Tied to the same goal. European integration of Ukraine and Moldova and the influence of Russian propaganda 

Tied to the same goal. European integration of Ukraine and Moldova and the influence of Russian propaganda
Photo: Unsplash / Christian Lue

The granting of European Membership candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022 is, of course, only the first step in the lengthy process of European integration of the two neighboring states. The further development of events in the region and more broadly in the post-Soviet space largely depends on their success. The Kremlin also understands this, which is why they actively employ instruments of propaganda in both countries.

Marriage of convenience

If speaking openly, Ukraine’s reaction to word of Moldova’s candidate status for EU membership was equivocal. This reaction is understandable, given that Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union at the end of February 2022 was an asymmetric reaction to Russia’s large-scale invasion. Moldova, together with Georgia (which was not granted EU candidate status), took advantage of a favorable moment by knocking on the doors of the EU. It should be noted that Chisinau and Tbilisi had a formal reason for their actions, as the creation of the Associated Trio – a framework for interaction between Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to coordinate the European integration of these countries – was announced in Batumi in July 2021.

It should be acknowledged that relations between Kyiv and Chisinau could hardly be called rosy, although Vladimir Zelensky and Maia Sandu both belong to the category of “new faces” in politics. But the difference in political experience (Sandu has a longer political career and her participation in the “ejection” of Vladimir Plahotniuc in the summer of 2019 counts for much) has an impact. In addition, the misadventures of judge Mykola Chaus – the fugitive devotee of Lady Justice from Ukraine who disappeared from Chisinau and suddenly appeared in his homeland with a heart-rending story about his abduction – should not be overlooked. The actions of unnamed special services appreciably cooled relations between Kyiv and Chisinau. It is said that Sandu quite clearly expressed her dissatisfaction with Zelensky during their meeting in Batumi. In August 2021, Deputy Head of the Kremlin Administration Dmitry Kozak visited Chisinau and met with Maia Sandu. Kozak was also aware of negotiations on the gas contract for Moldovagaz, which ended with the signing of a 5-year document that the Moldovan economy cannot support.

A little background

The conflict on the banks of the Dniester flared up 30 years ago, in the spring and summer of 1992. The result of this was the declaring of the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR, also known as Transnistria), located on the left bank of the Dniester. The industrial potential of Moldova was concentrated there, and many shadowy financial transactions have centered around Tiraspol in recent years. This small territory has become a real gray zone of pan-European significance, where dubious business transactions are conducted not only by representatives of Russia and Ukraine (the leaders of the self-proclaimed PMR have Ukrainian passports), but also business people from the EU. Most residents of the self-proclaimed PMR have multiple passports, but when participating in elections in Moldova they traditionally vote for representatives of the left. The remnants of the 14th Russian Army can hardly be called a real military force. They conduct mainly information and psychological operations from the PMR or send saboteurs, but nothing more. Neither the numbers of the Russian “peacekeeping” contingent nor the condition of its weapons are indications of their potential for involvement in serious fighting.

Chisinau’s attempts to resolve the conflict in Moldova and to reintegrate the republic led to the appearance of the “Kozak Memorandum” in 2003. Dmitry Kozak was serious about his involvement in the problems of Moldova, seeing it as a testing ground for working out instruments of influence in the post-Soviet space. Nearly 20 years ago, he proposed the creation of an “asymmetric federation” of Moldova and Transnistria while preserving Gagauzia’s autonomy. The emergence of such a patchwork state would hardly have strengthened the position of Chisinau, and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, understanding this, at the last moment refused to sign the document he had earlier initialed.

In the spring of 2009, Chisinau was consumed by protests due to the results of the parliamentary elections, in which the Moldovan Communist Party won a triumphant victory. The protesters seized for a short time the presidential administration and parliament buildings and forced a recount in the parliamentary elections, due to which the communists lost the opportunity to elect the president.

In 2014, Moldova was shaken by a banking scandal in which approximately one billion euros were withdrawn from the country’s financial system and taken outside its borders. Many Moldovan citizens work abroad, and the size of the nation’s economy testifies to the fact that this loss for most citizens was astronomical. In addition to the obvious manifestations of corruption, this scandal has undermined the confidence of Moldovan citizens in its politicians to carry out European integration effectively.

These facts from Moldova’s recent history have been cited primarily to understand that there are enough “sore spots” in its media space for Russian propaganda to skillfully strike at. According to sociologists, at least a third of Moldovan citizens support Russia to some extent and Chisinau’s struggle against media aggression has been far from consistent. For example, the ban on the rebroadcasting of Russian television news in Moldova was in effect in 2018-2020, and lifted only to be reintroduced in June 2022 by parliamentarians of the ruling Law and Justice Party. However, the authorities fail to restrict the work of anonymous Telegram channels which consistently create a parallel reality in the interests of the Kremlin. However, this concerns not only Telegram, as in February 2021, Odnoklassniki was second only to Facebook in popularity in Moldova.

Aggression as a moment of truth

Moldova borders only Romania and Ukraine. This protects it from a direct military invasion by Russia, although it does not eliminate provocations from the unrecognized PMR. At the same time, there is no need to seriously consider the prospect of an invasion of Tiraspol, as the Kremlin’s internationalization of the conflict is conducted according to other schemes. Russia seeks to stir up the situation in Moldova to make use of it, should there be a favorable development of events, as a springboard for an attack on Ukraine.

The Moldovan authorities have not given Russia an excuse to be dissatisfied. For example, shortly after the start of the large-scale Russian invasion, Moldova refused to sell Ukraine six MiG-29 fighters that they themselves do not use. This situation did not improve mutual understanding between the two countries, but it became clear that Moldova did not intend to abandon its neutral status even to assist its neighbor who was under attack from the Kremlin. The desire of Sandu’s team to not aggravate relations with Russia generally is understandable, albeit short-sighted.

It should also be noted that Moldova has taken in about half a million Ukrainian refugees, of whom about 100,000 settled on the territory of this small country that is not among Europe’s wealthiest. Solidarity with Ukraine, manifested in such hospitality, testifies to Moldova’s commitment to European values. At the end of February 2022, President Sandu visited centers for Ukrainian refugees in Moldova.

In April-May 2022, the Moldovan authorities banned the use of the Saint George’s ribbon when celebrating the Day of Victory over the Nazis. Russia’s response turned out to be asymmetric, with stories in Moldovan media about the Ukrainian armed forces’ invasion of Kolbasnaya, a settlement on the territory of the unrecognized PMR. Tens of thousands of tons of ammunition are concentrated there in artillery depots, which were taken there in the late 1980s through the early 1990s. It is doubtful that there are even a thousand usable shells in these deposits of explosives, but Russian propaganda set itself a completely different goal of attempting to demonstrate that the Ukrainian armed forces were ready to invade (like the Russian army) the territory of another state. This did not happen, and after Ukraine regained control over Serpents’ Island in the Black Sea, the likelihood of Russia’s invasion of Moldova also significantly decreased. Without control over the region’s airspace, an attempted invasion seems a considerable risk.

Russia has relied on hybrid methods of influence it knows well. The epicenter of dissatisfaction with the policies of Maia Sandu in the summer of 2022 was the issue of Gagauz autonomy. It has been led by Governor (bashkan) Irina Vlah, known for her flirtations with pro-Russian forces. In August, protests with pro-Russian slogans and sharp criticism of Chisinau swept many towns across the autonomous unit, the basis for the economy of which is agriculture. It should be recalled that in the spring of this year, it was in Gagauzia where there were attempts to organize opposition to the ban on the St. George’s ribbon throughout Moldova, but with little success. This time, the Moldovan authorities operated with a carrot and stick principle, combining the conducting of police special forces anti-terrorist exercises in Gagauzia with financial subventions to towns over the bashkan’s head.

In September, the protests were moved to Chisinau. These, however, were not driven by the Gagauz, but by representatives of the Shor party, whose leader, Ilan Shor, is suspected of being involved in the theft of a billion dollars from the Moldovan banking system. Shor tried to find a position for himself in the country’s political system while living permanently in Israel but could not find a good way to cooperate with the Russian special services. However, informed sources claim that Shor skillfully communicates with some leaders of the Information and Security Service of Moldova. In November 2022, the communists and socialists of Moldova (represented in parliament along with the Shor party) joined the protests of the “Shorites” and much criticism was levied against the authorities by the primar (mayor) of Chisinau, Ion Ceban. Vlad Plahotniuc also announced his readiness to return to Moldovan politics, a step that could be considered a serious trigger for Maia Sandu.

The Moldovan authorities, given the current situation, have become a hostage to the country’s economic weakness. The winter of 2021-22 became a serious test for many citizens of the country, as housing and utility costs seriously increased. The statement by Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilitsa, in which she conceded that the country’s GDP growth in 2022 would be zero, only added fuel to the fire. Russia, which already restricted the import of Moldovan agricultural products, launched an economic offensive, announcing a reduction in gas supplies to Moldova at the start of the heating season. At the end of November, the Russian energy monopoly announced that “gas destined for Moldova is ending up in Ukraine.” It is easy to guess that energy instruments will continue to be a factor in Russia’s pressure on Moldova.

The attempt to replace the prime minister in November 2022 was unsuccessful, despite the Action and Solidarity (PAS) party having a majority in parliament. Internal conflicts prevented pushing through Natalia Gavrilitsa’s replacement by Dorin Recean, the secretary of the Supreme Security Council and a supporter of a strong hand. Now it seems Gavrilitsa’s government will become a “magnet” for negativity, although Maia Sandu was also mentioned in a statement about the country’s economic situation. On the eve of a donors assistance conference for Moldova, the country’s president stressed that Moldovan citizens will spend 65% of their income this winter on paying for energy resources.

It is worth noting that the anonymous Telegram channels Mamalyga and Tokana, Genius Karpat and several others continue to discuss the results of the hacking of the private correspondence of anti-corruption prosecutor Veronika Dragalin, Interior Minister Anna Revenco, Minister of Justice Sergiu Litvinenko, a former parliamentarian, and, more recently, Minister of Economy, Dumitru Alaiba. Manipulators skillfully present information to Moldovan citizens they claim is of a compromising nature without any court decision while reveling in their own anonymity. It is interesting that in Ukraine a similar network of channels – Legitimny, Resident and others, united in a single network – are clearly labeled by the special services as elements of Russian influence.

Test of endurance

Clearly, Ukraine and Moldova’s road to the European Union will be long and will not be easy. It is not worth counting on a European integration blitzkrieg for several subjective and objective reasons. Therefore, the following proposed measures for both states are relevant:

  • Conduct an audit of outstanding concerns on both sides and ensure an ongoing dialogue for their resolution based on legal mechanisms adopted in the EU.
  • Intensify the process of dialogue and interaction on European integration issues.
  • Take part in the creation of a Baltic-Black Sea narrative that can be an effective alternative to the “Russian world.”
  • Manage European integration processes grounded in good neighborliness and realism.

Материал доступен на русском языке: Связанные одной целью. Евроинтеграция Украины и Молдовы и влияние российской пропаганды