The Republic of Moldova has recently decreed a reduction of Russian diplomats and other embassy staff at the Russian Embassy in Chișinău to a third of its current number of employees. According to Moldovan authorities, their number should be equal to the employees of the Moldovan Embassy in Moscow. The decision follows an espionage scandal triggered by a media investigation. In turn, Moscow has accused the Republic of Moldova of being Russophobic, threatening Chișinău’s decision would not go unanswered.
The Foreign Minister of the Republic of Moldova, Nicu Popescu, announced in the government session of July 26 that the number of diplomats and technical staff of the Russian Federation Embassy in Chișinău will be reduced to the equivalent of the number of employees of the Moldovan Embassy in Moscow.
“For many years, decades even, we have witnessed and been the target of quite hostile activities and policies from Russia. Part of them were carried out via the Russian Embassy in Chișinău. We have recently seen information regarding an excessive number of antennas (on the roof of the Russian Embassy, e.n.). In our opinion, it is very important that the diplomatic services of our country and other countries should focus on the development of good relations. I have reached the conclusion that the number of (Russian e.n.) diplomats should be limited in order to create a context where fewer individuals act in order to destabilize the Republic of Moldova”, Minister Nicu Popescu said.
Referring to the excessive number of antennas set up on top of the Russian Embassy building in Chișinău, Minister Popescu referred to a media investigation carried out by Jurnal TV and published on the previous day.
“The Russians have installed a complex system of antennas on top of their Embassy in Chișinău, capable of receiving long-range signals. We have counted 28 such devices set up on the roofs of the two buildings of the diplomatic mission on Ștefan cel Mare Boulevard (in Chișinău e.n.). This is twice as much as they have in Brussels, which is home to many of the subdivisions of the European Union and NATO structures. This type of equipment can collect information that is sensitive to the country’s security, experts have warned”, the authors of the investigation say.
According to them, these systems are operated by officers of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Russian Military Intelligence Service (GRU), who have made full use of them during the European Political Community Summit, hosted by the Republic of Moldova on June 1, 2023, in order to spy on the summit’s proceedings. Furthermore, the antennas helped carry out a cyber-attack on Moldovan state institutions, which caused the loss of classified information from the servers of a number of government institutions.
The Russian Embassy antennas, capable of guiding missiles launched against Ukraine?
The Insider journalist Sergey Kanev, one of the journalists behind the investigation into the Russian Embassy antennas, says these systems can also locate certain targets in Ukraine and mark them for Russian missile attacks.
“[…] One of the antennas is connected to the (Russian e.n.) fleet in the Black Sea, while another one may trace and locate targets in Ukraine and mark them for Russian cruise missiles. […] If the antennas are not used for espionage purposes, then why are they operated by GRU officers? Some of these antennas are “smart”, capable of tuning in to radio frequencies in Chișinău and tap into the phone conversations of police officers, flight dispatchers and other services…” Sergey Kanev argues.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova (MAEIE) notified the Russian Ambassador to Chișinău, Oleg Vasnetsov, that “in the current phase, the representative office of each state should comprise 10 diplomatic positions and 15 administrative, technical or auxiliary staff, based on parity principles”.
The MAEIE spokesman, Igor Zaharov, pointed out that 22 Russian diplomats and 23 employees working in administrative or technical departments will have to leave the Republic of Moldova by August 15, 2023.
It is unclear whether this number also includes representatives of the Russian Consulate and the Center for Russian Culture in Chișinău.
At any rate, shortly after the Moldovan auhtorities announced their decision to cut the number of Russian employees and diplomats, the Russian Federation Embassy announced it would stop providing consular services as of August 5, 2023.
Right now, over 80 people work for the three Russian institutions, whereas the Embassy of the Republic of Moldova in Moscow employs four times less people.
Igor Zaharov highlighted the fact that the decision to cut the number of Russian Embassy staff is based on Article 11 in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates that “in the absence of specific agreement as to the size of the mission, the receiving State may require that the size of a mission be kept within limits considered by it to be reasonable and normal, having regard to circumstances and conditions in the receiving State and to the needs of the particular mission”.
In turn, the spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation, Maria Zakharova, dismissed the espionage allegations against the Russian Embassy staff, labeling them as a fantasy story that “has nothing to do with reality”. “We regard this decision as unjustified and unfriendly action that will not go unanswered. This is another step towards the destruction of bilateral relations on the part of the Chisinau regime”, Maria Zakharova said, quoted by TASS.
Against the backdrop of this spy row, the Security and Intelligence Service of the Republic of Moldova (SIS) announced its decision to cancel the partnership agreement with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and a cooperation agreement with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). “The Security and Intelligence Service has no external partnerships with similar structures of other states, which deliberately defy Moldovan legislation and act against our national security interests, engage in subversive actions against the Republic of Moldova, also with a view to undermine the functioning of democratic institutions, destabilize the social, political and economic sectors and endanger the country’s territorial integrity”, an SIS statement reads.
The decision to reduce the Russian Embassy staff was long overdue
Adrian Cheptonar, a deputy on behalf of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), the ruling party in the Republic of Moldova, as well as a former officer of the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) in Chișinău, says the decision to cut the number of Russian Embassy diplomats “came at least 25 years late”.
“For 30 years, they got used to behaving like the masters of Chișinău, they have grown disrespectful. I want to assure you that the counterintelligence unit at SIS knows more than the details disclosed to the public. They knew what the Russian diplomats were doing. […] This was common knowledge to them. […] The decision comes at least 25 years late. This oversized staff at the Embassy has not appeared overnight, it had been there long ago. From their standpoint, this action might seem unfriendly, just as they’ve described it. But it is precisely what needed to happen”, Adrian Cheptonar pointed out.
In turn, political analyst Ion Tăbârță believes the decision to reduce the diplomatic personnel accredited to the Republic of Moldova will not discourage Moscow’s attempts to take control over political decision-making in Chișinău. Moreover, Ion Tăbârță argues, Moscow’s actions will intensify, at least at information level. The said decision will further complicate Moldovan-Russian relations and will trigger hostile reactions from other pro-Russian factions in the Republic of Moldova.
“It was a difficult decision to make for our authorities. Moldovan authorities had long prepared to inform Moldovan society regarding this decision. I don’t rule out the possibility that this investigation into the spies working at the Russian Embassy in Chișinău has played well into the hands of the authorities, perhaps even the special services, so they could prepare Moldovan society for this decision”, Ion Tăbârță believes.
Another political expert, Anatol Țăranu, a former ambassador of the Republic of Moldova in the Russian Federation, argued that reducing the number of Russian diplomats in Chișinău was a necessary and logical move in the context of the recent espionage scandal.
“Chișinău was expected to make this step. It is equally true that, by the looks of it, this action will prompt a harsh response from the Russian Federation. Yet I believe Chișinău has weighed in the consequences and decided to go ahead, considering this is a situation we can no longer tolerate – Chișinău has become a Russian spy hub. […] We will undoubtedly see actions from what we know to be “the fifth column”, elements of Russian influence that have infiltrated Moldovan society, but we have to be prepared for this kind of reactions too”, Anatol Țăranu says.
In fact, Russia’s Ambassador in Moldova, Oleg Vasnetsov, even threatened the Republic of Moldova will have to deal with the consequences of its decision to force Moscow to reduce its Embassy personnel.
© EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU / Russia’s Ambassador in the Republic of Moldova, Oleg Vasnetsov,
shortly after being summoned at the Moldovan Foreign Ministry, Chișinău, 24 November 2022.
Moscow threatens Chișinău will suffer the consequences
Oleg Vasnetsov accused Chișinău of having been drawn into a Russophobic campaign. “It (the decision e.n.) was expected, but I didn’t believe it would follow so quickly. Chișinău has got involved into a Russophobic campaign. Yet we believe the authorities who are responsible for this decision understand the consequences they could face in the future”, the Russian ambassador said.
Responding to the journalists’ question about the antennas on the roof of the Russian Embassy, Oleg Vasnetsov said the building was commissioned and put into service at the end of the 1990s, and the antennas date back to this period.
“If we have had good Internet and phone connections, we wouldn’t have needed to set up so many antennas. These antennas were bought from the local (Moldovan e.n.) market, from providers of telecom services”, the Russian Ambassador in Chișinău said.
As regards Russia’s potential response, to which Ambassador Vasnetsov alluded, this could be anything from economic actions (although Moldovan-Russian economic relations have kept at a minimum in recent years) to subversive actions against the Republic of Moldova.
Moscow is expected to target the Republic of Moldova’s weak spots, meaning those areas where Russia still preserves a strong influence, or where Moldovan authorities have no control: either in the separatist region of Transnistria, where Russian troops have been stationed ever since the Soviet era, or in the autonomous region of Găgăuzia, where pro-Russian local sentiment has peaked and where Russian propaganda feels at home.
As regards Găgăuzia, Russia might try to destabilize this region again, which is what it has repeatedly tried to do after its attempts to cause widespread social unrest at the level of the entire country with the help of the former Shor Party, today banned under the law, have failed. All the more so, as after the latest round of elections, the governor of this region has become an advocate of this former party, voicing overt opposition towards the central authorities in Chișinău.
Last but not least, the Moldovan government should expect multiple disinformation campaigns launched by Moscow’s agents of influence against the current pro-European administration.
The spy row linked to the antennas on the Russian Embassy in Chișinău is not the first of its kind. An earlier investigation published in April 2023 by several European media outlets revealed that Russian embassies in a number of states in Europe have developed advanced radio reception capacities, particularly in Brussels, which is home to NATO and EU headquarters. At least 182 satellite dishes were at the time installed on the roofs of the Russian embassies across Europe, tied into a widespread spy ring collecting intelligence. Over the course of recent months, countless Russian diplomats have been expelled from countries such as Norway, Poland, Romania, etc.