Russia will probably intensify efforts to destabilise and bring down the government in Moldova in 2023.
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 31 March 2023.
- Russia will probably step up efforts to destabilise the government in Moldova in 2023
- Moscow very likely aims to maintain its political influence over the Moldovan government, and divert it away from its pro-West stance
- A successful Russia-backed coup or insurrection in Moldova is unlikely (25%) in 2023, in our assessment
In recent months, the Moldovan government has alleged that Russia was planning a coup there, that Wagner group operatives tried to enter the country and that Russian-backed actors there were trying to instigate unrest. It has not provided evidence of any imminent coup plot. But attempts to destabilise the government fit with what appears to be Russia’s probable aim of ensuring a pro-Russia government in Moldova.
We assess that Russia or Russia-backed actors are very unlikely to be able to forcibly topple the government in Moldova, however. And we doubt that Moscow will be able to force the current administration away from its current pro-West stance. We have seen little sign that Russia-backed actors in Moldova have the capabilities to overthrow the government. And so far, Russian attempts to destabilise Moldova only seem to be encouraging Western countries to increase their security assistance and wider political support for Chisinau.
Russia’s hostile intent
Russia very probably wants any government in Moldova to adopt a pro-Russia position. Igor Dodon, the predecessor to the current president, Maia Sandu, has adopted a much stronger pro-Russia stance than Sandu. In an indication of Moscow’s hostility towards the current administration, Russia’s foreign minister said in early February that the Moldovan government was the next ‘anti-Russian project’. And in our analysis, Russia’s recent attempts to destabilise Moldova were probably aimed to deter the government from pursuing relations with the West and undermine its ability to do so.
The Moldovan authorities did not provide any specific evidence that the ‘plot’ was imminent, nor whether in-country actors had the capabilities to ‘overthrow the constitutional order’. But we assess that such attempts to destabilise Moldova are plausible. They fit with how Russia has sought to maintain its own influence there in recent years, like modulating gas exports, funding pro-Russia politicians and retaining a military presence in Transnistria. Russia has also tried to undermine stability in Ukraine and Georgia over the past several years.
Russian destabilisation attempts in Moldova contribute to another objective, in our analysis. This is to try and force Ukraine to divert military resources to the border with Transnistria and consume more of Kyiv’s focus. This comes at a time when the Ukrainian government has multiple priorities, such as focusing on securing Western arms support and preparing its military for a spring offensive. Ukrainian officials said in late February that they would divert troops towards Moldova if stability in the latter worsened.
Moldova will probably remain resilient to any coup attempt by Russia. The authorities are almost certainly on a heightened state of alert; they have arrested dozens of reported Russian-backed actors in recent months and reportedly denied entry to over 30 foreign nationals as well. Increased Western security assistance and increased regional attention on Russian destabilisation efforts will also probably incentivise greater intelligence sharing, so bolstering the ability of the Moldovan authorities to mitigate such threats.
Current outlook of Russia’s destabilisation efforts
We anticipate that Russia and Russia-backed actors in Moldova will continue to try to destabilise the government, force it to resign or abandon its pro-West stance. This reflection is a continuation of the current situation in Moldova, as well as of Russia’s hostile intent and what appear to be its current capabilities. On that basis, the following destabilisation efforts are very likely to continue over the next year:
- Disruptive cyber and influence operations on Moldova
- Funding pro-Russian actors, protests or insurrectionists
- Sabotage or bombing attacks in Moldova or Transnistria
- Russia restricts gas supplies to Moldova
- Russia threatens military action against Moldova
- Increased frequency of drone incursions in Moldovan airspace
- Disinformation campaigns about Ukraine attacking Transnistria or NATO
So far, there is little sign that Russia has been able to persuade Sandu and her government to abandon their pro-West trajectory. This means an intensification of such destabilisation attempts over the next year is probable.
In light of Russian destabilisation efforts, we have laid out the following two scenarios for this year. For each, we have outlined how we anticipate the current conditions might evolve into that scenario, timeframe projections and indicators. The scenarios are not mutually exclusive. And it is unclear whether Russia has deployed the full extent of capabilities it has to destabilise Moldova. But based on how trends have developed in the last few months, any deterioration in stability would very likely be gradual rather than sudden.
We have deliberately excluded other potential scenarios that we assess, on current indications and trends, to be less likely than the three below. Those that we did not cover include a Russian invasion of Moldova, and renewed military conflict between Moldova and Russian forces as well as Transnistrian separatists that Moscow backs.
1. Russia steps up efforts to bring down the government (55%)
In this scenario, Russia steps up efforts to unseat the government but refrains from direct military intervention.
We assess this scenario is more likely than not this year. This is because Russia’s current attempts to destabilise the government do not appear to be enough to bring it down, or to dissuade it from pursuing a pro-West stance. And Russia has already shown that it is intent on increasing pressure on Chisinau to that end. Disinformation campaigns, hostile rhetoric and the frequency of anti-government protests in Chisinau are more intense and frequent than much of last year.
But even in this scenario, intensified Russian destabilisation efforts are unlikely to be enough to bring down the government.
Indicators that this scenario is becoming more likely or is now occurring
- Increasingly frequent bouts of unrest in Chisinau
- Moldova announces it has seized firearms or explosives from insurrectionists in Chisinau
- Russia recognises the independence of a separatist state in Transnistria
- Transnistrian forces conduct major snap readiness drills
- Foreign governments change travel advisories for Moldova
- Russia cuts off gas supplies to Moldova entirely
- Frequent and disruptive cyber operations on Moldovan critical infrastructure
- Bombings in Transnistria, which Russia or separatist authorities blame on Moldova
2. Russia or Russia-backed actors bring down the government (25%)
In this scenario, Russian forces or proxies in Moldova launch a coup or insurrection to bring down the government or force it to resign.
We assess that a Russia-backed coup in Moldova is unlikely this year. Moldova has not provided any evidence that in-country Russia-backed actors have the material capabilities to launch an insurrection and bring down the government. For this to occur, Russia-backed actors would probably require firearms or other physical capabilities to fight off Moldova’s security forces.
And with Moldova’s Western allies now placing more focus on Russia’s destabilisation efforts, Chisinau is likely to receive additional support in combating them. This includes intelligence sharing, publicising intelligence findings (as the US has done with Ukraine since late 2021) and security assistance from Western countries. Together, such support will probably ensure the Moldovan government or its allies can detect and disrupt any Russia-backed plots to launch an insurrection.
Indicators that this scenario is becoming more likely
- Moldova announces it will join NATO in the coming years
- Independent opinion polls suggest a sharp rise in support for pro-Russian parties and a drop in support for President Sandu
- The Moldovan government bans pro-Russian parties and arrests pro-Russian politicians
- The Moldovan government issues an ultimatum to Russian forces in Transnistria to leave the country
- Western countries significantly scale up military aid to Moldova
Indicators that a coup attempt may be imminent or rapidly increasing in likelihood
- Moldova claims hundreds or thousands of Russian agents have entered the country
- Moldova suddenly shuts its airspace to commercial flights until further notice and closes land borders
- Moldova imposes emergency measures, such as a curfew in Chisinau
Image: (L-R) Prime Minister of Slovenia, Robert Golob, Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenkovic, and Prime Minister of Slovakia, Eduard Heger, mark the first anniversary of the retreat of Russian troops from the Ukrainian town of Bucha on March 31, 2023. Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images