Is This Putin’s Next Target?

Is This Putin’s Next Target?
Is This Putin’s Next Target?
Josh Rogin

After Sunday’s elections in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin may turn his attention westward toward Moldova, where Russia is sending spies, beaming in propaganda—and threatening economic strangulation. It’s all part of an effort to help the Communists there defeat the Liberal Democratic government.

Russia already has 2,500 troops in Moldova’s breakaway territory Transnistria. But Moscow is also looking to take control of the rest of country by influencing the upcoming November elections, which could topple the current Western-friendly government—and replace it with political parties infiltrated and aligned with Moscow. Ever since the Russian successes in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Russian interference has only grown; the flow of Russian intelligence forces into Moldova is going up, according to the recently-departed prime minister, who is in Washington this week to ask for help.

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“We have seen increased activity of the intelligence forces of the Russia Federation in the Republic of Moldova,” Vladimir Filat, who served as Moldova’s Prime Minister from 2009 to 2013, told The Daily Beast.

Russian intelligence forces are spread out in Moldova in a variety of ways, according to Filat. They are burrowed into Moldovan political parties, non-governmental organizations, and in pro-Russian media outlets, which barrage Russian-speaking Moldovans with the Kremlin’s talking points 24 hours a day.

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“They all have one objective: destabilization in order to ‘prepare’ for the elections in autumn,” he said.

Russia has imposed an embargo on export of Moldovan wine into Russia and Moscow is threatening a new embargo on fruit exports, Filat said. Moscow is also threatening to cut off the flow of natural gas to Moldova, a country nearly wholly dependent on Russia for energy. Filat said Moldova would not be deterred from its Western trajectory.

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“The Republic of Moldova is now in the process of full European integration… It is vital for Moldova. We don’t have any other alternative,” he said. “We have many challenges and most of these challenges involve pressure from Russia.”

Transnistria has long been an area of concern for Western intelligence agencies. The largely autonomous region is the location of one of the largest conventional weapons stockpiles in the world. For more than a decade, U.S. diplomats have observed signs that Putin has encouraged Transnistria to embrace more independence from Moldova.

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There have been multiple reports that Russia has moved new plainclothes personnel into Transnistra in recent weeks, flown into the Moldovan capital of Chisinau directly from Moscow and then bussed over the Moldova-Transnistria boundary line. Last month, some leaders in Transnistria called on Russia to formally recognize them and incorporate them into the Russian Federation.

Filat said he was aware of but could not confirm reports that Russian intelligence forces have been transiting through the Moldovan capital into Transnistria, but said he was concerned Putin could decide to pursue annexation of Transnistria, which would put Russian territories on Ukraine’s eastern and western borders.

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“For this moment, the Russians have said publicly that there is no similarity between Transnistria and Crimea but of course this is a pending one, which has only one purpose, which is permanent, constant pressure,” he said.

Filat stepped down as Prime Minister and handed over the title last year to former Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca. But Filat is still the President of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is fighting for the right to continue Moldova on the path to European integration and away from dependence on Russia.

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The current government is trying to make as much irreversible progress as possible toward bonding its economy with the EU before the elections in November, by pursuing a visa agreement, a free trade agreement, and candidate status for membership in the European Union. When asked if Moldova should join NATO, Filat said, “Why not?”

It’s highly unlikely that Moldova ill ever join the alliance—especially with some blaming NATO for provoking Putin by moving eastward. Regardless, Filat said, Putin’s recent actions mandate that all countries opposed to Russian aggression stand together and help each other, whether they are formal defense allies or not.

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“It is not just about Moldova. We are not members of NATO, but in this case, it doesn’t matter if you are in NATO. We are in this region and we need security,” he added.

The United States has provided some additional money to the Moldovan government for border security since the Ukraine crisis erupted. Mid-level State Department officials have visited to reassure the government that the U.S. government stands beside them. Senior Senators including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Bob Corker and John McCain have also passed through.

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Filat said Moldova was appreciative of U.S. assistance but more help, especially on the security side, would surely be welcomed. But more broadly, he is in Washington to argue for a framework of security assurances that isn’t based on membership in any one alliance or organization.

“After events in Crimea, everything was changed. The international guarantee system based on international rules has fallen,” he said. “If our civilization will be united, then we will all have security.”

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