Russia seems to be using its Ukraine playbook to destabilize another European state, experts warn

  • Russia accused Ukraine of drone striking a Moldova base amid an election.

  • Moldovan government officials are supportive of Russian involvement.

  • The actions of the Kremlin and pro-Russian actors in Moldova mirror behavior prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

Some of Russia's recent behavior in parts of Moldova has some experts sounding alarm bells, warning some of it looks similar to destabilizing activities before the invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has accused Ukraine of drone striking a military base in Russian-occupied Moldova as pro-Russian figures seems to be actively destabilize the Moldovan government from within.

After a drone struck a helicopter at a base located in Moldova's Transnistria republic on March 17, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that the drone was launched from Ukraine to cause panic during the Russian presidential election.

Transnistria is a pro-Russian republic within Moldova, an EU hopeful that has been the target of Russian destabilization efforts, and pro-Russia figures within the republic have been echoing Russian sentiments accusing Ukraine of conducting the strike.

Alexander Shcherba, a former Transnistrian Supreme Council Chairman, also made an accusation, tying the strike to "Ukrainian fingerprints," reported the Institute for the Study of War.

As the events of March 17 have unraveled over the past few days, the culprit of the strike has not yet been publicly identified and accusations that Ukraine sent the drone have been baseless thus far.

While ISW does not know who carried out the strike, the Washington-based think tank argued "it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces conducted the strike given the limited means used in the strike and the insignificance of the target." It suggested "Russia or Russian-linked actors could benefit from the strike" to further its destabilizing efforts inside Transnistria.

Moldovan veterans attend a ceremony at Maica Indurerata monument (Sorrowful Mother) in Chisinau, on March 2, 2024, to commemorate the fallen soldiers during the armed conflict between pro-Transnistria forces supported by the Russian 14th Army and pro-Moldovan forces (1990-1992) in Transnistria known as the Moldo-Russian war.

There have been discussions of annexation within Transnistria for years while Russia has often taken advantage of Moldova's geographical position as it also neighbors Ukraine. Transnistrian officials have made requests for Russian protection from Moldova, according to ISW. This sort of rhetoric has appeared before.

Government officials in Moldova's autonomous Gagauzia region have also held various meetings with Russian leaders to discus their economic relationship. These officials have also said they are interested in Russian protection.

ISW wrote in a Wednesday update that the "Kremlin-affiliated actors in the pro-Russian Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia are invoking narratives that mirror previous Russian claims about Ukraine in the years leading up to Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine."

Prior to the invasion, Putin spent years arguing that Ukraine was violating the rights of pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country and that Russia needed to protect them. Many of the allegations were unsubstantiated.

The Russian government has used similar language to describe regions of Moldova like Transnistria.

ISW suspects that a Russian "hybrid," or information, operation inside Moldova has been in the works to destabilize the government ahead of the Moldovan presidential election this year and the parliament election in 2025.

Recently, the country's Intelligence and Security Services warned of hybrid attacks that would attempt to weaken its institutions in order to bring the former Soviet territory back under Moscow's influence.

Russia's behavior in the separatist regions within Moldova are consistent with its actions in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where it spent years stirring up pro-Russian sentiment, particularly prior to the 2022 invasion.

Leading up to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the government fought Russian separatists in the Donbas region. They eventually helped secure territory in the region for Russia, which later illegally put them under Russian control.

And Moldovan officials recognize the danger as Russia increases pressure. "This past two years without exaggeration have been by far the most difficult in the past 30 years," Mihai Popsoi, recently told the AP.

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