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Marina Taube, vice-president of Moldova's Russia-friendly Shor Party, speaks during a protest initiated by the Movement for the People and Shor Party members against the pro-Western government and low living standards, in Chisinau, Moldova, on Feb. 28.Aurel Obreja/The Associated Press

Senior Ukrainian officials are warning that Russia is intent on destabilizing neighbouring Moldova with the aim of creating a new front for both Ukraine and its allies in the West to worry about.

On Tuesday thousands of anti-government protesters – many of them supporters of a pro-Russian politician – took to the streets of Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, for the second time in nine days, calling for the pro-Western government of President Maia Sandu to resign. Ms. Sandu has said she believes Russia is preparing to carry out a coup d’état in her country, an assessment that’s shared by Kyiv.

“Russia is investing a lot to create pressure on Maia Sandu and to arrange a classic coup via street protests. Russia is sending specialists from their special services who are experts in street provocations, just like we saw in northern Kazakhstan,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview.

Mr. Podolyak was referring to the violent protests of January, 2022, that ended with the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization deploying “peacekeepers” into the Central Asian republic.

The situation in Moldova is made additionally fraught by the presence of 1,000 to 2,000 Russian troops who have been deployed in the country’s eastern Transnistria region since a conflict in the early 1990s. The soldiers are purportedly there to protect the self-declared “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” on the east bank of the Dniester River, but Kyiv worries the breakaway region could be used as a springboard for a Russian intervention in Moldova or to open a new front in the year-old invasion of Ukraine.

Even Moscow doesn’t recognize Transnistria’s claim of independence. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Feb. 22 that he had cancelled a 2012 decree that committed Moscow to resolving the Transnistria conflict based on “respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and neutral status” of Moldova.

On Monday, discount airline WizzAir announced it was cancelling all flights to and from Chisinau starting March 14 due to “the elevated, but not imminent, risk in the country’s airspace.” The decision by the Hungarian-owned carrier eerily echoed how foreign airlines started cancelling flights to and from Kyiv ahead of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

The growing tensions have forced the Ukrainian military to at least consider the possibility that Russia could use Moldovan soil to launch a new offensive in southern and western Ukraine, said Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, in an interview.

“The Russian Federation is implementing a project right now called ‘Moldova,’ ” Mr. Danilov said. “Russia has a desire to create one more point of tension, destabilization, to distract our forces and make them pay attention to this territory, to this issue.”

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Mr. Danilov in Kyiv on Nov. 8, 2022.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

It’s unclear how Russia would send additional troops to Moldova given that the country is wedged between Ukraine – which has proven itself adept at shooting Russian warplanes out of the sky – and Romania, a member of NATO.

Mr. Podolyak said Moscow would benefit from any unrest in Moldova because it would stir concerns in Europe that the war in Ukraine was spilling beyond its borders, potentially creating fresh pressure on Kyiv to begin peace negotiations. Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly said there is nothing to discuss with Mr. Putin until all Russian troops have left Ukrainian soil.

Russia currently occupies about 15 per cent of Ukraine’s territory, nearly all of it in five regions in the east and south that Mr. Putin claims to have annexed. The front line has changed little since November, despite high daily losses on both sides.

“They are trying to distract Europe by creating another unstable region, to make them so scared that Europe will say: ‘The war in Ukraine must stop immediately because it’s spreading chaos,’ ” Mr. Podolyak said. “This is the dream of Putin, because what he urgently needs is a ceasefire that freezes the front line in the occupied territories.”

However, Moscow says Ukraine and its allies in the West are the ones instigating tensions in Moldova, with the aim of creating a pretext to attack the Russian troops stationed in Transnistria.

“The situation is unsettled, it is being provoked, provoked from outside,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday. “We know that our opponents in the Ukrainian regime, the Kyiv regime, as well as those in European countries, are capable of various types of provocation.”

At Tuesday’s protests in Chisinau, demonstrators – many of them apparently members of the Shor Party, which is led by pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor – chanted slogans about the rising cost of living in the country while demanding the government cut military spending. In one video posted to social media, protesters tore up a poster of Ms. Sandu and danced on the pieces.

Mr. Shor, who fled Moldova in 2019 after being convicted of money laundering and fraud – charges he says were politically motivated – is believed to be living in Israel. He was put on the U.S. Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals in October over his alleged role in “Russia’s efforts to subvert Moldovan democracy.” In a 2019 election, the Shor Party won just seven seats in the country’s 101-seat parliament.

Moldova, which has a population of just 2.6 million – roughly 400,000 of whom live in the breakaway east of the country – has already been hit hard by the war next door. The country has been hosting more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees for the past year, when its economy contracted by an estimated 4.7 per cent.

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