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Moldova battles security threats amid alleged Russian campaign

Moldova, a small European country and former Soviet republic, has been facing an array of security threats in the past year, including a coup attempt, bomb hoaxes, internet hacks, fake conscription call-ups, and mass protests. Interior Minister Ana Revenco describes it as an “explosion of security threats” that began after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Moldova is a unique geopolitical cauldron, hosting the breakaway statelet of Transnistria, controlled by pro-Russian separatists and garrisoned by Russian troops, and the semi-autonomous region of Gagauzia, which is also overwhelmingly pro-Russian.

Moldovan officials say that Moscow is orchestrating a misinformation and propaganda campaign to destabilize and undermine President Maia Sandu’s pro-Western government, which was elected in 2020 on a promise to seek membership in the European Union.

The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed Moldovan accusations of fomenting unrest, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month that the leadership is “slipping into anti-Russian hysteria.”

Moscow has expressed concern over Moldova joining the EU, as the country is wedged between Ukraine and NATO member Romania. The alleged coup plot was recently publicized by Moldovan authorities, who say that agitators planned to enter Moldova from Russia and other countries in the region to provoke violent clashes.

Officials expelled two alleged agents in connection with the unrest but did not give details about the scale of the plan or whether it had succeeded.

Bomb hoaxes have become part of everyday life in Moldova, requiring interventions by a total of 9,000 police officers. Cyberattacks have also targeted government websites and officials’ phones.

Mounting tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine have raised the temperature in Moldova. The main opposition Sor party denounces Sandu for taking the side of Ukraine, saying this increases the chance that Moldova could become embroiled in the conflict. The party has collected 600,000 signatures demanding new elections.

Sandu’s government wants to avoid being sucked into the conflict at all costs, as anti-government agitators circulate mocked-up conscription notices on social media to spread anxiety and sow the message that Moldova is heading towards war.

An estimated 1,500 Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria, most recruited locally from Transnistrians with Russian passports. Incoming Prime Minister Dorin Recean has said Russian troops should be expelled from the region, while Moscow warns that any attack on its troops there would be seen as an attack on Russia.

The Moldovan government faces a delicate balancing act, as Transnistria is home to the Cuciurgan power plant, which supplies most of Moldova’s electricity and gives the separatists immense leverage.

As a result, the two sides are locked in a wearing cycle of permanent negotiation and mutual dependency. Gagauzia, where most people speak Russian as well as the Turkish-linked Gagauz language, poses its own challenges to the government’s attempts to oppose Russia’s influence.

Polling last month by the think-tank Watchdog showed that Moldovans’ confidence in Putin fell from 60 percent in January 2020 to 35 percent when the war started. In Gagauzia, the figure was 90 percent.

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