Is Moldova Putin’s next target or another distraction?

From new anti-government protests to alleged coup plots: Moldova is on the brink of a Russian war against neighboring Ukraine. The pro-Western president of Europe’s poorest country, Maia Sandu, claims that the Kremlin is trying to destabilize the country or even planning an invasion.

Protest by the Movement for the People group

On February 28, in the capital of Moldova, a group of people tore up posters with a portrait of Moldovan President Maia Sandu, scattered them on the ground, and stomped on them. This anti-government protest in Chisinau was organized by a group calling itself the Movement for the People. It is backed by members of the Kremlin-friendly Moldovan party Shor, whose founder and leader, Ilan Shor, was convicted in 2017 of grand larceny for stealing a billion dollars from three Moldovan banks in 2014.

Waving Moldovan flags, the crowd, many of whom were reportedly bused in, called on the country’s new pro-Western government to pay the population’s winter electricity bills and “not to drag the country into war.”

“Russia wants to take advantage of the destabilization of the situation in Moldova to increase fears around Transnistria and try to provoke Ukraine into military action, which would allow Russian propaganda to portray it as the aggressor and create another crisis situation,” Dionys Chenusha of the Center for Eastern European Studies told Azatik.

The coup plan

On February 13, Sandu announced that Russia was planning a coup in Moldova. Ukrainian intelligence shared the details of the alleged plot with her a few days earlier. According to her, people with military training not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Serbia, and Montenegro were to be involved in this task.

This group, disguised as civilians, would be tasked with taking control of government buildings in Chisinau, taking hostages along the way. They would be supported by so-called “internal criminal groups,” which Sandu said would include the Shor party and a group linked to former politician and oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who fled the country after being accused of large-scale corruption and abuse of power.

According to Sandu, Russia tried to destabilize the country in late 2022, but local security services managed to thwart these plans.

Is there a threat of attack from Transnistria?

“Russia is unlikely to attempt a military coup in Moldova or attack Ukraine from Transnistria: the Russian military simply does not have the military means or combat power to do so,” explained George Barros, a Russia expert at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that has been tracking major developments related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to Barros, Russian troops in Transnistria will also give Moscow little in terms of combat power. “The Russian ‘peacekeeping’ group in Transnistria consists of two motorized rifle battalions, which is a very small force. These two battalions, in particular, are one of the least combat-ready units in Russia’s Western Military District. They do not have reliable supply routes to the Russian mainland,” Barros explained.

“The Russian airborne troops, which could theoretically support these forces, are severely weakened and already engaged in combat operations in Ukraine. In addition, Ukraine’s air defense system controls the airspace near Transnistria, making a Russian airborne operation impossible,” Barros wrote.

“In our estimation, the Kremlin is likely conducting information operations to distract Ukrainian forces, to fix Ukrainian troops near Odesa, and to prevent Ukraine from deploying them where they could be more useful, such as on the eastern or southern front lines,” Barros concluded.

The view that Putin is trying to divert attention rather than open a new military front is shared by John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major who has been following events in Ukraine.

“Most of all, Putin is trying to divert attention away from the front line,” Spencer told.

 “He is still trying to force Ukraine and the rest of the world to move resources there. This is not a real threat.”

Related Posts