Russia’s efforts to destabilise Moldova are unlikely to abate, in our assessment.
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 16 February 2023.
At a press conference on 13 February, Maia Sandu, the Moldovan president, claimed that the security service had received details of a purported Russian plot to overthrow the government. Although the plan appeared quite well developed, we doubt it could have succeeded, not least given a seeming lack of local support. But Moldova remains highly susceptible to political destabilisation. The most likely means of future Russian attempts are through fomenting civil unrest and conducting cyber operations on political and economic targets.
The ‘coup plot’ appears to have been at a fairly advanced stage of planning. As presented by Moldova, the plan seems to have involved bringing in foreign athletes and sports supporters as provocateurs. These were then to join unspecified anti-government protests to initiate violence, including against state institutions. Russia’s broader aim, it is claimed by the Moldovan authorities, was to ‘overthrow the constitutional order’ – specifically, by bringing down the government and helping to install one more favourable to Russia.
The timeline of recent events below aims to contextualise Moldova’s claims of externally inspired destabilisation.
- 9 February: Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, says that the SBU, his country’s security service, has intercepted and passed on a Russian plan to destroy Moldova
- 10 February: A Russian missile, launched from the Black Sea and aimed at Ukrainian infrastructure, crosses Moldovan air space
- 10 February: The prime minister, Natalia Gavrilita, resigns
- 13 February: President Sandu details the alleged Russian plot to ‘overthrow the constitutional order’
- 14 February: Moldova closes its airspace for around three-and-a-half hours, ‘to ensure the safety of civil aircraft flights’
- 15 February: The authorities prohibit fan attendance of a football match in the capital between FC Sheriff Tiraspol, from the breakaway region of Transnistria, and FK Partizan, a Serbian team
Moldova’s actions and warnings suggest that it took the threat seriously. Its claims seem credible. We have little doubt of Russia’s hostile intent towards Moldova. The ‘coup plan’, as derived from the account and actions of the Moldovan authorities, is in line with how Russia has conducted other foreign subversion operations. This includes its operations in the Ukrainian Donbas in 2014. But we are much less convinced that the plot would have succeeded. It does not seem to have had sufficient domestic or popular support.
Moldova vulnerable to instability
Nonetheless, Moldova appears highly susceptible to political destabilisation (our regime instability risk rating is already at moderate). The country has been particularly affected by the war in Ukraine, which has exacerbated serious socio-economic problems, including through high inflation. In a sign that not everyone is opposed to Russian influence in the country, supporters of the pro-Russian Shor Party led a protest in central Chisinau on Sunday, 19 February. This is seemingly in response to the president’s call for stronger powers for the security services. The scale of attendance will be an important gauge of whether the current crisis has further to run.
Russian-backed actors would not necessarily have to pull off a successful coup to achieve their broader aims in Moldova. These – in our analysis – include causing additional problems that its Western adversaries must address and testing their response (NATO defence ministers have since promised Moldova additional military aid). Based on precedent, key destabilising actions that Russia has at its disposal include:
- Cyber attacks, especially on government websites (70%)
- Sabotage attacks on Moldovan infrastructure or Transnistria (55%)
- Russia restricts or cuts off gas supplies to Moldova (45%)
- Allegations or rumours that Moldova plans to retake Transnistria (30%)
Despite these, we very much doubt that Russia would intervene directly or more forcefully. This is because it already has in place many of the means it requires to generate political and economic crises without having to resort to such a drastic step.
Image: Moldovan President Maia Sandu arrives for the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) at Prague Castle on 6 October 2022 in Prague, Czech Republic.