March 15, 2023 - 7:00am

As Russian losses in Ukraine mount, Vladimir Putin continues to be a disruptive force in Europe’s periphery. 

Moldova is merely the latest example. On Sunday Moldovan police announced that they had foiled a plot in which “diversionists”, some of them Russian, had been found accepting up to $10,000 to organise “mass disorder” during demonstrations against the incumbent administration of pro-Western, pro-EU President Maia Sandu. 

This follows warnings in recent weeks — by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby and Sandu herself — of Russian plans to deploy agents to organise protests and mount an insurrection against the government, eventually leading to the installation of a pro-Moscow regime. 

Russia’s influence has also been felt in Georgia. Last week, protests rocked Tbilisi as citizens took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of a bill which was, according to President Salome Zourabichvili “dictated by Moscow”. Intended to force organisations receiving over 20% of their funding from abroad to register as ‘foreign agents’, the now-withdrawn bill imitated a Russian law of 2012. The ruling Georgian Dream party, which introduced the bill, remains unofficially under the influence of its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and who has been considered for EU sanctions due to his closeness with the Kremlin. 

Meanwhile, in November, Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic complained of “Russian proxies in our government”. Bosnian Serb leader and Republika Sprska President Milorad Dodik has close personal ties with Putin, and earlier this year awarded the Russian President a medal of honour. Dodik has long engaged in secessionist processes, including a 2021 attempt to separate the state tax authority, judiciary and armed forces for Serbs, risking the inflammation of ethnic tensions between Croats, Bosnians and Serbs. US intelligence claims he has enjoyed Moscow’s financial backing and, even during the Ukraine war, Putin has made time to receive Dodik in Moscow and offer him electoral support.

While a pro-Russia regime in the neighbourhood is always advantageous to the Kremlin, the question remains as to why Moscow is expending such efforts now when its forces are occupied in Ukraine. In fact, the invasion has given Russia fresh impetus to seek the destabilisation of its near abroad. 

Anti-Russian and anti-war sentiment unleashed among citizens in the region mean Moscow can no longer rely on soft power to project influence in its backyard. Flexing its muscle in its near neighbourhood allows Moscow to distract from its losses in Ukraine, and the US Treasury suggests that, as Russia’s war in Ukraine has faltered, it has engaged in “increasingly desperate measures to prevent further erosion of its influence”.

Meanwhile, as European leaders scramble to join alliances after seeing what can happen to an isolated country, Russia has greater reason to install anti-EU leaders or provoke conflicts impeding EU membership. The granting of EU candidacy status to Moldova in June has likely spurred Putin to pursue regime change quickly, while post-invasion Russian disinformation in Serbia has discouraged the country from EU membership. Putin and Dodik share a common goal of preventing Bosnia gaining NATO and EU membership, according to the New York Times, while the now-withdrawn Russian-style law on foreign agents would have proven an impediment to the EU accession process of Georgia, which applied for membership in March 2022.

As Russia has struggled in Ukraine, it has sought greater influence over its neighbours to resolve practical issues and so bolster its efforts in the war. Serbia was outraged by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group recruiting in the country. Meanwhile, Zelenskyy attributed Russia’s plan to overthrow the Moldovan government to its desire to control Chisinau’s airport, which would then allow for the transport of forces and equipment to the pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria before opening a new front into south-western Ukraine.

In an infamous 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly, Putin rallied against the turmoil wrought by the West’s interventions abroad, demanding: “Do you realise what you’ve done?”  The question is now one for Russia to answer, as it exports instability beyond its borders.