Analysing international policy processes and Lithuania’s role in them
Bulletin Feb 15, 2023

Moldova: How likely is the Threat of Subversive Russian Actions in 2023?

Old fears of possible Russian-orchestrated threats of political destabilisation are resurfacing in Moldova. Based on intelligence information transmitted by Ukraine, the Moldovan authorities expressed serious concern about the existence of alleged Russian plans to carry out subversive actions with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the constitutional authorities. According to Russian plans revealed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Brussels on February 9, Moldova was in danger of operations to destroy the democratic order by Russian intelligence forces.

To address Russian threats, President Maia Sandu shed light on alleged Russian plans to overthrow the incumbent government four days after the Moldovan side received intelligence from Ukraine. Sandu explained that the Russian subversive actions aimed to install pro-Russian forces in place of the pro-EU ruling party. The Russian operation would take place in the shadow of massive anti-government protests organised by the pro-Russian opposition, with violent actions against state institutions as part of the plan. She assured the population that the authorities are taking all the necessary measures to maintain public order and peace without detailing any of them.

The increase in the state of alert regarding the renewed security threats from Russia coincides with the moment in which the country’s government is undergoing a political realignment. As former Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița resigned (February 10), President Maia Sandu and the ruling Action and Solidarity Party have proposed Dorin Recean as the next chief executive. He has been an adviser to the president on security matters since February 2022 and held the position of secretary of the Supreme Security Council.

Old plans failed; how feasible are the new ones?

Russia’s plans to overthrow the incumbent government in Moldova and bring Russian forces to power would entail the occurrence of mass protests. As during the 2007 youth riots, any considerable size protest in 2023 could derail and lead to a loss of control over certain state institutions. However, even then, the Communist-controlled government managed to keep the situation under control. Moreover, due to preparations against Russian hybrid war threats intensified in 2022 in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moldova is less vulnerable to threats from Russia.

In 2022, the Moldovan authorities feared that Russia was looking to use pro-Russian forces to provoke protests and hijack them to eliminate the Moldovan constitutional forces. This attempt had to have occurred as a consequence of the energy crisis. The social-economic situation in Moldova has deteriorated because of the energy crisis, which started in October 2021 and escalated in the face of the Russian aggression against Ukraine since 2022. The primary political vehicle of the Russian agenda in Moldova, represented by the Șor Party, expected that the high prices on energy resources could take people to the streets to protest. Although the inflation was higher than 30% throughout 2022, the organisers of the protests among the opposition failed to organise mass protests. On the one hand, the authorities have initiated investigations regarding the use of illegal money for the protests and restricted the protest activity in front of the state institutions on security grounds. On the other one, they obtained substantial support from Western partners to cover the special social schemes for the public worth about 250 million euros (5 billion Moldovan lei). Consequently, the plans of Russia and the Russian-leaning opposition remained unfulfilled.

In 2023, Russia’s goals against Moldova would mostly stay the same. As presented by the President of Moldova on February 13, the subversive actions that Russia would allegedly plan on Moldovan soil in 2023 would essentially replicate the failed scenario of 2022. Again, this requires mass protests organised by pro-Russian forces. This time, according to the information Zelensky’s office provided to Sandu, Russian citizens with military training disguised as civilians would infiltrate the protests and seize control of certain state institutions. Subsequently, the government would have to fall, and a new one should have had to step in.

The likelihood of the Russian scenario

Information about Russian threats is something familiar to Moldova. They have been seriously scrutinised since last year. So far, no Western capital has confirmed the plausibility of Ukrainian intelligence, based on which the Moldovan authorities coordinate their preventive activity. Even the Moldovan authorities were unaware of something new coming from Russia when Ukraine transferred its intelligence. Even so, Russian threats must be carefully analysed, and the correct conclusions drawn about the probability of worst-case scenarios.

Despite aggressive Russian intentions and the ability to surprise, there are two main obstacles to implementing subversive plans in Moldova:

First, from an operational point of view, the ruling party in Moldova has a solid majority in parliament (63 out of 101 seats). Any government overthrow would entail a wide range of actions, including organising new elections to guarantee a minimum semblance of legitimacy for the new ruling elites. That would mean that all state institutions would have to fall under the control of pro-Russian forces. That would involve additional Russian-oriented forces from the Gagauzian autonomy and the Transnistria region. Moldovan intelligence would have discovered operations on such a scale by now if they were under planning.

And second, there are considerable obstacles to the preparation phase. Moldovan special forces follow the actions of the Șor Party and the Socialists to detect and prevent any signs of coordination with the Russian authorities. The government recently shut down six television channels associated with these political forces, invoking the need to target Russian propaganda. On top of that, any protests that criticise the government are closely watched by law enforcement. As a result, the motivation of the population to protest is not very high, especially in the capital, where the government has more support. With the end of the heating season at the end of March, the protest mood of the population will naturally subside. Objectively speaking, February is the last month in which large protests linked to energy inflation can be expected. Russia’s envisioned subversive operations would be difficult to implement without substantial protests.

What next?

The Moldovan authorities can take almost any necessary action due to the state of emergency that was extended for another 60 days in early February. However, the immediate focus of intelligence and law enforcement in Moldova is the planned protests by the Șor Party on February 19 to demand that the government pay its energy bills in full (electricity, heating, and gas). Currently, the authorities are ensuring partial payment through temporary social subsidising.

Meanwhile, using Russian threats, the ruling party will try to create a rally around the flag effect to instil public support for the new government, which will be headed by Dorin Recean. With upcoming talks at the Munich Security Conference, the Moldovan authorities will seek additional assistance from Western partners to address vulnerabilities concerning Russia. The holding of the second meeting of the European Political Community will serve as an additional argument to request help in matters of security from the member states of the EU.

Permanently, the Moldovan authorities must communicate how they prevent subversive actions from taking place with the participation of the Transnistria region or the Gagauzia autonomy. Russian threats can come from within rather than from the outside. Proportionality and legality must be applied to avoid a “witch hunt” after those who legitimately criticise the deficiencies of the government and any eventual weakening of freedoms.

The publication was written within the framework of the project “Building Strategic Communication to Counter Russian Disinformation in Moldova”, implemented by “Expert-Grup” in partnership with the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania.

Associate Expert at the EESC and Research Fellow and PhD student at the Institute of Political Science at the Justus Lybig University of Giessen, Germany, researching global governance and the resilience of countries in the EU neighbourhood. He has published extensively between 2015 and 2021 on European integration, EU-Russia interaction, good governance and energy security in Eastern Europe. Mr Cenusa is also an Associate Expert at the Moldova think tank Expert-Grup, where since 2015 he has been coordinating a SIDA-funded joint project with the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels on Sakartvel, Moldova and Ukraine.