US says intelligence shows Russia stirring unrest in Moldova

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. intelligence officials have determined that people with ties to Russian intelligence are planning to stage protests in hopes of toppling the Moldovan government, according to the White House.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the intelligence shows that actors, some connected with Russian intelligence, are seeking to stage and use protests in Moldova as a basis to foment an insurrection against Moldova's new pro-Western government.

Kirby said the intelligence shows that another set of Russian actors would provide training and help manufacture demonstrations in Moldova, which was granted European Union candidate status in June, on the same day as Ukraine, its war-torn neighbor.

The publicizing of the alleged malign operation by Moscow in Moldova is just the latest example of the Biden administration loosening restrictions on and making public intelligence findings over the course of the grinding war in Ukraine. The administration has said it wants to highlight plans for Russian misinformation and other activity so allies remain clear-eyed about Moscow’s intent and Russia thinks twice before carrying out an operation.

“As Moldova continues to integrate with Europe, we believe Russia is pursuing options to weaken the Moldovan government probably with the eventual goal of seeing a more Russian- friendly administration in the capital,” Kirby said.

Kirby also pointed to recent efforts by Russia he said are intended to sow disinformation about Moldova’s overall stability. He pointed specifically to the Russian Ministry of Defense’s claim last month that Ukraine has been planning to invade Transnistria, Moldova’s Moscow-backed separatist region. He called that action “unfounded, false," and said such claims "create baseless alarm.”

The White House released the intelligence shortly before Biden was set to meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

In recent weeks, several anti-government protests have been held in the capital, Chisinau, organized by a group calling itself Movement for the People and supported by members of Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party, which holds six seats in the country’s 101-seat legislature. A protest is also planned by the group Sunday.

The Shor Party’s leader, Ilan Shor, is a Moldovan oligarch currently in exile in Israel. Shor is named on a U.S. State Department sanctions list as working for Russian interests. Britain also added Shor to a sanctions list in December.

On Thursday, Moldova’s national anti-corruption agency said officers carried out car searches of “couriers” for the Shor Party, and seized more than 150,000 euros ($160,000) in a case of alleged illegal party financing by an organized criminal group.

The money, which was stuffed into envelopes and bags in at least two different currencies, was earmarked to “pay for the transport and remunerate people who come to the protests organized by the party,” the agency said. Three people were detained.

The Shor Party also organized a series of anti-government protests last fall, which rocked Moldova as it struggled to manage a severe energy crisis after Moscow slashed natural gas supplies. Around the same time, Moldova’s government asked the country’s Constitutional Court to declare the Shor Party illegal, while anti-corruption prosecutors alleged that the protests were partly financed with Russian money.

Meanwhile, Transnistria, which has close ties to Moscow and hosts Russian troops, claimed Thursday it had thwarted an assassination attempt on its president allegedly organized by Ukraine’s national security service. Officials alleged that Ukraine’s SBU security service ordered the assassination attempt, but did not provide evidence. The SBU rejected the allegation, saying it “should be considered exclusively as a provocation orchestrated by the Kremlin.”

Sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has often been at the center of a struggle between Moscow and the West. Once part of the Soviet Union, Moldova declared its independence in 1991. One of Europe’s poorest countries with a population of about 2.6 million people, it has historic ties to Russia but wants to join the 27-nation EU.

The push-and-pull has only intensified since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.

Sandu met with President Joe Biden last month while the U.S. president was visiting Poland for the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. has provided $265 million in emergency support to Moldova since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to help it deal with economic, energy and humanitarian crises caused by the war. The administration has asked Congress to approve an additional $300 million for Moldova.

U.S. intelligence officials see no immediate military threat to Moldova, but the White House is publicizing the finding in hopes of deterring Russia before it moves forward with its plans, Kirby said.

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McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.

Aamer Madhani And Stephen Mcgrath, The Associated Press