“Victory” threat: how the Kremlin is preparing for revenge in Moldova

Written by Anton Khimiak, UCMC/HWAG analyst

On April 21, 2024, a meeting of pro-Russian opposition figures of Moldova was held in Moscow, at which the creation of a new political bloc with the rather suggestive name “Victory” (“Pobeda”) was announced. The political orientation of the project was emphasised even by choice of venue for the meeting—the Moscow Hotel The Carlton, located a moments walk from the Kremlin walls.

The “Victory” (“Victory” / “Pobeda” – ed.) alliance consists of four opposition parties: “Revival,” “Chance,” “Alternative Force for the Salvation of Moldova,” and Victory (“Victory”). A shared feature among them is their parasitism on an openly pro-Russian sentiment. Most of these political forces lack an ideological orientation (unlike the Bloc of Socialists and Communists) and resort to populism to score political leverage.

The organiser of the action was Ilan Shor, a long-time supporter of the “Ruskiy mir” – a fugitive oligarch, who, in April 2023, was sentenced in absentia by the Moldovan court to 15 years in prison for stealing bank assets worth a billion dollars.

The bloc’s primary goal is to unify Kremlin-oriented opposition forces to compete with the pro-European ruling party “Action and Solidarity” in the 2025 parliamentary elections. Also, the formation of the block indicates the beginning of preparations for the presidential elections, which will be held in the fall of 2024. The pro-Russian lobby will likely try to nominate a single candidate from the opposition in opposition to the incumbent President, Maia Sandu.

In this analysis, we will attempt to explore the specific threats facing Moldovan democracy, the tactics Moscow may employ to destabilise the country, and what consequences this will have in the regional dimension.

Transnistria: the old puppet of propaganda

Transnistria, a separatist region on the left bank of the Dniester River, has been the main lever of Russian influence on Chisinau for decades. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the factor of the unrecognised republic has been periodically amplified by Moscow in the information space.

Even though the Russian military contingent in Transnistria has rather limited offensive capabilities, Kremlin propagandists regularly try to use the “threat from Transnistria” as a tool of intimidation. The Russian media occasionally launches rumours about the potential offensive of the Russian contingent in the direction of Odesa. Such disinformation campaigns are aimed at undermining Ukrainian society’s will to resist as well as to force Ukraine to redirect military resources from the front line to cover its borders with “Transnistria”.

Screenshot from video surveillance cameras that filmed the destruction of a helicopter in the so-called PMR, March 2024

In early April 2024, the Ministry of State Security of the so-called Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR) reported that an unknown kamikaze drone attacked a military unit near the Ukrainian border. A month earlier, a similar “attack” destroyed a helicopter on the territory of the unrecognised republic. Interestingly, these attacks coincided with the appeal of officials of Transnistria to the Russian Federation with a request for diplomatic assistance. At the end of February, a “congress of deputies of all levels” of the unrecognised PMR was held, at which an “appeal to the Federation Council and the State Duma of Russia with a request to take measures to protect Transnistria under pressure from the Moldovan leadership” was adopted. However, the Kremlin ignored the plea from Tiraspol (the “capital” of the republic), leading many military observers to agree that this information campaign was created solely to fuel interest in Putin’s message to the Federal Assembly.

After all, Russia’s interest in the “services” of the PMR lies in the activities of several enterprises that, until recently, helped the Kremlin circumvent Western sanctions. However, the Moldovan authorities have managed to limit the export of dual-purpose goods. Additionally, as the war continues, European countries are becoming more active, providing security and other assistance to Moldova.

However, Transnistria is not Moscow’s only tool for destabilising Moldova and the region.

Gagauzia: A separatist game with Russian rules

Gagauzia, an autonomous Russian-speaking region south of Moldova, could play a vital role in the country’s immediate political future. This region is one of the leading centres of pro-Russian sentiment in Moldova. Russian influence groups have set their sights on Gagauzia’s role in the autumn elections and the referendum on Moldova’s EU membership. In particular, this is noticeable in the example of the activation of the Russian segment of telegram channels covering the situation in Moldova.

Serhii Gerasimchuk, deputy executive director of the analytical centre Ukrainian Prism, in this context rightly mentions the role of the bashan (head) of Gagauzia Yevgenia Gutsul: “She was not known either in Gagauzia or in Moldova. Ilan Shor paid for the elections, and by bribing the voters, she (E. Gutsul – ed.) won this victory. Of course, the new Bashkan made her first visit to Moscow.” After the mentioned visit, the newly appointed head assured that the Russian payment system “Mir” will be implemented on the territory of Gagauzia (through which “bonuses” will be added to the salaries of the residents of the region from the Russian budget). Also, the autonomy will receive Russian gas at a discounted price.

Bashkan (head) of Gagauzia Yevgenia Gutsul and leader of the “Shor” party banned in Moldova Ilan Shor

Russia’s control over gas supplies to Moldova is one of the most critical aspects of its influence. The Kremlin has used Moscow’s energy dependence to pressure Chisinau, even resorting to cutting gas supplies to undermine the country’s economy. That is why one of the main slogans of opposition forces sponsored by Russia is cheap Russian gas.

In addition, among the most resonant statements of the new head of state, which are aimed at confrontation with Chisinau and at the same time promote propaganda, there are the following:

  1. “If Moldova unites with Romania or joins the EU, Gagauzia reserves the right to external self-determination” (independence);
  2. “The country’s authorities are deliberately trying to portray the Gagauz as separatists and are turning Moldovans against them”;
  3. “The authorities of Moldova are obliged to ensure the use of the Russian language as the language of international communication.”

We have already heard similar rhetoric somewhere: for example, they preceded the formation of the so-called DPR and LPR. Although a repetition of the scenario that Moscow implemented in 2014 in the Ukrainian Donbas is unlikely after the flight of Russians from the right bank of the Dnieper, such trends indicate the Kremlin’s desire to destabilise the political and security situation in Moldova.

The new “centre of gravity” of Putinists in Moldova

Since it was Ilan Shor who became the head of the “new” political force and the head of Gagauzia Gutsul, the acting secretary, it is appropriate to predict the appearance of other familiar faces in this “Frankenstein” of Moldova’s pro-Russian politics.

The “Victory” bloc can influence the results of the elections, as evidenced by recent sociological polls, which the former head of Moldova’s counterintelligence, Alexandru Balan, spoke about. Allies of Moscow in Moldovan politics have a history of destructive activity. Ilan Shor’s party, “Renaissance” was involved in the organisation of anti-government protests and the falsification of previous elections. The topic of relations with Ukraine became a bonus point of confrontation for Russian proteges. For example, supporters of this force took part in protests against the appointment of the former head of the National Security and Defense Intelligence Agency, Oleksiy Danilov, as the Ambassador of Ukraine to Moldova.

Photos of “protests” from anonymous telegram channels

The biggest problem for the pro-Russian forces is that to participate in the presidential race, a strong figure is needed, which the puppet groups are unable to find. The head of Gagauzia, Gutsul, could take on this role, but the politician does not meet the age requirement necessary for the presidency (40 years).

There is also a possibility that the newly created “Victory” alliance may find itself in the shadow of the Bloc of Communists and Socialists, which maintains a more moderate and cautious pro-Russian position.  It is telling that ex-president Ihor Dodon, known for his sympathies towards Putin, recently stated that he will not run for office and is ready to support someone else, particularly the former Prosecutor General Alexander Stoyanoglo.

However, the biggest obstacle to the intervention of the Putinist bloc in Moldova’s political makeup is a potential administrative ban on the participation of “Victory” in the elections. By the way, Shor’s other political project, the Chance Party, which, according to the March iData Barometer survey, has the support of 18.8% of voters, was banned from participating in the local elections in November 2023. At that time, the head of the Security and Information Service, Oleksandr Mustyatse, announced that shadow financing of the election campaign of the “Chance” party amounted to more than 90 million lei (about $5 million). A similar fate may befall Shor’s new brainchild, the “Victory” bloc, since the funding sources for politicians have not changed—Moscow is behind it, as before.

Maya Sandu: surrounded but not broken

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Moldova has become Moscow’s number one regional target to destabilise the region. However, in June 2022, Moldova received the status of a candidate for the EU, which was a significant step towards potential accession to the EU.

In turn, Russia is making every effort to counteract the efforts of pro-European forces to speed up the country’s accession to the EU. In the fall of 2024, a national referendum will be held on Moldova’s accession to the European Union. Even though the Constitutional Court of Moldova approved this referendum, Moscow-oriented opposition forces deny its legality and claim that it is a political manipulation.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of Moldova Maia Sandu

Serhii Gerasimchuk points out that, in this regard, Mrs Sandu resorts exclusively to legal methods of limiting influence despite the strict confrontation with pro-Russian forces. This is particularly evident of financing political projects from Russia through banks that have fallen under international sanctions. However, the further course of the confrontation and, in particular, the results of the elections, will depend on the readiness of the president to address the issue of the Russian lobby in the country more radically.

Ukrainian expert Oleksiy Kopytko claims that the Putin regime is afraid of the re-election of Maya Sandu for a second term because it is during the second (and last) term that there will be a threat that the decision to resolve the Transnistrian threat will become more real.

In summary, it should be noted that despite the loss of operational capabilities to “cut” the land corridor to Transnistria and dictate its ultimatums to Chisinau, Russia is trying to keep Moldova in its geopolitical orbit by destabilising the political situation.

The technology of quasi-state entities, which Putin’s technologists developed in Ukraine, Georgia, and ultimately Moldova, poses a serious threat to Moldova’s stability. Pseudo-Gagau separatism, which the Moldovan authorities may face shortly, will require quick countermeasures. The latter may also include man-made scenarios of confrontation, particularly with the involvement of Ukraine and Romania as security exporters (of course, under favourable conditions on the front).

The period between Autumn 2024 (when presidential elections are set to be held) to Summer 2025 (parliamentary elections) will be turbulent for Moldova due to Russia’s attempts to curtail Chisinau’s European future. Since the pro-Russian forces in Moldova do not have enough electoral resources for a democratic victory, the Kremlin will likely resort to destabilising measures. Currently, the preparatory stage of the consolidation of Kremlin-oriented forces is underway. The formation of the “Victory” block is just one of the stages in this process. Soon, Russia will be ready to move to more decisive actions, particularly in the information sphere. The absence of a strong presidential candidate from the pro-Russian opposition should not deceive us: Russian lobby may use the presidential elections to create informational bridgeheads and networks of influence, which will be used as part of its plans to enact revenge in the parliamentary elections next year.