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US warns of 'pernicious' Russian efforts ahead of Moldovan elections

Russia's efforts to subvert the coming presidential elections in Moldova go beyond sowing disinformation, according to U.S. officials, who charge that the Kremlin is actively supporting political candidates and political parties willing to espouse pro-Russia policies.

The warning, from a senior State Department official, comes a day after the U.S., Canada and Britain issued a statement publicly accusing Moscow of "currently supporting candidates for Moldova's presidency."

But in a virtual briefing with reporters on Friday, U.S. Special Envoy Jamie Rubin said Moscow's designs on Moldova go even deeper.

"To be as frank as I can, we're talking about funding parties, we're talking about funding outside groups," Rubin said, in response to a question from VOA. "They have devoted, we believe, a particularly egregious, pernicious plan to act against Moldova."

Rubin, who also serves as coordinator of the State Department's Global Engagement Center, is not the first to accuse Moscow of cultivating ties with political parties outside of Russia to push a Russian agenda.

As far back as 2018, Estonian intelligence officials warned of Russian efforts across Europe to cultivate ties with fringe political parties, providing advice, funding or outside business opportunities to help raise their fortunes.

In some cases, Russian-backed politicians rose from obscurity to prominence, winning seats in their country's parliaments.

"They have made some bad investments, but they have also made some very good investments," the then-chief of Estonia's foreign intelligence service said of Russia's efforts at the time.

VOA requested comment from the Russia Embassy in Washington about the U.S. allegations Moscow is meddling in the Moldovan election, set for October. Russian officials have yet to respond.

But Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean this week said he was grateful to the U.S., Canada and Britain for speaking out.

"Grateful for the strong support of the US, the UK & Canada as we defend Moldova's democracy," Recean said Thursday in a post on the X social media platform.

"Kremlin's attempts to undermine our sovereignty & incite unrest will not succeed," he said in the post. "Our institutions stand strong, ensuring peace, security & the right of our people to choose their future."

Other officials also have complained about Russia influence operations aimed at destabilizing Moldovan society.

"They [the Russians] make this hybrid war more intense, with more disinformation, with more cyberattacks," Moldovan Internal Affairs Minister Adrian Efros told VOA last year. "They try to make the tension between different regions of Moldova, to make this tension internally."

Thursday's statement from the U.S., Canada and Britain accused Russia of carrying out a yearslong plot in Moldova to influence the outcome of the October election in favor of pro-Russian candidates, "using disinformation and propaganda online, on the air, and on the streets to further their objectives."

On Friday, the Global Engagement Center's Rubin cautioned that the latest intelligence points to Russia going even further if pro-Russian candidates fail to win at the ballot box.

"We're talking about rent-a-crowds," he said. "We're talking about individuals who will be gathered by the Russians in the hopes of a mass protest that will be generated by Russia."

"We believe they're applying a matter of high priority to interfere in the Moldovan election and, if necessary, to try to overthrow a democratically elected government," Rubin warned.

VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.