What is happening in Moldova, Ukraine's tiny European neighbor with a pro-Russian movement?
- As the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine fast approaches, attention is turning to Moldova, a small European nation to its western border.
- Moldova's government collapsed days before the country's President said intelligence reports had uncovered Russian plans to stage a coup.
- The landlocked country, one of Europe's poorest, has suffered months of political and economic upheaval amid the war, including within its separatist, pro-Russian breakaway state of Transnistria.
Moldova, a small European nation to Ukraine's western border, has found itself increasingly caught in the crosshairs of Russia's war, following the collapse of its government last week.
President Maia Sandu on Monday accused Russia of plotting a coup to overthrow her pro-European Union government using "foreign saboteurs."
Sandu said authorities had confirmed allegations first voiced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week, who warned his intelligence agencies have uncovered "a detailed Russian plan to undermine the political situation in Moldova."
Analysts said it is entirely possible that Moscow is using Moldova — and separatist groups in its pro-Russian breakaway state of Transnistria — to sow discord and disarm Ukraine from a new front, ahead of the war's one-year anniversary.
"Russians have created an inverse of what they did last year in Belarus, bringing Moldova and Transnistria into the mix from the south," Clinton Watts, a former fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC, referring to the amassing of tanks along Ukraine's northern border ahead of its invasion.
Until now, Ukraine's defense forces and Western allies have estimated that Russia's renewed offensive would be concentrated in the east of the country.
"From the Kremlin's perspective, it's a pretty smart strategy. Every time I start to underestimate Russia's ability to create unrest, you see things like this," added Watts, who now leads Microsoft's Digital Threat Analysis Center.
What has been happening in Moldova?
Sandu earlier this week claimed the Kremlin's disruption tactics involved citizens of Russia, Belarus, Montenegro and Serbia entering Moldova and attempting to flare up protests, in a bid to "change the legitimate government to an illegal government controlled by the Russian Federation."
"The purpose of these actions is to overturn the constitutional order, to change the legitimate power from Chisinau to an illegitimate one that would put our country at Russia's disposal to stop the European integration process, but also so that Moldova can be used by Russia in its war against Ukraine," Sandu said.
Russia quickly rejected the claims, while Montenegro and Serbia called on Sandu's government in Chisinau to provide more information. Belarus has not publicly remarked on the allegations, nor did its foreign ministry respond to a CNBC request for comment.
The announcement came just days after the country's Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita resigned her government on Friday, citing "many crises caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine."
Gavrilita did not say whether the move was in direct response to the latest intelligence reports. However, analysts cautioned that the timing is not coincidental.
"We were always going to get something like this," said Matthew Orr, lead Eurasia analyst at risk intelligence firm Rane, who described Moldova's current pro-EU government — in power since 2021 — as unprecedented and a threat to the Russian regime.
Last year, analysts raised warnings that Moscow may move to recognize Moldova's pro-Russia, separatist region of Transnistria as an independent state — as it did Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk — as a pretext for invasion.
Why is Moldova a target?
Moldova, a former Soviet state, has been strengthening its ties with the West in recent years, receiving EU candidate status last June, on the same day as Ukraine.
This has frustrated Moscow, which "considers Moldova in its sphere of influence, as it did Ukraine and all other former Soviet states," said Orr.
Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has also been hard hit by the fallout of the war, making it "economically and politically vulnerable," said Jason Bush, senior analyst at Eurasia Group.
Moldova has faced a severe energy crisis, as it has moved to wean itself off its 100% reliance on Russian gas supplies. Meanwhile, an influx of refugees arriving into Moldova across its shared 759 mile (1,221 km) border with Ukraine has piled pressure on the country's 2.6 million population, which is struggling with an inflation rate in excess of 30%.
Some analysts argue that the government changeover might present an opportunity for Moldova to "reset" and reassert its authority, following months of upheaval.
"President Sandu has been warning about these risks for months now," said Orr. "What's different now is that it may feel it has a better ability to stand up to Russia," he added, noting increasing EU support and the passing of a tough winter.
What is next for Moldova?
Hours after Gavrilita's resignation, Sandu nominated her defense advisor Dorin Recean, who is also pro-EU, as her new prime minister. The Moldovan parliament confirmed his nomination Thursday.
It is not yet clear how Recean will differ from his predecessor, but Orr said it is likely he will aim to strengthen ties with Western allies and reduce the continued influence of Russian money in Moldova.
Moldova was last month offered a proposed 145 million euros ($155 million) in funding from Brussels to sustain its economy, though the sum is yet to be approved by EU member states and members of the European Parliament.
The incoming prime minister is also expected to deepen talks with NATO over how it should respond to incoming Russian missiles, which entered Moldovan airspace as recently as last week, and which Zelenskyy dubbed a "challenge to NATO and collective security."
The attack came days before Moldova temporarily closed its airspace on Tuesday over what authorities say was a suspected Russian drone.
Could Moldova be Russia's next frontier?
A strengthening of Western ties with Moldova has the potential to provoke further interference from Russia, but analysts say concerns over a full-scale invasion of the country, as was first feared last year, are overblown.
Orr said he was skeptical that separatist groups in Transnistria, or the 1,500 Russian troops stationed there, would have the military might to destabilize Moldova or be used as a lever against Ukraine. Similarly, he said, it is unlikely that Moscow would pre-emptively cut off gas supplies to Moldova, lest it should jeopardize support from its backers in Transnistria.
However, he noted that Russian spies could use Transnistria as an outpost to collect intelligence on Ukraine.
In the meantime, Watts said that Russian interference in Moldova was likely part of its ongoing "maneuvers" to distract Ukrainian forces and "keep the West off balance."
"It can be a distraction for the Ukrainian military, which is already stretched very thin," Watts said.
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