US sanctions Russian intelligence-linked group over efforts to destabilize pro-Western Moldova – Metro US

US sanctions Russian intelligence-linked group over efforts to destabilize pro-Western Moldova

North Korea Sanctions
FILE – The Department of the Treasury’s seal outside the Treasury Department building in Washington on May 4, 2021. The U.S. on Thursday, June 15, 2023, imposed sanctions on a North Korean husband and wife living in Beijing accused of helping to procure equipment for ballistic missiles that ended up in the hands of North Korean and Iranian customers. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. imposed sanctions Monday on a group of people linked to Russian intelligence who it said had helped the Kremlin destabilize Moldova’s democratically elected, pro-Western government through protests in the Moldovan capital earlier this year.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated seven members of a group linked to a sanctioned Moldovan oligarch, Ilan Shor, who fled Moldova in 2019 to evade a string of corruption charges and has since lived in Israel, where he was born. Shor, 36, is also the leader of Moldova’s Moscow-friendly Shor Party, which has held recurring anti-government protests since last fall.

The protesters have demanded that the government fully subsidize citizens’ winter energy bills during a cost-of-living crisis and “not involve the country in war.” They also have called for Moldovan President Maia Sandu to step down.

“These actors are a part of Russia’s global information operations that have also targeted the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and countries in the Balkans,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Monday. “The goal of these destabilizing operations is to weaken support for democratic governments and principles.”

Moldova — which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and last year applied to join the European Union — has for years been a geopolitical battleground between Moscow and the West.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Moldova’s neighbor, the country of 2.6 million people has been beleaguered by problems. These include an acute energy crisis after Moscow reduced gas supplies, rampant inflation and errant missiles from the war entering its airspace.

In February, Sandu accused Moscow of plotting to use the protests to foment unrest, with the ultimate aim of toppling her government. While Moscow denied those charges, U.S. intelligence officials later expressed similar concerns.

In March, Moldovan police said they foiled a plot by groups of Russia-backed actors who were trained to cause mass unrest during a protest.

Last month, a pro-European rally was held in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, where tens of thousands converged to express their support for the government and the country’s path toward the EU. Moldova last week became the center of European diplomacy as it hosted a major summit designed to quell regional conflicts and to shore up Europe’s unity in the face of Russia’s war.

The U.S. Embassy in Moldova reacted to Monday’s sanctions by saying in a statement that “Moldova’s future is in Europe,” adding: “Unfortunately, there are outside forces that do not respect the choices the Moldova people have freely made.”

The U.S. sanctioned Shor last fall, claiming that he worked with “corrupt oligarchs and Moscow-based entities to create political unrest in Moldova” and to undermine the country’s bid to join the European Union. The U.K. added Shor to a sanctions list in December.

Shor was sentenced in absentia in April to 15 years in jail for his role in the case of $1 billion that went missing from Moldovan banks in 2014, which severely weakened the country.

In October, the Treasury Department also sanctioned Yury Gudilin, Olga Grak and Leonid Gonin for attempting to influence the outcome of Moldova’s elections.

McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.