Russia's security service works to subvert Moldova's pro-Western government
The Washington Post October 28, 2022
CHISINAU, Moldova - When thousands of protesters gathered last month outside Moldova's presidential palace calling for the country's pro-Western leader to step down, the man behind the demonstration - an opposition party leader in exile in Israel - soon received plaudits from Moscow.
One senior Russian politician praised the protest organizer, Ilan Shor, as "a worthy long-term partner" and even offered the Moldovan region led by Shor's party a cheap Russian gas deal, according to Shor's press service. Referred to as "the young one" by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the 35-year-old Shor is a leading figure in the Kremlin's efforts to subvert this former Soviet republic, intelligence documents and interviews with Moldovan, Ukrainian and Western officials show.
The documents - part of a trove of sensitive materials obtained by Ukrainian intelligence and reviewed by The Washington Post - illustrate how Moscow continues to try to manipulate countries in Eastern Europe even as its military campaign in Ukraine falters. The FSB has funneled tens of millions of dollars from some of Russia's biggest state companies to cultivate a network of Moldovan politicians and reorient the country toward Moscow, the documents and interviews indicate.
The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday imposed sanctions on multiple Russian or Moldovan organizations and individuals including Shor, saying he was "coordinating with representatives of other oligarchs to create political unrest in Moldova" and had "received Russian support," as well as working in June "with Moscow-based entities to undermine" Moldova's bid to join the European Union.
Moscow has long supported a breakaway enclave inside Moldova's borders that is occupied by Russian troops, and the frozen conflict there has been a brake on Moldova's efforts to integrate with Western Europe.
In the first months of the Ukraine war, officials said, the Moldova government feared Russian tanks would stream over its border, especially if the southern Ukrainian port of Odessa, 40 miles away, fell. That immediate military threat has ebbed, but tension is mounting over the use of natural gas - as well as the fallout from Russian airstrikes on energy infrastructure in neighboring Ukraine - to force a change in political leadership.
Management control of Moldova's two main pro-Russian TV channels was transferred to a close Shor associate at the end of September, according to Shor and the head of Moldova's media oversight council, providing him with a major platform to advance a Moscow-aligned agenda in this small country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. In addition, intercepted communications show, the FSB sent a team of Russian political strategists to advise Shor's party. And, according to the documents, the FSB oversaw a deal in which a Russian oligarch acquired one of Shor's main assets, to shield it from the Moldovan authorities.
The Shor party was to be positioned as one "of concrete action," populist "in the real sense of the word," a party that was "changing people's lives for the better," the Russian strategists wrote in a report to the FSB, which was among the documents reviewed by The Post.
In an interview, Shor denied ever receiving support from Moscow, including from the security services. "We are an absolutely independent party which defends only the position of Moldovan citizens," he said. He blamed the Moldovan government's pro-Western tilt for bringing the country close to what he said was "economic collapse." In a statement issued Thursday following the imposition of U.S. sanctions, Shor defiantly dismissed them as a "victory" that showed Moldova's president had "really become frightened by the protests, understanding that her days are numbered and that we will throw her out of her seat."
Moldovan and U.S. officials fear the Kremlin's efforts to subvert Moldova, part of a campaign that dates back decades, could only intensify if it suffers further losses in Ukraine. "Recently, as Russia faces military setbacks and global outrage over its brutal actions in Ukraine, Russia's operatives have considered increasingly desperate measures to prevent further erosion of its influence," Treasury said in its statement announcing sanctions against Shor and other individuals.
Moldova, which along with Ukraine was granted E.U. candidacy status in June, is particularly vulnerable to Russian pressure because of its near 100 percent dependence on Russian gas. More than fivefold increases in gas prices this year have hit its population of 2.5 million hard, and energy bills now amount to more than 60 percent of an average Moldovan's living costs, officials in Chisinau said.
"They are very embarrassed about the entire Ukraine operation, and they need a success somewhere," Oleg Serebrian, Moldova's deputy prime minister, said in an interview. "My personal fear is that Moldova is an easier target than Ukraine. So, for a kind of moral rearmament of Russian society, they could use different tools in Moldova. The first one is the economic one."
Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly, cut supplies to Moldova by 30 percent this month and is threatening further reductions in November. Russian airstrikes targeting Ukraine's energy infrastructure are further increasing the pressure. Ukraine had supplied 30 percent of Moldova's electricity, but the bombing of Ukrainian power stations means Moldova has had to turn to Romania instead, and already the power lines from there are transmitting at full capacity.
In addition, Transnistria, the enclave occupied by Russian troops that controls the power station supplying the remaining 70 percent of the country's electricity needs, this week said it was sharply reducing those volumes because of cutbacks to the Gazprom gas supply, leaving Moldovan authorities desperately scrambling to make up the deficit. "Every bomb that falls on a Ukrainian power plant is a bomb that falls on the Moldovan electricity supply as well," said Nicu Popescu, Moldova's foreign minister.
Officials fear that the Shor-organized protests, though relatively small for now, could escalate once winter hits and that an energy crunch could be used to topple the government.
"After Ukraine, Moldova is the one we're focusing attention on," said one Western official.
Moldova's new anti-corruption prosecutor this month detained 24 people, including members of Shor's party, in connection with the alleged illicit financing of the demonstrations, with the prosecutor saying investigators had seized 20 black bags stuffed with 3.5 million lei (about $181,000) in cash. The Shor party said the arrests were "pressure" from the authorities to disrupt the anti-government protests.
Shor in the interview said the Moldovan government was to blame for the growing economic crisis because it "is breaking Moldova's neutral status and bringing harm to the people of Moldova because today, for normal people, [good relations with Moscow] is the basis for getting normal gas prices."
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The documents provide a rare glimpse inside the shadowy world of Russia's influence operations in Moldova and the twin instruments of natural gas and illicit financing that the Kremlin wields here.
"The Russians are very good at exporting two things: one, energy, and the second, corruption," said a senior Moldovan security official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
Since 2016, FSB operations in Moldova have been led by Dmitry Milyutin, a general in the security service who serves as deputy head of the Department of Operational Information, according to the documents. For most of his time in the post, officials said, Milyutin worked through Igor Chaika, a Russian businessman who is the son of Russia's former prosecutor general. Chaika is the ambassador to Moldova of a Kremlin-linked business association, Delovaya Rossiya.
Treasury also imposed sanctions on Chaika on Wednesday, saying that "in conjunction with Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov," he had "developed detailed plans to undermine Moldovan president Maia Sandu and return Moldova to Russia's sphere of influence."
In addition, Treasury said, the Russian government used Chaika's "companies as a front to funnel money to the collaborating political parties in Moldova. Some of these illicit campaign funds were earmarked for bribes and electoral fraud."
Milyutin communicated with Chaika more than 6,000 times between December 2020 and June 2022, according to the Ukrainian intelligence documents.
The FSB was "checking with [Chaika] what needed to be done at any moment," a Ukrainian security official said, referring to the documents. Chaika "is like a wallet for them."
The FSB, Milyutin and Chaika did not respond to requests for comment. Peskov told The Post that he "of course" knows Chaika, but had never worked on any plans with him to restore Russian influence in Moldova. "I have nothing to do with Moldova," he said.
Until recently, the documents show, the FSB's primary vehicle in Moldova was the Socialist Party, headed by Igor Dodon, who served as Moldova's pro-Moscow president between 2016 and 2020. Chaika has never hidden his close connections with Dodon: He has jointly owned businesses in Russia with Dodon's younger brother in real estate and waste management since 2019, according to official company registration documents.
The Socialist Party strategy backfired badly, however, in 2020 when the Moldovan population rejected Dodon after he became mired in a series of corruption scandals. In one secretly recorded video leaked in 2019, Dodon admitted to receiving Kremlin funding - including from Gazprom - and said he required $800,000 to $1 million per month to cover his party's "running costs."
Dodon, who has been charged with treason, illegal enrichment, corruption and illegal party financing, did not respond to requests for comment sent to the spokesperson of the Socialist Party, where he is still a member. In court, he has denied the charges, saying the case against him is "100 percent political."
Moldovans voted in Sandu, a former World Bank economist, as the country's new president on Nov. 15, 2020.
In response, the FSB drafted a plan - dated Nov. 21, 2020, and reviewed by The Post - to use the Socialists' position as the largest party in Parliament in conjunction with Shor's party to maintain the Russian agency's influence, including by passing a law that would shift control of the Moldovan security and intelligence service from the president to the Parliament. Dodon's party, however, was also routed in parliamentary elections in July 2021, and the plan went nowhere.
Moldovan political strategists hired by the FSB reported back to Moscow in September 2021 that the Socialist Party's defeat was "the result of a systemic crisis" and that Dodon was a person with an "irreversibly damaged reputation" whose removal from the political scene should be carried out with "surgical virtuosity."
The virtuosity came in the form of a golden handshake, the documents show. After Dodon stepped down from the Socialist Party, he was appointed chairman of the Moldovan-Russian business council, an organization established by the Kremlin-linked Delovaya Rossiya. Dodon's monthly salary, paid by the business council, was $29,016, plus a $14,508 monthly bonus, documents show.
The contract, however, came with strings attached. Dodon had to clear everything he said publicly with his new employer, a screenshot of a text conversation between Dodon and Chaika shows. In the Dec. 2, 2021, conversation, Dodon insisted he was "a free person."
"Free, but restricted by the corporate ethics of the [Russian-Moldovan] Union," Chaika said.
"You have begun burying me early," Dodon replied. "If you are forwarding the condition that for one of my public statements you will cut my wages and close the new business council . . . then let's speak about this in detail."
Moscow quickly stepped up its search for Dodon's political replacement. Shor, who had entered politics from a background chairing a major Moldovan bank and a chain of duty-free shops along with Moldova's commercial airport, was viewed by pollsters working for the FSB as something of a showman populist, but manipulable, the documents show. He'd won early success in 2015, when he was elected mayor of the Moldovan city of Orhei. But two years later, he was found guilty of looting $1 billion from the Moldovan banking system - a 2014 heist that left the Moldovan government with a budget deficit amounting to 8 percent of gross domestic product.
Shor remained mayor while he appealed the conviction but then left the country for Israel in 2019, denying the bank theft charges, which he described as politically motivated. He continued to run the party from exile and it came in third in the 2021 parliamentary elections, with 5.7 percent of the vote.
"For some, [Shor] is clearly allergic, an unacceptable figure. But for others, he is a real idol and leader," according to an April 2021 report written by the strategists for the FSB.
Treasury in its statement noted that "Shor's wife is the Russian pop singer Sara Lvovna Shor, who was decorated by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as an honored artist of Russia." She is known by the stage name Jasmin.
The Kremlin-hired political strategists had first traveled to Chisinau from Russia in March 2021 to work secretly with Shor's party, the documents show. They took great efforts to make sure their presence was undiscovered, buying prepaid SIM cards for burner phones and keeping the addresses of the apartments they were renting hidden - even to members of Shor's party, according to a note written by one of them that is part of the document trove.
Among the measures they recommended to the Shor party was to erase as much as possible "negative background," presumably Shor's past criminal conviction, and to attempt to clean up his image on the internet. In a chart that was part of the recommendations sent back to the FSB, the strategists proposed offering journalists "rewards" to delete articles "in extreme circumstances," or to get "control over court decisions" if the Shor party instead chose to sue for defamation.
Shor said his party had used the services of a variety of "different international consultants" but that he was not aware of the March 2021 visit because he was not living in Moldova then.
Shor also received FSB assistance for another part of his business empire. Amid a conflict with the Moldovan authorities, the FSB closely coordinated a 2020 deal in which Shor's controlling stake in the company running Chisinau's strategically important airport was transferred to a powerful Russian billionaire, Andrei Goncharenko, the documents show. Goncharenko "has been instructed in everything," said a senior FSB officer in one discussion about the deal, the documents show.
Shor said in the interview that he'd never owned a stake in the airport - and that he had stepped down as chairman of its board in summer 2019, when control of the company was, according to news reports, sold to Nathaniel Rothschild, a British businessman. But the FSB documents discussing the deal refer to the airport as still being "Shor's asset" in January 2020, while senior Moldovan officials also said in interviews that it was controlled by Shor. A person familiar with the deal said Rothschild had acquired an option to buy the company but never completed the transaction. A spokesperson for Rothschild declined to comment.
In addition, two legal agreements, approved and forwarded by the FSB in August and October 2020, stated that Shor was to give his political support to Dodon, in return for Dodon's backing for the development of the airport, as well as for the transfer "of 100 percent of the company . . . to the ownership of representatives of Russian business."
A representative for Goncharenko did not respond to requests for comment.
Shor said Goncharenko was a businessman he knew "personally" who "never followed any orders of the FSB" and was interested in the airport as an "attractive investment project."
On the streets of Moldova's capital, the financial machinations can seem remote to those struggling to pay their bills. For many demonstrators, regardless of the prosecutor's allegations that some are being paid to protest, their concerns are real and pressing.
"People are coming out because we can't afford to live," said a pensioner, Zina. "Gas prices have gone up five times and pensions and wages are the same. Shor gave us presents on national holidays. And these guys in power have just shown us their fists."
The Shor-backed protesters have turned to increasingly aggressive tactics in the past two weeks, and as Moldova's energy crunch intensifies, alarm is growing in Chisinau and Western capitals.
The Russians are "doing all they can to turn the lights out," a second Western official said. "They don't need to do much more than that to destabilize the Moldovan government."