Moldova’s Obscure Russia Policy Presents a Major Vulnerability Before Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 48

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia’s interest and level of subversive activities in Moldova has grown, leading the Moldovan Foreign Ministry to state that Russia’s actions “undermine Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
  • The latest escalation in bilateral ties provides an informative snapshot of Russia’s intentions for Moldova, exploiting local political proxies to challenge the upcoming elections.
  •  Chisinau can still mitigate many of the Kremlin’s threats by refocusing and reshaping its foreign policy to respond more resolutely to Moscow’s provocations.

On March 19, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry expelled a Russian diplomat in response to Moscow’s blatant disregard of Chisinau’s request not to open voting for the Russian presidential election in the Transnistria region (, March 19). The diplomatic expulsion represents the most recent spat between Moldova and Russia over the past few weeks. Having officially allowed voting only at the Russian Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova’s Foreign Ministry stated that Russia’s actions “undermine Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (, March 12). In the lead-up to the presidential elections in the fall, the Moldovan government will need a more clear-cut policy on fighting Kremlin influence and propaganda, which seeks to bring pro-Russian forces to power in Chisinau and threatens to destabilize the country.

Local experts tend to believe that Chisinau cannot do much besides publicly express its dissatisfaction with Moscow. The reality, however, is somewhat different (, March 13). The Moldovan government could increase the consequences for Russia’s non-compliance with Chisinau’s requests. This would include blocking the delivery of ballot papers and the access of Russian diplomats to Transnistria, threatening criminal cases against local facilitators, and expelling all Russian officials involved. Moldova’s reaction to the opening of voting in Transnistria was relatively soft. Before the elections, Chisinau did not specify what consequences Russian officials would face for not complying with its petition.

The latest diplomatic spat with Russia demonstrates that Moldova needs to build up stronger deterrence capital. While more assertive actions might cost Chisinau, they are necessary to build credibility in political deterrence efforts against Russia, especially in the run-up to a busy election season. On March 12, Oleg Vasnetsov, the Russian ambassador to Chisinau, brushed off his Moldovan counterparts after exiting the Foreign Ministry, where he was summoned for an explanation. He called the Moldovan diplomats’ accusations “unfounded” and stated Russia was determined to open polling stations in Transnistria (, March 12). His behavior confirmed that Moscow does not take Chisinau’s ability to obstruct Russian designs seriously.

Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with the head of Moldova’s autonomous Gagauz region, Yevgenia Gutsul, in Sochi on March 6 had already enflamed tensions (RBC, March 7; see EDM, March 20, 21). Gutsul, a political novice, won the local elections in Gagauzia after obtaining illegal funding from Ilan Sor, a fugitive Moldovan oligarch turned Russian political proxy who advocates for Moldova’s integration into the Eurasian Economic Union (see EDM, May 9, 2023;, May 16, 2023;, July 20, 2023; TASS, February 7;, February 8). Gutsul complained to Putin that the Moldovan government “limits the region’s powers” and “provokes instability and destabilization in Gagauzia and throughout the whole country.” She claimed that Putin promised “to provide support to Gagauzia and the Gagauz people in defending our legal rights, powers, and positions in the international arena” (, March 6). Besides Putin, Gutsul also met with Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of the Federation Council, and her deputy, Konstantin Kosachev, in Moscow (RBC, March 1).

The Gagauz leader requested Russian economic assistance and political backing in defiance of Moldovan authorities investigating Gutsul for illegal campaign funding and abuse of authority (, March 7;, March 8). Shor, Gutsul’s patron, likely arranged her visit to Russia and the meetings with high-level officials. This is part of Shor’s strategy to return to power in Moldova with Moscow’s backing, allowing him to strike down the criminal charges filed against him for his central role in a billion-dollar bank fraud and money laundering scheme in 2014 (, April 15, 2023). In exchange, Shor offered Russia his political assets and influence in Moldova.

The current period of escalation in Moldovan-Russian relations started at the end of February, when the Russian-controlled authorities in Transnistria organized the “Congress of Deputies of All Levels.” The event ended with a draft resolution asking for Russia’s protection concerning “Moldova’s increasing pressure” and the “220,000 citizens of Russia” inhabiting the region (, February 28; see EDM, February 29).

The congress and draft resolution came as a reaction to the Moldovan government’s decision to levy customs duties on economic agents from the Transnistria region starting in January 2024 to “ensure fair competition” for all economic agents in the country (, February 5). Before that, economic actors from the separatist region exclusively benefited from tax exemptions on imports from the European Union. This represented a form of indirect funding by the Moldovan government of the Russian-controlled separatist regime in Tiraspol. Coincidentally, that policy aligned with Moscow’s strategic priority in the region to ensure the (external) economic independence of the separatist regime so that the Kremlin can spend fewer resources to sustain its survival.

The draft resolution drew the reaction of the Russian Foreign Ministry and State Duma, which confirmed that Moscow will consider taking action (RIA Novosti; TASS; RBC, February 28). While Russia seeks to exploit this petition to justify intervention in the region or punitive measures against Moldova in the future, the real driver behind the separatist region’s request is different. The most probable logic behind the “Congress of Deputies” and Tiraspol’s petition to Russia—steps likely backed by Moscow—was to alarm the West with the threat of potential escalation and exploit that alarmism to put pressure on Chisinau to back down on the custom duty issue.

The Transnistria region and its rulers have no agency on any issue of high importance to Russia. Moscow allows its political proxies in Transnistria some constrained liberty but only on matters it deems insignificant, creating the appearance of local autonomy. This approach has allowed Russia to portray the region as “independent” while painting itself as an “impartial” mediator. At the same time, Russia maintains a relatively effective capacity for coercion over Tiraspol due to its military presence in Transnistria, the numerous Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel stationed there, and its reputation for effectively silencing dissidents.

In February, Moldovan Foreign Minister Mihai Popsoi acknowledged that Moldovan-Russian relations are at an all-time low (, February 29). Russia’s war against Ukraine and the severe insecurity Moldova feels as a result precipitated the recent escalation in tensions. Chisinau, however, has had a historically dysfunctional and rather reactive policy toward Moscow. If Russian officials had believed the Moldovan government would react harshly and decisively, they likely would have taken a more prudent approach to the customs duty issue and possibly reconsider setting up polling stations in Transnistria.

Moldova’s 2024 presidential and 2025 parliamentary elections are fast approaching. Popsoi and the Foreign Ministry will need to conduct an exhaustive review of Moldova’s foreign policy priorities and reorient its stance on Russia-related issues. Even though direct positive interactions with Russia are largely unfeasible due to Moscow’s aggressive designs for Moldova, the Foreign Ministry can invest more in preparatory actions to advance and consolidate its bargaining position. This involves conducting myth-busting diplomatic activities addressing the origin and logic of the Transnistrian conflict and the Gagauz autonomy. Chisinau may want to adjust the optics of the United States and European Union on these issues and build a coalition among its Western partners to reshape the diplomatic agenda to address Russian influence more effectively in Transnistria and Gagauzia.