to Russian intelligence, are seeking to stage and use protests in Moldova as a basis to foment a manufactured insurrection against the Moldovan government,” Kirby declared.
As if on schedule, Moldova experienced an antigovernment demonstration on Sunday, just two days later. Thousands of people waving the blue, yellow and red Moldovan flag marched through the streets of downtown Chisinau, the capital, past the national Parliament and executive building. “Down with Maia Sandu!” they chanted, referring to Moldova’s outspokenly pro-European president.
Local police arrested 54 demonstrators for violating public order, almost half of them minors. Police also alleged that four bomb threats were made throughout the country, one at the international airport. The Moldovan Border Police, meanwhile, said it had stopped a suspected mercenary from the Wagner Group from entering the country in a week in which 181 other foreigners tried to do likewise.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical ambitions for Moldova go far beyond such protests.
Yahoo News has obtained an internal strategy document from Putin’s Presidential Administration that reveals Moscow’s plans for Moldova, the small country vulnerably sandwiched between war-torn Ukraine and a member of NATO and the European Union, Romania. The document is part of a reporting collaboration with European news organizations: Delfi Estonia, the Swedish newspaper Expressen, the London-based Dossier Center, the Kyiv Independent, Rise Moldova, Frontstory, VSquare, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) and Norddeutscher Rundfunk.
The document originates from the same Presidential Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation that produced a similar strategy, previously reported on by Yahoo News, concerning Russian plans to annex Belarus. The Moldova strategy, according to the source who leaked it, was drafted in the fall of 2021, like its Belarusian counterpart, with input from Russia’s General Staff and Moscow’s main intelligence services: the FSB, SVR and GRU.
The Russian strategy for Moldova focuses on “countering the attempts of external actors (primarily the United States, the countries of the European Union, the Republic of Turkey and Ukraine) to interfere in the internal affairs of the Republic of Moldova, to strengthen the influence of NATO and weaken the positions of the Russian Federation.” It envisions Moldova joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow’s answer to the EU, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, its version of NATO. And the plan seeks the “neutralization” of any actions by the Moldovan government to expel the Russian military presence in Transnistria, a Moscow-backed breakaway republic that is internationally recognized as part of Moldova.
Moldova, not much larger than Maryland, has a population of about 2.6 million. In the early months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it absorbed 430,000 refugees, more per capita than any other country. Moldova’s incredibly weak economy — it is one of Europe’s poorest countries — is generally seen as a major liability should Russia’s war bleed over its borders. The prospect of Putin using Transnistria as a staging ground for just such an event causes anxiety not only in Chisinau, but also, on occasion, in Kyiv and Washington.
Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean, who only assumed office last month, was shown the document in a meeting room on the fifth floor of his office in Chisinau last week, a room adorned with EU and Moldovan flags. Recean, the former national security adviser to Sandu, confirmed that the contents of the Kremlin agenda reflect what he and many in his liberal government have long known. “The Russians have tried for a very long time to make sure Moldova does not have sovereignty over its foreign policy,” he said.
According to David Kramer, a former State Department official, “While barely recognizing Moldova as a separate state, the document treats Moldova as a pliable satellite over which it can exercise control and influence, while seeking to block Western influence. It is typical of the Kremlin’s attitude toward all its neighbors and underscores the objective of maintaining a well-controlled sphere of influence.”
The Moldova plan, again in parallel with the one for Belarus, is broken up into three different chapter headings: the political, military and defense sectors; the humanitarian sector; and trade and economy sectors. These headings stipulate specific milestones the authors would like to achieve in the short term (by 2022), medium term (by 2025) and long term (by 2030). That final target year, the document says, should see the “creation of stable pro-Russian groups of influence in the Moldovan political and economic elites.”
But Belarus and Moldova are on very different trajectories. Where Belarus has grown more beholden to Moscow as it consolidates its authoritarianism, Moldova has joined Ukraine in moving away from Russia’s orbit and towards the West. Russia doesn’t let its ex-Soviet bloc states drift away easily; typically it blames the U.S., NATO and the EU for engaging in the sort of internal interference in which it specializes itself. Pro-Western policies can sometimes lead to military action: Russia invaded Ukraine last year and Georgia in 2008, when both countries’ leaders sought closer relationships with Washington and Brussels.
“The Moldovan leadership has taken a clearly pro-Western course,” a Western intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of the strategy document told Yahoo News. “Thus, the Kremlin’s strategic goals are becoming more difficult, not easier, to achieve over time. They’ve steadily increased the pressure and are using more aggressive tactics to realize these goals.”
In 2020, Sandu, a Harvard-educated former World Bank economist, won Moldova’s presidential election against a pro-Russian incumbent. And in 2021, the pro-Western Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) won an overwhelming majority in the Moldovan Parliament and started the process of EU integration. Moldova, along with Ukraine, obtained EU candidate status last summer, and popular support for joining the body reached 63%, according to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in November.
According to the Western intelligence official, the Kremlin’s goal is to put Moldova back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin’s arsenal in this regard is not tanks and fighter jets, as with Ukraine, but the weapons of political warfare: infiltrating the country with Russian intelligence operatives and fomenting antidemocratic activity using paid or ideologically loyal agents of influence.
Sandu directly accused Moscow last month of plotting to overthrow her government. “The plan included sabotage and militarily trained people disguised as civilians to carry out violent actions, attacks on government buildings and taking hostages,” she told reporters at a press conference.
Anti-government protests, backed by the Moscow-friendly Shor political party, rocked Moldova in September last year and continued all winter amid an energy crisis in the country, which had been dependent on Russian gas. After Russia threatened to increase prices and cut supplies to Moldova, Chisinau declared in December that it would switch to a domestic energy company and declined to use any Russian gas — for the first time in its post-Soviet history.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the Kremlin has used the prospect of a winter without Moscow’s energy supplies to deter Western military and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Europe struggled to severely sanction Russia and find alternative sources of oil and gas to sustain itself through the season. But with spring approaching, the Russian threat largely failed to ward off Ukraine’s benefactors.
Indeed, a major theme of the anti-Sandu demonstrations is the demand that the government reimburse the public for high utility prices. “We want to oblige our government to pay the bills for heating, electricity and gas for the three winter months, December, January and February, for all our citizens,” Marina Tauber, the vice president of the opposition Shor Party and the main organizer of Sunday’s protest, told Yahoo News. Tauber adamantly denied that her party had been financed by Russia. “Not in any way,” she said.
Nevertheless, multiple outlets have reported that the Shor Party, headed by and named for the pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor, has been paying protesters to show up. Krzysztof Lisek, a former Polish lawmaker and now the Chisinau-based program director for the International Republican Institute, told Yahoo News that Shor is busing people in from his hometown of Orhei, 24 miles north of Chisinau, where the oligarch built an amusement park and cleaned up the local lake. “Solicitors from his party even stand outside schools, encouraging teenagers to participate in the demonstrations,” Lisek said.
In October, the German newspaper Deutsche Welle reported that protesters were earning the “equivalent of 20 euros ($19) per day and 80 euros per night,” a significant sum for the average Moldovan. Elena Mârzac, a Moldovan security analyst who spent nine years working on Moldova-NATO cooperation, said that some of the protesters from poorer areas have been compensated with as little as 10 euros a day, a claim Yahoo News could not independently verify. Moldovan journalists, meanwhile, have posted videos to social media of drunken demonstrators boasting about the money they’d received.
“Obviously, Russia is co-financing these protests and attempts to destabilize the country,” Recean told Yahoo News. “They are looking to recruit tough guys in order to attack police, in order to attack government buildings and companies and make these kinds of provocations that would lead to destabilization.”
Shor is a highly controversial businessman in Moldovan politics. He was arrested on money-laundering and embezzlement charges in connection with the theft of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014. Shor is the husband of the Russian pop singer Jasmin, whom Putin decorated as an honored artist of Russia. He resides in exile in Israel and is wanted in connection with the alleged fraud in his native country.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Shor in October 2022, stating that he was an instrument of Russia’s plan to undermine Moldova’s elections and the country’s bid for EU membership.
“To support this effort, Shor worked with Russian individuals to create a political alliance to control Moldova’s parliament, which would then support several pieces of legislation in the interests of the Russian Federation,” the U.S. government alleged.
These allegations align with the Russian government document obtained by Yahoo News. According to the Russian plan, the Kremlin’s strategy goes after not just elections but what it labels as Moldova’s “humanitarian sector.”
Moscow, as per the document, seeks the “neutralization of attempts to limit the activities of Russian and pro-Russian media in Moldova,” “the creation of a network of NGOs promoting the development of Russian-Moldovan relations” and the expansion of opportunities for Moldovan students to receive education in the Russian language. In a clear sign that the strategy document was written or edited at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it even cites remote or distance education as a viable means for satisfying the last criterion. “As a university adjunct professor teaching online through lockdown, I should have foreseen this: Russia now realizes it can recruit people to its state education system via Zoom,” Vlad Lupan, the former Moldovan ambassador to the U.N., said. “This is going to be difficult to counter.”
By 2025, Russia would like a “sustainable functioning of the system of organizational, financial, legal and information support of NGOs friendly to the Russian Federation.”
“For years, we didn’t pay attention to propaganda and to Russian TV channels that were always present here,” Recean said. “And when we started to close them, the propaganda moved to Telegram, Facebook, VKontakte [a Russian social media network], TikTok. With Telegram and TikTok, we cannot do anything about it except cut the wire. Thirty-something years of propaganda — we see the effect of it now.”
Serghei Diaconu, the prime minister’s chief of staff, told Yahoo News that nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are notorious for acting as pro-Russian fronts. “There is permanently a presence of people, the younger generation, and especially from the socialist side, entering and exiting the Russian cultural centers,” he said. Diaconu cited organizations in Moldova financed by Rossotrudnichestvo, which is technically an arm of the Russian Foreign Ministry but in reality, according to Western security sources, a clearinghouse for Russian espionage and intelligence operations. “You know they’re not cultural centers. What they really want is to diminish the influence of Romania and Europe in Moldova.”
An outstanding issue for the Kremlin is resolving the frozen conflict in Transnistria, the 1,600-square-mile breakaway province between the east bank of the Dniester river and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, and where hundreds of Russian soldiers have been stationed since 1992. For months, there has been international concern that Transnistria, whose distinct flag still bears the Soviet hammer-and-sickle, might be used to open a new line of attack on Ukraine from its western flank.
Integral to Russia’s designs is the Federal Security Service, or FSB, one of the successors to the Soviet KGB. Despite being the domestic security agency of Russia, the FSB has an extensive foreign apparatus, embedded in embassies throughout the world, known as the Fifth Service. According to RISE Moldova (one of Yahoo News’ investigative partners), Gen. Dmitry Milyutin, the deputy head of the Fifth Service’s Department of Operational Information (DOI), had originally advocated opening up a “second front” against Ukraine from Transnistria at the start of Russia’s invasion. That gambit was never realized. But Milyutin, along with his boss, Gen. Georgy Grishaev, who heads the DOI, is part of “a cohort of those FSB generals who dream of the revival of the USSR and are ready to serve this idea faithfully and truthfully,” a Russian parliamentarian privy to their thinking told the Dossier Center, another of Yahoo News’ partners.
“Prevention and suppression of steps on the part of the Republic of Moldova that could lead to the ‘unfreezing’ of the Transnistrian conflict and its escalation,” is a Kremlin milestone for 2022, according to the strategy document. Apart from housing Russian troops, Transnistria is also a hub of corruption, smuggling and organized crime, according to experts. Its return to Moldova’s sovereign control would be a headache for Putin.
“Throwing a couple of rockets, it’s not a big deal,” Recean told Yahoo News of Russian forces in the province. “Militarily, Russia can’t advance from Transnistria.” Instead, Recean said, Moscow relies on provocations and stunts — “active measures” in the parlance of Russian intelligence — meant to undermine faith in the Moldovan government. One scare tactic is to suggest that Chisinau’s pro-European policymaking is leading the country to war with Russia — a playbook similar to the one used by pro-Russian politicians in Georgia.
Last week, the Moscow-backed Transnistrian authorities announced the arrest of two alleged terrorists who had intended to assassinate Vadim Krasnoselsky, president of the almost universally unrecognized statelet. Transnistrian sources blamed Ukraine for the plot, as they have for previous, unexplained grenade attacks on security and radio infrastructure in the region. One person who immediately agreed with the Transnistrian narrative was the former Moldovan president, Igor Dodon, who took to Russian media to amplify the event and demanded that the Moldovan authorities “take measures against the involvement of the country in the conflict in Ukraine.”
An investigation by the Dossier Center found that Dodon, while still president, sent drafts of his speeches to Russian intelligence officers, including one he delivered to the Munich Security Conference in 2019. Dodon was placed under house arrest in May 2022 on corruption and treason charges; he was released in November.
Recean admits that his own party, PAS, has been sluggish in countering Russian political warfare, at a time when Moldova is particularly susceptible to foreign interference. Inflation hovers at around 30%; energy prices have increased seven times; Russia’s war of conquest next door in Ukraine is an ominous reminder of what can befall a smaller country that refuses the Kremlin’s demands.
“When people are afraid, they say, ‘OK, the Russian bear is too big for us. Maybe we can get a kind of understanding and agreement with it and it won’t touch us,” Recean said.
“I would be very happy,” said Diaconu, “if people in Moldova saw this document.”