US pledges $135 million in aid to Western-leaning Moldova to counter Russian influence

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CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday pledged $135 million in aid to Moldova for energy security and to counter Russian disinformation as the Western-leaning nation struggles to blunt Moscow’s push for influence that has been buoyed by recent successes in its war in neighboring Ukraine.

Blinken opened a short visit to Eastern Europe with a stop in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, where he announced the assistance at a news conference with President Maia Sandu. America’s top diplomat said $85 million would go to bolster energy infrastructure and $50 million was aimed at overhauling the energy and farming industries and deterring disinformation.

“That in turn will bolster the ability of Moldovans to resist Russian interference, to hold free and fair elections, to continue down the path to the European Union and Western integration, to create more economic opportunity,” Blinken said. “One of the other things that’s so important is sharing information about disinformation and misinformation, which is one of the most potent hybrid tools that Russia uses — and that’s something that we are doing.”

He planned to travel to the Czech Republic later.

Before Wednesday, the U.S. had provided Moldova with $774 million in financial aid since the Ukraine war began in February 2022. Some $300 million of that was earmarked for energy security.

Moldova, with about 2.5 million people, used to be entirely dependent on Russia for its natural gas supplies. It faced an acute energy crisis after Moscow dramatically reduced supplies in the winter of 2022. Moldova’s energy woes worsened that year after it suffered temporary blackouts because its Soviet-era energy systems remained connected with Ukraine’s, which were being hit hard by Russia’s military.

Meantime, Transnistria, a Moscow-backed, disputed territory of Moldova with a key power plant and where Russia bases about 1,500 troops as peacekeepers, cut electricity to other parts of Moldova. Moldovan officials responded by pushing to reduce dependence on Russian energy.

On Wednesday, Sandu thanked the U.S. for its financial support, which she said has helped Moldova broaden its energy sources and bolster its economy. “We managed to strengthen our energy security from a total dependence on the Russian power resources,” she said. “Today, we source natural gas from several sources including the ones of the United States.”

“Thanks to the financial American assistance of $80 million, in the past winter we managed to compensate the energy bills of our citizens,” she added.

Blinken’s trip, organized around a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Prague, the Czech capital, comes amid concerns that Moldova and Georgia, another former Soviet republic, are facing renewed threats from Russia.

Blinken visited Ukraine two weeks ago to reassure Kyiv of Washington’s support in the face of increased Russian attacks in its north.

There are also signs Russia may be considering new actions in Moldova, and is behind anti-Western moves in Georgia that the U.S. believes run counter to Moldovan and Georgian aspirations to join the European Union.

Both countries have candidate status to eventually join the 27-nation EU bloc.

“There’s not a direct military threat that we see at this time, but there’s ongoing Russian influence operations, and that is of concern,” the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, James O’Brien, said last week.

Moldova has repeatedly accused Russia of conducting a “hybrid war” against the country, meddling in local elections and running vast disinformation campaigns to try to topple the government and derail its path toward joining the EU.

“Russia is trying to undermine Moldova, undermine its democratic institutions, undermining its ability to make decisions about its own future using a whole variety of hybrid means,” Blinken said. “I think Moldova has done a remarkable job in countering many of those attacks.”

Russia has denied the accusations, but the Moldovan government is wary of Moscow’s intentions, particularly after Transnistrian authorities appealed to Moscow in February for “protection” due to what they said was increased pressure from Chisinau.

In Georgia, those fears intensified on Tuesday when the country’s parliament overrode a presidential veto of a “foreign agents” bill that has prompted weeks of massive protests by critics who say it will restrict media freedom and obstruct Georgia’s chances of joining the European Union.

The bill that was approved by the parliament earlier this month requires media, nongovernmental organizations and other nonprofit groups to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

The legislature, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, dismissed the veto of President Salome Zourabichvili, an independent. The president now has five days to endorse the bill. If she doesn’t do so, the parliament speaker will sign it into law.

Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the governing party, vetoed the bill on May 18. She has accused the governing party of jeopardizing the country’s future and “hindering the path toward becoming a full member of the free and democratic world.”

Blinken last week announced that the U.S. would impose travel bans on Georgian officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia, as well as their family members.”

Blinken’s announcement did not identify anyone who has already been targeted, but it said the U.S. would also undertake a comprehensive review of U.S.-Georgia cooperation.

“It remains our hope that Georgia’s leaders will reconsider the draft law and take steps to move forward with their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” he said. “As we review the relationship between our two countries, we will take into account Georgia’s actions in deciding our own.”

The situations in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine will all be on the agenda at the NATO ministerial meeting in Prague on Thursday and Friday that will be the alliance’s last major diplomatic get-together before leaders meet at a summit to celebrate NATO’s 80th anniversary in Washington in July.

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Lee reported from Prague. Associated Press writer Stephen McGrath contributed from Sighisoara, Romania.

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