Anti-government protesters in Chişinău: "A prime example of hybrid warfare."

Anti-government protesters in Chişinău: "A prime example of hybrid warfare."

Foto: Dumitru Doru / epa

Russia's Second Front Putin Seeks to Destabilize Ukraine's Neighbor

Moldova is seeking to join the European Union, but Russia is doing everything it can to destabilize the small republic. The Kremlin has radically throttled gas deliveries and is orchestrating protests in the country.
By Maximilian Popp in Chişinău, Moldova

They have gathered in front of the Presidential Palace in Moldova’s capital city Chişinău, just as they have for weeks. Older men in sweatpants and peasant women in headscarves. There appear to be several thousand of them, protesting against energy prices, which have multiplied in Moldova since last year. The Moldovan flag is flying everywhere, and the demonstrators chant in Russian: "Maia Sandu must go!"


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2022 (November 19th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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When the leader of the demonstration, the pro-Russian opposition politician Ilan Şor, is connected by video, a murmur goes through the crowd. A court sentenced Şor to seven and a half years in prison for fraud. But to escape his jail time, he fled to Israel. The United States government has imposed sanctions on him for fomenting unrest in Moldova with Moscow’s help. President Sandu has ruined the economy, Şor claims, and only his party can save the country.

A Proxy Conflict Between Russia and the West

Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, has a population of just 2.5 million. With a per-capita income of around 5,100 euros, it is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Yet despite its small size, it is at the center of the conflict between Russia and the West.

Ever since declaring independence in 1991, Moldova has been almost continuously ruled by pro-Russian political forces. Then, in November 2020, voters elected Maia Sandu, a Harvard graduate and former World Bank economist. She removed pro-Russian officials from the state apparatus and, after Russia's attack on Ukraine, she sided with Kyiv. This is likely one of the reasons the European Union moved in June to declare Moldova as a candidate country.

Moscow, on the other hand, is doing all it can to destabilize the country. Gazprom halved natural gas supplies to Moldova in November, according to Sandu. Meanwhile, Ukrainian intelligence reports  obtained by the Washington Post provide evidence that the Kremlin has thrown its support behind Sandu opponent Şor.

Without help from Europe, the Sandu government could fall this winter and be replaced by a pro-Russian regime, with consequences for the entire region.

Sandu, 50, is sitting with her winter coat on at the Presidential Palace on a November morning. She has turned off the heat to save energy.

Until recently, Moldova drew 100 percent of its natural gas needs from Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned monopoly. About two-thirds of the flow came through Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway region in eastern Moldova that is backed by Moscow, with the remaining third coming through Ukraine.

Now, though, Russia has partially cut off gas supplies to Moldova, and Transnistria is also refusing to continue supplying electricity to Chişinău. The problem is compounded by the fact that Ukraine hasn’t been exporting energy for several weeks because of Russia's attacks on its civilian infrastructure. "We are being blackmailed by Moscow," Sandu says. The government is trying to solve the problem by buying gas and electricity on the European market, with much of the power coming from Romania. But the prices are so high that Sandu is having trouble finding the money to pay for it. "We're at risk of a blackout this winter," she says.

President Maia Sandu: "We are being blackmailed by Moscow."

President Maia Sandu: "We are being blackmailed by Moscow."

Foto: Dumitru Doru / epa

Sandu took office two years ago as a reformer, aiming to fight corruption and break the power of the oligarchs. Many young people who had previously lived abroad came to work for her government after she won the election. Her chief of staff has worked for the former head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, in Brussels, and her foreign minister for a think tank in Paris.

Sandu has now become a crisis manager more than anything else. She has greatly reduced energy consumption in the country. In Chişinău, streets are barely lit, and public buildings are only partially heated. She has also scaled back government spending and postponed infrastructure projects. Inflation in Moldova is close to 35 percent, and the economy is expected to stagnate this year. "We reached the pain threshold long ago," says Sandu.

"We’re defending democracy under the most difficult conditions."

Maia Sandu, president

Sandu has placed a sheet of paper full of notes on the table in front of her - she has thought carefully about what she wants to say in our interview. She is widely considered to be a perfectionist, and she has clearly suffered from the fact that she doesn't have much leverage when it comes to influencing the energy crisis. "Everything we've worked for over the years is now at stake," she laments.

Sandu sees herself as a supporter of a unified Europe. A European flag hangs on the wall of her office, and her government embodies all the values the EU so enthusiastically claims to represent: It is democratic, it is open, and it is diverse. But during this crisis, Brussels has largely left Moldova to fend for itself. Still, Sandu shies away from open criticism of the EU. She does, though, make it clear in the interview that she expects more help from the Europeans. "We’re defending democracy under the most difficult conditions," she says.

While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised Sandu 250 million euros in aid during a visit to Chişinău on November 10, government calculations indicate that Sandu needs at least twice that amount. And if the money doesn't arrive quickly, high-ranking Moldovan officials have warned, the state faces bankruptcy. Should that happen, the government would no longer be able to pay the salaries of civil servants, and the lights would go out in Chişinău and other cities.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Moldovan President Maia Sandu in Chişinău

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Moldovan President Maia Sandu in Chişinău

Foto: Dumitru Doru / epa

That's the scenario Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is presumably hoping for. Russia's FSB domestic intelligence service has infiltrated the government apparatus in Moldova for years. Moldovan officials claim the agency worked primarily with Igor Chayka, the Moldovan envoy of Delovaya Rossiya, a pro-Kremlin business association. According to Ukrainian intelligence data, Chayka and his contact at the FSB communicated more than 6,000 times between December 2020 and June 2022.

The FSB Refers to Şor as "The Young One"

The U.S. Treasury Department added Chayka  to its sanctions list in October. A statement from the Treasury Department claims he developed "detailed plans" together with Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov to undermine President Sandu's government and "return Moldova to Russia's sphere of influence." It further states that Moscow used Chayka's companies as a front to funnel money to collaborating political parties in Moldova. "Some of these illicit campaign funds were earmarked for bribes and electoral fraud," it states.

Chayka and the FSB relied primarily on exiled politician Şor. The 35-year-old became rich as the head of a bank and a duty-free chain. He also owns a football club. In 2015, voters elected Şor as mayor of the small town of Orhei, which is located about 50 kilometers north of the capital. Two years later, however, a court convicted him of having played a role in the theft of a billion dollars from Moldovan banks. He appealed the decision. Since 2019, he has led his party, named after himself, from exile in Israel. He is currently polling at around 15 percent.

A high-ranking Russian politician recently praised Şor as a "worthy long-term partner." The FSB, meanwhile, refers to him as "the young one," according to the Washington Post. Ukrainian intelligence believes that Russian strategists first traveled to Chişinău on behalf of the Kremlin last spring to advise Şor’s party. Şor himself claims that his party is independent. He considers the Americans' sanctions against him to be a "victory." He claims they demonstrate that President Sandu knows that her days are numbered.

Bags of Cash in Party Offices

Şor is seeking to ratchet up the pressure on the government by organizing protests against the high energy prices. In October, Moldova’s anti-corruption prosecutor arrested 24 people, including members of the Şor Party, on allegations that they had provided illegal funding to anti-government protests. Moldova’s Interior Ministry says investigators found bags of cash in party offices.

In late September, a Şor confidant gained control of the two largest pro-Russian television stations in Moldova, allowing the politician to spread his propaganda even more widely from exile.

"Moscow's campaign against the Sandu government is a prime example of hybrid warfare," says Iulian Groza of the Institute for European Policies and Reforms, a think tank based in Chişinău. "Instead of tanks, the Russians are using energy and disinformation."

If the government under Sandu does indeed fall over the energy crisis, experts fear that this could also have consequences for the war in Ukraine. Aid regularly reaches Ukraine via Moldova, and war refugees also pass through the country on their way to EU countries, and some also stay. A pro-Moscow regime, could create problems for the aid and refugees alike.

On an early November morning, Moldova's Interior Minister Ana Revenco, dressed in sneakers, a fleece jacket and wearing her hair in a ponytail, is traveling in a van from Chişinău to the border with Ukraine. She makes these visits, she says, to gain the trust of her border officials. Revenco assumes that some in her department still mourn the fact that the Russia-friendly Party of Socialists-led government lost the last election.

Since the war began in February, 700,000 war refugees have crossed the border into Moldova; and about one in 10 has stayed in the country. Revenco has had a tent camp erected at the Palanca border crossing, as well as a bus station to register refugees if need be and transport them on to EU states. The minister wants to be prepared in case the war in southern Ukraine escalates. Odessa is only about 50 kilometers away from Palanca.

Update: At a bilateral donor conference in Paris between Germany and France on Monday night, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock pledged 32.3 million euros in additional aid from Berlin, and French President Emmanuel Macros said his country would give further aid to the tune of 100 million euros. "It is Putin's intention to blackmail (countries) dependent on it through energy supplies," Baerbock said. "But this won’t work. Moldova has friends and partners in the EU."

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