Moldova struggles to break free from the grip of Russia’s AI-fueled disinformation campaign

As the Eastern European country bordering Ukraine prepares for an EU referendum and a presidential election in October, it grapples with a relentless onslaught of disinformation, cyberattacks, and Kremlin-supported political corruption.

In late 2023, Moldova’s pro-Western President, Maia Sandu, faced an unusual controversy: rumors began circulating that she had imposed a ban on a beloved berry-infused tea.

The grainy footage surfaced on Telegram and quickly spread across Facebook just before New Year’s celebrations. It purported to show Sandu criticizing the country’s underprivileged by outlawing the gathering of rose hips, a wild fruit essential for a traditional Yuletide beverage. Sandu claimed the ban was to protect the environment.

This seemingly minor announcement grabbed the nation’s attention in a place where the average monthly income barely exceeds $1,000. Many citizens vividly recall their relatives foraging in forests for sustenance during the harsh Soviet era, making the prohibition of rose hips a deeply resonant issue.

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For Sandu’s critics, who long accused her of being a Western puppet, the video confirmed their suspicions—that she was willing to sacrifice cherished national customs for her pro-European Union agenda.

However, a significant revelation emerged: the video was a fake.

It was one of many deepfakes, synthetic media generated by AI tools wielded by Sandu’s political adversaries, most of whom have close ties to Russia. This incident underscored just one aspect of Russia’s hybrid warfare against Moldova, as explained by Stanislav Secrieru, Sandu’s national security adviser.

“These deepfakes represent a new phase of Russia’s hybrid warfare against Moldova,” Secrieru explained in an interview with POLITICO in his modest office within the presidential palace in central Chișinău, next to the imposing Soviet-era parliament building.

In response to the viral deepfake, Sandu felt compelled to refute it during her New Year’s address on Facebook.

“We anticipate encountering more instances of this nature in the months ahead,” Secrieru cautioned.

Moldova, a small Eastern European nation with a population similar to Paris or Chicago, has become a battleground for the clash between disinformation, much of it driven by AI and democratic processes.

While other democracies grapple with concerns over foreign interference in their internal affairs, for Moldova, such interference has become commonplace. Local officials and Western diplomats alike worry that Moscow’s persistent meddling could lay the groundwork for a potential Russian invasion in the future.

Situated on the border with Ukraine and home to a significant Russian-speaking minority, alongside an influx of Ukrainian refugees, Moldova faces a critical dual event in October: a presidential election and a referendum on EU membership. Sandu, seeking reelection for another four-year term, has advocated for support of the referendum.

Around 60 percent of Moldovans now express closer ties with the West support. The European Union, consisting of 27 member states, is already the country’s largest economic partner, with hundreds of thousands of Moldovans holding EU citizenship through family ties with neighboring Romania. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, seeking another term in Brussels, has highlighted Moldova—particularly Sandu, with her Harvard education—as an example of the bloc’s expansion to the east.

These developments have not escaped the Kremlin and its local allies.

Russian troops maintain a visible presence in Transnistria, an enclave predominantly inhabited by Russian speakers that effectively seceded from Moldova at the end of the Cold War. In Gagauzia, an autonomous region in the south, politicians with pro-Moscow leanings have courted President Vladimir Putin, who pledged to safeguard Moldova’s rebellious province.

Pro-Kremlin political factions, especially those associated with Ilan Shor—a billionaire of Israeli origin sanctioned by the United States and the EU for undermining Moldova’s democratic processes—will field candidates in October’s presidential election. In the lead-up to the vote, hackers linked to Russia routinely target the country’s critical infrastructure, as evidenced by a 36-hour cyberattack against government websites while POLITICO was reporting from Moldova for this article.

“I only slept for four hours yesterday because we were in meetings almost all night,” said Alexandru Coretchi, director of the Information Technology and Cyber Security Service, from his agency’s headquarters, where he fielded a barrage of phone calls while his team addressed the aftermath of the latest attack.

According to Coreţchi, Moldova became a target on this occasion due to the confiscation of approximately €1 million from pro-Russian politicians upon their return to Chișinău from a gathering in Moscow earlier that April. While in Russia, they had been strategizing for the upcoming presidential election and EU referendum.

“As soon as we declared our intention to pursue EU membership, the attacks intensified, becoming more aggressive and sophisticated,” Coretchi asserted.

These developments have not eluded the attention of the Kremlin and its local allies.

Russian troops maintain a conspicuous presence in Transnistria, an enclave predominantly inhabited by Russian speakers that effectively seceded from Moldova at the close of the Cold War. In Gagauzia, an autonomous region in the south, politicians with pro-Moscow leanings have courted President Vladimir Putin, who pledged to safeguard Moldova’s rebellious province.

Pro-Kremlin political factions, particularly those associated with Ilan Shor—a billionaire of Israeli origin sanctioned by the United States and the EU for subverting Moldova’s democratic processes—will field candidates in October’s presidential election. In the lead-up to the vote, hackers linked to Russia routinely target the country’s critical infrastructure, as evidenced by a 36-hour cyberattack against government websites while POLITICO was reporting from Moldova for this article.

“I only slept for four hours yesterday because we were in meetings almost all night,” lamented Alexandru Coretchi, director of the Information Technology and Cyber Security Service, from his agency’s headquarters, where he fielded a barrage of phone calls while his team addressed the aftermath of the latest attack.

According to Coretchi, Moldova became a target on this occasion due to the confiscation of approximately €1 million from pro-Russian politicians upon their return to Chisinau from a gathering in Moscow earlier that April. While in Russia, they had been strategizing for the upcoming presidential election and EU referendum.

“As soon as we declared our intention to pursue EU membership, the attacks intensified, becoming more aggressive and sophisticated,” Coretchi asserted.

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