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Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Playbook Now Includes Moldova and The Balkans

Ukraine is not the only European nation whose sovereignty is threatened by Russia. Also threatened are Moldova and Kosovo, two small but decidedly pro-Western countries. They have not suffered the sort of lethal barrage battering Ukraine — at least not yet — but the threat to their future is ominous.

The Kremlin has exploited tensions in both countries to destabilize them and divert Western attention and resources from Ukraine. 

Moscow appears especially intent on punishing Moldova, a small nation wedged between Ukraine and Romania, for its political independence and refusal to toe the Russian line. On Feb. 21, Vladimir Putin repealed a decree recognizing Moldova’s independence. Putin’s escalatory reactions to Moldova’s continued pro-West alignment have raised concerns he could be planning another invasion.

As one of the poorest European countries, Moldova has struggled to overcome Russia’s provocations. Moldova’s Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita recently resigned, citing the “many crises caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine.” Gavrilita stressed how, following the Kremlin’s “energy blackmail” of Europe, Moldova experienced a seven-fold hike in gas prices and inflation of 35 percent. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky revealed his nation “intercepted a plan for the destruction of Moldova by Russian intelligence.” Moldovan President Mala Sandu confirmed the plot, describing a scheme involving “military-trained people disguised as citizens” from a range of pro-Russia countries attacking government buildings and seizing hostages. The Kremlin Russia has long conducted false flag operations to portray itself as victims, and this week Moscow accused Ukraine and the West of provoking a situation in Moldova. 

Russia’s foreign ministry dismissed Moldova’s claims as “unfounded” and part of the West’s “old tricks,” but Moscow’s pressure campaign against Moldova has been anything but subtle. Last week, Moldova approved a new, pro-West Prime Minister, who affirmed her plans to get Moldova into the European Union. 

Moldova is also beset by security challenges linked to Russia. On Feb. 10, a Russian missile violated Moldova’s airspace. Moldova temporarily closed its airspace days later after an “object similar to a weather balloon” was observed above its territory. Meanwhile, Transnistria, a breakaway region in Moldova run by pro-Russia leaders, houses 1,500 Russian “peacekeeping” forces.  

As one of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova has struggled to overcome these challenges, which are exacerbated by pro-Russian politicians and their supporters arguing that closer ties  to the Kremlin would boost Moldova’s economy. Ilan Shor, a pro-Russia leader of the Shor opposition party who has been convicted of fraud and money-laundering and is living in exile, last fall mobilized thousands of protesters to demand President Sandu’s resignation. However, Moldovan reporters revealed that many protestors were provided transportation and paid a daily stipend to appear in the demonstrations. 

In the Western Balkans, Putin is implementing similar techniques from his playbook of chaos. Kosovo President Osmani told The Guardian this month that Russia is using mercenaries from the infamous Wagner Group and Serbian paramilitary groups to unleash destruction in Kosovo and possibly seize territory. This follows several months of taut tensions between Serbia and Kosovo that seemed to peak in December when Serbia placed its troops on high alert and Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabic described the two countries as being “on the brink of armed conflict.”

Although Serbia and Kosovo accepted a European Union proposal to normalize the relations on Monday, Moscow will not give up its capability to fan flames in the Balkans via proxies in the region. Russia understands Kosovo is a sensitive issue for Serbia, which refuses to accept Kosovo’s independence. Moscow maintains deep cultural and political ties to Serbia through institutions such as the Orthodox Church, has operated Sputnik News from Belgrade for years and recently opened its TV station RT there. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic appears content with Russia’s mischief in Kosovo because it solidifies his position as a pillar of perceived stability.

As NATO has a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo (KFOR), Russia’s meddling, even through proxy groups, is brazen. Clearly, the Kremlin wants to expose the Western alliance as a paper tiger. McCarthy’s Medicaid reforms could doom millionsThink nationally, act locally: How to use data to close equity gaps

NATO must prove Russia wrong and reinforce its credibility with regional allies. It took a strong stand in January when KFOR announced its intention to counter Serbs blocking roads in northern Kosovo by removing vehicles “to restore freedom of movement.” And NATO defense ministers meeting this month announced their intention to “step up” measures to help Moldova. 

As Russia’s losses in Ukraine continue to mount, Putin increasingly will resort to asymmetric means of challenging and distracting the West. Western leaders must understand the importance of countering these techniques in the same resolute manner they have shown in supporting Ukraine. 

Source: The Hill