Moldova’s Sisyphean Security Struggle

Moldova’s importance to the United States and its partners and allies is impossible to ignore following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Moldova is important not only for geographic reasons (as Ukraine’s western neighbor, and EU member Romania’s eastern neighbor) but also for geopolitical reasons. Moldova has struggled with its ties between East and West since becoming an independent country in 1991. Moreover, it has struggled with efforts to develop a democracy with functioning institutions. But these past struggles do not reflect the Moldova of today, nor does it reflect why Moldova is of strategic interest to the United States.

Over the past decade Moldova’s trajectory has improved, with increased economic diversification from wine exports to a developing technology sector. Over the last several years a reform agenda that is transforming Moldovan institutions, most notably by rooting out systemic corruption, is providing an even stronger foundation for success across all sectors. This is discussed in more depth in a November 2023 commentary, “Moldova’s Moment,” by Daniel F. Runde.

While these reform efforts—like most similar efforts around the globe—are a Sisyphean struggle, they are uniquely important in the Moldovan context. This progress is unique in the history of Moldova and has been made against the inherent challenges of a bureaucracy with entrenched institutional corruption, and a system held captive by oligarchs. Another force pushing the metaphorical boulder back down the hill is the Russian government. As stated by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in December 2023, “Moldova is destined to fall as the next victim in the West-unleashed hybrid war against Russia.” This not-so-subtle gaslighting attempt by the Russian government continues the pattern of the Kremlin blaming any former Soviet satellite that engages the pathway to increased freedom and democracy.

This rhetoric is not simply verbal bullying, but the telegraphing of foreign policy goals that have in the past been chased with Russian aggression. Accusations of Russophobia has long been used as a justification by the Russian government for aggression against former Soviet satellites. For example, Vladimir Putin’s now infamous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference was not only a rejection of the West, but also an outline of fear of Western actions in former Soviet states including Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Even before Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Russian government was planting a public narrative to justify the 2014 invasion of Crimea. And in the summer of 2021, Putin railed against the West’s efforts to make Ukraine “into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia.”

As Moldova continues a trajectory of engagement with the West, the risks from those who benefit from the captured state only increase. As referenced in an earlier commentary, “Winter is Coming for Moldova,” Russia has long leveraged energy toward coercive influence. It is in the interests of the United States, its partners, and allies to do more. This is true not only because of Moldova’s geographic location but also its geopolitical significance as a post-Soviet state attempting to move toward democracy and increasingly engage with the world outside of the Russian sphere of influence.

Moldova’s neutrality is embedded in its constitution, but this does not in principle mean an inability or unwillingness to use self-defense. The need for defense is evident given the recent Russian-backed coup attempt in late 2023 and ongoing threats of invasion from Russia. Moldova is currently ranked 144 of 145 for military strength in the world. The recent sale of French airspace monitoring system to Moldova provides an example of the way the West can support Moldova to modernize its military.

Without the United States and its partners and allies making investments into Moldova’s national defense, the progress being made on institutional reforms and economic empowerment may be short-lived. These security investments should, in the near term, focus on cyber and election security for Moldova. These focus areas do not minimize the need for military modernization in the mid-term to combat a future potential kinetic threat, but focus on the current high-intensity hybrid war underway in Moldova.

A focus on cybersecurity will be especially important as the Moldovan government continues its efforts to digitize more systems. In 2022 cyberattacks on Moldova more than tripled. Recent significant cyber incursions have targeted Moldovan federal government and infrastructure, such as last summer before the European Political Community summit or the DDoS attack (with traffic originating in Russia) that occurred in September of 2023. Like most countries, Moldova’s policies related to data and cybersecurity have not kept pace with the development and use of digital infrastructure. However, in early 2023, Moldova adopted a cybersecurity law requiring incident reporting, as well as safeguards, cooperation, and network standards for all medium-sized or larger internet service providers and entities within critical sectors. This law, which was drafted with support from Estonia and aligns with EU standards, will go into effect in early 2025. This law is an excellent first step toward increased cybersecurity hygiene and private sector notifications of incidents. In April 2023 the Moldovan government took another step to implement best practices as it started to use distributed cloud servers.

Moldova should seek to leverage lessons learned from Ukraine’s cyber defense. The three policy recommendations outlined in CSIS’s July 2023 brief, “Cyber Operations during the Russo-Ukrainian War,” provide a notional roadmap. These include increasing public-private partnerships and diplomatic engagement around cyber defense and shared intelligence, as well as reassessing how to counter information operations. The first of these begins with domestic incident reporting, but it can be strengthened through collaboration with those in the private sector responsible for the broadest used systems and tools. As seen in Ukraine, proactive action by the world’s largest companies in this space was instrumental in cyber defense. The Moldovan government should prioritize continued development of its defenses against the continuing onslaught of cyberattacks. Leveraging multistakeholder public-private collaboration is vital to successful cyber defense as it provides a larger group sharing information on threats, malicious activity, best practices, and mitigation techniques, which can reduce costs while increasing protection.

Among the reforms that should be adopted across both public and private sectors in Moldova to strengthen their security posture is adoption of insider threat and access principles. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine more than 2,000 individuals have been charged with treason, including many in the Ukrainian government. A 2023 investigation by the Moldovan security service and Prosecutor’s Office for Counteracting Organized Crime and Special Cases uncovered Russian citizens recruiting Moldovan citizens for espionage. Insider threats—whether intentional or accidental—are the cause of over half of all cyber incidents. Increased cyber security is especially important around elections, which can and has been a lightning rod for these attacks. For example, on election day in the fall of 2023 there was a hack on the election website, a move likely designed to undermine faith in the election results.

A focus on free and fair elections is of grave importance given the previous and likely future disinformation efforts by Russia or its proxies in Moldova, as mentioned by President Sandu in her speech at the United Nations. During the local elections in the fall of 2023, election observers noticed a doubling in the violations. Furthermore, there is a perception—whether substantiated or not—of pressure on public employees, vote buying and misuse of state resources to support specific political parties. There is also well documented evidence of large-scale bussing of voters from Transnistria and the perception that they are being paid to dilute pro-Western voting. It is in the interest of malign powers to undermine public faith in Moldovan democracy and destabilize the country. Freedom and order are an unbeatable combination for both individual empowerment and the ability to repel malign influences. It is in the interests of democracies worldwide to ensure the Moldovan government’s ability to execute free elections without bribery or coercion of voters.

These efforts to ensure election security should be undertaken in earnest to ensure they establish a fair system ahead of the presidential elections in 2024 and parliamentary elections in 2025. The Russian documents uncovered in 2022 detailing influence operations in Moldova include specifics on FSB funds earmarked for Moldovan election interference. A 2022 hack and release of Telegram messages of Moldovan justice minister Sergiu Litvinenco was designed to undermine trust in elections. This hack and release, where messages were manipulated prior to release, also highlights the importance of combating all types of false information, especially around elections.

As outlined in a leading theory of cyber defense operations by Jan Kallberg, the attacker’s outcome may be destabilization through “systematic cyber attacks against the targeted adversary’s institutions triggering the dormant entropy embedded in a nation possessing weak institutions . . . [leading] to submission to foreign will and intent.” This theory, when applied to the Moldovan context, highlights the importance of combining cyber defense with institutional strengthening and combatting propaganda. Moldova has long been vulnerable and the target of information campaigns due to its geographic location, cultural heritage, and the mix of the Russian and Romanian languages across the country.

There is a long history of the Russian language being used across the former Soviet Union and the Russian Empire as tool for controlling populations. Like other post-Soviet states, language in Moldova has been a hot-button political issue with underlying sociocultural connotations. The Moldovan Declaration of Independence adopted in August 1991 establishes the official language as Romanian and in the Latin (versus Cyrillic) alphabet. The Moldovan constitution adopted in 1994 establishes the official language as Moldovan and also uses the Latin alphabet. In March of 2023, The Moldovan parliament passed a bill to establish the official language as Romanian. While Romanian and Moldovan are functionally the same language with minor differences (like British and American English), the passed bill raises larger questions regarding language rights versus the rights of its speakers. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the passage of this bill prompted criticism from the Russian government. It is also worth noting that—as explored in CSIS’s April 2022 white paper, “Russia’s War in Ukraine: Identity, History, and Conflict”—a 2019 language law in Ukraine has often been referenced by Vladimir Putin as exemplary of the “genocide” perpetrated by the Ukrainian government.

The state language also, unsurprisingly, affects the language media is consumed in. This is important because, whether causal or not, consuming Russian media is correlated with higher trust in the Russian government. In Moldova’s southern autonomous region of Gagauzia, where 66 percent prefer the Russian language (and where Romanian comes in third with just 10 percent), 90 percent of the population prefers to consume information from Russian media.

The Moldovan government has taken steps to combat information warfare, including passing a law to provide additional protection tools, and has been accused by the Russian government of attempting to cancel everything Russian. While combating these challenges with information warfare, Moldova has continued to rise in the Press Freedom rankings over the past several years. Although there are groups providing resources, including trainings by the National Center for Information Defense and Combating Propaganda, more should be done to support access to information free from manipulation by malign forces. This is especially true given the high-volume and multichannel nature of Russian propaganda, as well as the instability of Russia’s war against Ukraine next door, the slow economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the upcoming elections.

Strategic and deliberate investments made in Moldova over the next few years have an enormous potential for return. These benefits are not just for the Moldovan people and the Ukrainian refugees still residing within Moldova, but also for broader regional stability. Make no mistake: the country is at a precipice, which Russia and its proxies are pushing on. This is not a once-in-a-generation but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for institution reforms that underly free societies to prevail in Moldova. A stable and democratic Moldova supports a free and open eastern Europe, all of which is fully in the short- and long-term strategic interests of the United States.

Leah Kieff is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Leah Kieff
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development