13.02 Review

Anticipating hybrid war: In the run up to its presidential elections, Moldova will become a new battleground between Russia and the West this year

The upcoming presidential elections at the end of the year in Moldova significantly raise the risks of Russian interference in the republic's internal affairs. Despite the decision to start negotiations on Moldova's accession to the EU, a great success for incumbent President Maia Sandu, the prospects for her re-election for the next term currently seem unclear. Her approval rating has declined amid the economic difficulties caused by the war in Ukraine and the Kremlin's intensification of its efforts to keep Moldova within its sphere of influence. Currently, Russian influence in Moldova remains substantial both among political elites and the country’s media. The commitment of Moldovan society to the ideals of European integration does not seem to be consolidated. About half of the country's residents support a kind of 'middle path', in which Moldova both expands cooperation with the West and does not abandon its cooperation with Russia. Only about 30% support the idea of joining NATO. Given that, according to US intelligence, early last year Moscow planned a coup in Moldova involving Wagner PMC fighters, as the elections approach, new attempts by the Kremlin to tilt the balance in its favour should be expected. Experts assert that without active support from the West, Moldova may not withstand this threat.

2024 may be a crucial turning point for Moldova, determining the country’s fate for a long time. In December last year, the EU made the decision to begin negotiations with the republic on its accession to the Union, and at the end of this year Moldova will hold another presidential election in which the opposition will try to replace Maia Sandu, a staunch supporter of European integration and opponent of Russian expansionism, with a more pro-Russian candidate. The current situation in the country is characterised by the potential active intervention of Russia in Moldovan politics, as well as instability in the domestic political situation and a lack of unity in Moldovan society.

Adding to this drama is a poll conducted in early December 2023 by the Institute of Marketing and Sociological Surveys (IMAS), which revealed that while Sandu is leading in the presidential race with 30% compared to 24% for her main rival Igor Dodon (who, however, has gained 8 percentage points since September), in the second round she is losing not only to him (35% vs 46%), but also to the next highest ranking opposition candidate, Ion Ceban (34% vs 42%).

Maia Sandu was elected president in 2020, and her party, 'Action and Solidarity,' won the majority in the 2021 parliamentary elections. This situation cracked open a 'window of opportunity' for Moldova's European integration, which both the republic and the EU were quick to take advantage of. The European Council's decision in December to commence negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine was largely political. However, the war in Ukraine has significantly worsened the economic situation in Moldova, primarily affecting energy price hikes, which have fuelled inflation. According to IMAS data, in June 2021, 36% of respondents stated that their situation had recently worsened, and 47% said it remained unchanged, but by July 2022, this ratio had shifted to 64% compared to 24%. From mid-2023, the situation began to slightly improve, and by December 2023, the ratio had returned to the values seen in 2021. However, Sandu's position in Moldovan politics has significantly weakened. Today, success in Eurointegration is her main political capital. Sandu and her party intend to solidify this success by combining the presidential elections with a referendum on EU accession, the results of which, in their opinion, should be enshrined in the country's constitution.

Experts are confident that the emerging uncertainty and instability will push the Kremlin towards active interference in Moldova's political processes and elections. Leah Kieff, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), believes that this situation is remarkably similar to the one that developed in 2014 between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow's desire to alter Ukraine's pro-European course led to the Euromaidan and subsequent Russian armed aggression. James Rupert, an expert at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), is convinced that Russia has already begun a 'hybrid war' against Moldova ahead of the elections.

Indeed, as early as last year, US officials, citing intelligence data, claimed that Russia had developed a plan involving the ‘fomentation of a fabricated uprising’ in Moldova amid protests in the country. Later, it was claimed that mercenaries from the Wagner private military company were supposed to initiate the uprising. In 2022, a network of bots and trolls spreading anti-government posts and inciting citizens to participate in rallies supporting the pro-Russian 'Șor' party was uncovered across Moldovan social networks. Throughout 2023, Moldova's government websites were subjected to constant cyberattacks by Russian hackers, and in September, Moldova's energy suppliers were targeted by a cyberattack.

However, the problem lies not only in potential external influence but also that it may find fertile ground within the country: Moldovan society does not appear entirely united in its geopolitical choices. Russian influence on Moldovan politics is significant. The former president and the current main rival to Sandu, Igor Dodon, is considered more pro-Moscow. Until recently, Moldovan politics included the openly pro-Russian and anti-European 'Șor' party, sponsored by oligarch Ilan Șor, while Russian media is popular among Moldovan consumers of television, radio, and Internet content.

Nevertheless, Moldova's pro-European orientation appears as equally unstable as Maia Sandu's position. A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in July 2023 showed that 63% of respondents supported Moldova's accession to the European Union. 67% and 68% of respondents, respectively, consider Romania and the European Union to be Moldova's most important economic partners, but 52% see Russia in that role. When it comes to the country’s political partnerships, 67% also named Romania and the European Union, 48% mentioned Ukraine, and 46% named Russia. The majority of respondents (64%) believe that Moldova's security can only be guaranteed by its neutral status, while 19-20% believe NATO or the European Union can ensure the country’s security, and 15% expect protection from Russia. The perception of Russia as a threat decreased by July 2023. At that time, 39% considered the threat from Russia to be high, while 56% considered it low or nonexistent; in November 2022, 44% and 51% respectively held these positions.

The above-mentioned survey conducted by IMAS in December paints a similar picture. 33% support Moldova's pro-European orientation, 14% support a pro-Russian orientation, and the majority (46%) still believe that the country’s orientation should strike a balance between Europe and Russia. In a hypothetical referendum, 55% would vote for the country's EU membership, but 44% would support membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. Only 29% supported joining NATO, while 54% were against it.

In such a situation, Kremlin operations aimed at altering the unstable balance of power before the elections and undermining the country's EU accession process seem almost inevitable. The opinions of the experts from CSIS and USIP, who believe that Moldova cannot withstand this pressure without Western support, appear well-founded.