The West on alert: Moldova warns of Russian election meddling

Moldova’s Foreign Minister Mihai Popșoi highlights the country as a testing ground for Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics, including AI-generated deep fakes, cash bribes, and cyber attacks, aimed at undermining democracy. As Moldova faces pressure amid Russia’s war on Ukraine, the looming presidential election and EU referendum become battlegrounds. With the Russian military’s proximity and recent gains in Ukraine, Moldova stands at a critical juncture, signalling a broader threat to Western democracies.

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By Peter Martin and Ben Sills

Russia is using a variety of measures — from AI-generated deep fakes to bags of cash — to undermine democracy in Moldova in a preview of what the West should expect, the tiny European nation’s foreign minister said Friday. 

“Moldova is sort of a petri dish of Russian hybrid warfare and election meddling,” Mihai Popșoi, Moldova’s foreign minister, said in an interview in Washington. “What we see in Moldova now will most likely be deployed in upcoming elections in our partner countries in the West.” 

Moldova, a landlocked nation of 2.6 million people wedged between Ukraine and Romania, has come under intense pressure since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine more than two years ago, with its traditional dependence on Russian gas triggering an energy crisis.

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Russia’s tactics have ranged from creating deep fake videos of Moldovan politicians through artificial intelligence to buying votes in villages across the country, Popșoi said. These efforts are likely to pick up pace ahead of the country’s presidential election and a referendum on joining the European Union scheduled for October, he said. 

‘Hybrid Tactics’

Popșoi said Moldovan customs officials have intercepted luggage cases full of money at the border and have identified plastic bags of cash with individual town and village names written on them, which he said were designated to “bribe voters.”

“They are trying to combine the old and the new to maximize their outcome,” he said of Russia’s approach. “Be it money funneling, AI or destabilizing the country through paid protesters, all these hybrid tactics are being tested in Moldova.”

Cyber attacks have been another Russian tactic of choice, Popșoi said. In recent months, the country saw a “severe attack that rendered the post office inoperable for a short period of time,” he said, adding that Moldova was “more than certain” that Russia was responsible. 

Russia has repeatedly denied meddling in the elections of other countries, including Moldova’s.

“Moldovan officials’ public attacks against Russia have become a daily routine,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a briefing last week. “The aggressive anti-Russia policy” of Moldova’s current leadership “is well-paid for and is a condition for joining the European Union and interaction with NATO.”

In the US, FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned that Russia, China and Iran are all “doubling down and heavily investing in their cyber, espionage and foreign malign influence operations. And they’re not remotely constrained by the rule of law.”

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Military Threat

For Moldova, the Russian military also potentially poses a threat.

“The front line is less than 200 miles away from the capital of Moldova,” Popșoi said. “We’re in a constant state of anxiety, checking the news every morning, checking whether the Russians are advancing toward our border.”

Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, which borders Ukraine, hosts Russian peacekeepers. In February, Transnistria’s local authorities called on the Russian government for support in their standoff with the Moldovan government. 

Moscow’s recent gains on the battlefield in Ukraine could make it possible for Russia to open a land bridge to the territory through the south of Ukraine. If that happens, Popșoi said, Russia would probably attempt to occupy the rest of Moldova. 

“Ukraine’s victory is paramount for us,” he said. “It’s existential for us.”

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