Moldova, just like Georgia and Ukraine, has a significant part of its territory occupied by Moscow-backed separatist forces. The unrecognized territory of Transnistria serves as a de facto base for the Kremlin to maintain military pressure on both Moldova and Ukraine — but as a recent investigation reveals, Moscow is now actively looking at controlling the political life of Moldova.

On October 31, a group of investigative reporters known as RISE Moldova, together with their partner Dossier Centre, released a document titled “Moldova’s curators at the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service]”, also available in English, that looks at how Moscow is buying political influence in Moldova. In view of the war Russia is conducting in neighboring Ukraine, Global Voices interviewed RISE Moldova’s Vladimir Thorik, speaking with him in Russian over secure online messengers in an effort to unpack Russia’s actions.

Global Voices (GV): Based on your inquiry, Russia’s FSB has serious plans for Moldova, even creating an “11th special department” to work specifically on the country. Why is Moldova so crucial? 

Moldova, including the separatist region of Transnistria (Declared by PACE [Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe] as a region occupied by Russia), is just a foothold for Russia. The main goal of Putin’s administration is to secure a corridor that will at least allow it to control the southeastern parts of Ukraine that border Moldova. According to our sources among the security services of Moldova and Ukraine, the FSB headquarters are located in Transnistria, in territories not controlled by the legitimate government of Moldova. Transnistria hosts a Russian military base, which enlists recruits from the local population. According to our well-informed sources, Russians train and organize people to work illegally in our region, particularly in the south of Ukraine.

As long as there is this separatist region controlled by Russia and hardly accessible to Moldovan and Ukrainian security services, Russian instructors are able to collect data about any inhabitant of Moldova, and can set groups in charge of sabotage. They can also mobilize the local population should Putin’s forces successfully occupy the Ukrainian regions of Mykolaiv and Odesa.

GV: You mention several key Moldovan politicians who are willing to serve the interests of Moscow. What do you think their motivations might be?

The main Moldovan politicians who came to the attention of FSB curators in recent years include Moldova’s former president Igor Dodon, as well as members of his Socialist Party who are close to him; it also includes the fugitive Moldovan businessman Ilan Shor, who heads the Shor Party of the same name. It seems that some Moldovan politicians were in need not just of money, but also of methodology at election time. For example, we discovered that the Kremlin drafted the text of a pre-election speech for Irina Vlah, the head of the autonomous government of Gagauzia, a region in the south of Moldova.

I think these Moldovan figures may also need the political influence that the Kremlin has had for many years in the post-Soviet space, as well as within the European Union. This can help puppet rulers of political elites establish channels for the enrichment of their clans. This way, the Kremlin provides them with the tools of the special services to participate in business processes that remain under Moscow’s control.

The Kremlin has known its Chișinău protégés for a long time. They are supervised not only by FSB officers, but also in the “Moldovan department” of the Kremlin, which for many years has been led by officers of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Moreover, they are supervised so successfully that — as in the case of Colonel Igor Maslov of the Foreign Intelligence Service — they get promoted for their work in Moldova to become, for example, head of one of the departments in the Kremlin.

Of course, the FSB generals rarely meet personally with the Moldovan protégés. As intermediaries, they can use the same Russian political strategists who have worked in the Moldovan elections for Dodon and, probably, for Shor’s party since 2019 — or via employees of the Russian Embassy in Moldova. In addition to Russians under diplomatic cover, employees of Russian non-governmental organizations and humanitarian funds close to the FSB meet with Moldovan politicians. Sometimes, the politicians themselves fly to Moscow to meet them; we have confirmation of those facts.

GV: Your investigation mentions that the unrecognized territory of Transnistria could serve as a basis for a partial or full invasion of independent Moldova, or as a third front for Ukraine, after Russia and Belarus. 

The possibility of Transnistria being occupied by Russia has been mentioned to RISE Moldova and Dossier Centre by sources from different security services as early as spring 2022. As of now, we have found out that the options for capturing the Transnistrian region and Moldova were worked out in the summer of 2022 by various analytical groups in the Kremlin, including the Alfa Group analytical center that is associated with the FSB.

In one of the reports obtained by the Dossier Center, and published in our joint investigation “Moldova’s Curators from the FSB”, Russian analysts came to the conclusion that Moldova had been captured and controlled from the outside in the interests of the West, primarily by Romania and the US State Department. According to FSB analysts, the regime of Moldovan President Maia Sandu would quickly usurp power and destroy the pro-Kremlin opposition, which would make it possible to impose a blockade of Transnistria and thus blackmail Russia militarily.

Members of the Alfa Group are considering three scenarios that could unfold: the creation by Russia of a corridor to Transnistria through southern Ukraine with the subsequent official recognition of the territory (as of now, Russia does not officially recognize Transnistria’s independence) ; the military occupation of Moldova; the presence of the Russian army within the borders of Transnistria without recognizing the territory. All three scenarios carry the risk of losing control over the rest of Moldova or, in the event of a complete occupation of Moldova, of a “collective outcry of the West” and sabotage actions from the population.

Instead, analysts close to the FSB believe that in order to maintain and increase the influence of the Kremlin in Moldova, it is necessary to take the long-term view. The authors of those scenarii, who are indeed connected to the special services, propose that the Kremlin creates new political forces within Moldova that would lobby for the country to become part of Russia – but this should be done on behalf of the people of Moldova.

GV: What are the main challenges and risks in collecting the information you have and doing the work you do in Moldova?

For the past two years, we have been systematically analyzing the influence of Russian secret services in Moldovan politics. We decided to do this after it became known that this influence was so huge that Igor Dodon, the Moldovan president from 2016 to 2020, gave himself the nickname of Kremlinovich!

During that period, we have observed a much-delayed reaction of the Moldovan security services to our findings, which we view as proof of Russia’s interference in the internal matters of our country. It was only in October, after the United States added three of the political strategists we had identified [in our Kremlinovich investigationto its list of people under sanctions, did they respond. We described how a group of Russian citizens, which included a psychologist-hypnotiser, was added to the Socialist Party of then acting president Dodon as he was trying to get re-elected. It took the Moldovan Prosecutor General’s Office two years to announce a criminal investigation to verify the facts of the Kremlin’s influence on the election campaign. I guess two years late is better than never, though I’m not sure…

By Filip Noubel