Moldovans Face Bomb Threats and Cyberattacks

Attacks are tracked to pro-Kremlin forces as tools to put pressure on Chisinau in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Moldovans Face Bomb Threats and Cyberattacks

Attacks are tracked to pro-Kremlin forces as tools to put pressure on Chisinau in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On July 5, the Moldovan authorities were alerted via email that bombs had been set at more than 50 state institutions that day, including Chisinau International Airport, the capital’s city council, the parliament and various ministries.

It was a hoax, and not the first nor the last. Moldova, a country of 2.6 million that shares a 1,222 kilometre border with war-torn Ukraine, has been experiencing a summer plagued by bomb threats.

Since the beginning of the year, security agencies have recorded 148 bomb alerts against 885 state institutions: 124 were reported in July and August alone. None of them turned out to be real, no explosives have been discovered and no one has yet been charged. Nonetheless, airport security has been bolstered and law enforcement agencies are on the alert.

Moldovan prime minister Natalia Gavrilita said that some of the threats had been traced to IP addresses in Russia and Belarus but that they could have been manipulated. Official requests had been made to those countries that they investigate.

“It is very clear that these alerts are meant to slow our vigilance, keep us busy, test our reaction,” she stated.

The frequency of the threats are adding pressure to the country's already overstretched authorities.

"There are some concerted actions, and it is clear that some special services from outside [the country] are working on such actions,” political analyst Ion Tabarta told IWPR. “They come to destabilise and create a sense of nervousness and insecurity among people. They also aim to cause discontent among the public.”

Cyberattacks are also adding to a sense of anxiety.

On August 24, a message on the Telegram account of the pro-Russian hacker group Killnet announced that the website of the Moldovan State Fiscal Service (FISC) faced problems.

“Strike in the heart of Moldova! What happened today in Moldova? Answer: the portal www.servicii.fisc.md has serious technical problems,” read the message in Russian.

Killnet, which seems to have been formed in March 2022 to hit institutions of states critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said it deliberately wanted to attack the website and database of the FISC to disrupt the issuing of "tax invoices, reports on taxes and statistical data, excise duties, information about enterprises”. Moldova’s state tax service denied there had been a cyber-attack but acknowledged there had been "some technical issues".

The Information Technology and Cyber ​​Security Service recorded about 80 attempted attacks on state information systems in the second half of August alone. Declining to comment further, the agency told IWPR that “any information made public about cyberattacks will be in favour of potential hackers with bad intentions”. 

With Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks, known as DDoS, attackers flood a server with internet traffic to prevent users from accessing online services and sites.

Lilian Carp, who leads the parliament’s security and defence committee, told IWPR that the Intelligence and Security Service (SIS) needed to up its game.

“SIS must deliver security services that previously did not exist. I am referring to strengthening cyber defence in other areas as well,” he said. The lawmaker, an ally of President Maia Sandu, added that Moldova must invest more in security to face new challenges in the context of invasion of Ukraine and the hybrid war waged upon Moldova.

Former defence minister Anatol Salaru agreed that the SIS must be a tool for countering threats and risks to national security.

“But, without money, with an outdated law and not adapted to the new security conditions, Moldova is [flying] in the wind," Salaru told IWPR, adding that the SIS was in dire need of significant investments in modern technologies.

The EU and the US have been providing support. On May 2, Brussels approved a crisis response measure of eight million euros (eight million US dollars) to strengthen Moldova’s cyber-security infrastructure and address disinformation. Washington has provided around 11 million dollars in cybersecurity and anti-cybercrime assistance to Moldova since 2018. The US is also supporting the country to implement new legislation and create its first-ever national computer emergency response team (CERT) by the end of the year that would deal with cyberattacks on essential services.

The interior minister has proposed amending the penal code and mandating two to five years in prison for those sending fake bomb threats, with fines between 2,500 euros and 7,500 euros (about 2,500 and 7,500 dollars).

On August 18, SIS chief Alexandru Musteata said that some of those orchestrating the threats were outside the country, adding that “the destabilisation risk is small to medium” but that no scenario can be excluded.

PROTEST COMES AT A PRICE

The spike in ransomware attacks and bomb threats comes amid increasing tension between Chisinau and Moscow, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushing the relations from cold to icy.

Moldova firmly condemns the invasion. It has opened its border to tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and actively sought to contain the spread of Russian narratives on the war by banning pro-Kremlin media.

Sandu has spoken up against Russia's hostile attitude towards Moldova.

“Propaganda has been a big problem for Moldova for a long time. But, unfortunately, some people still do not understand the reality, although this war changes the situation,” she said, adding that pro-Kremlin forces were weaponing energy supplies.

Indeed, backing Kyiv has come at a price. Moldova’s economy is Europe’s poorest and is heavily dependent on Russia as its energy supplier. On August 15, Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s federal service for veterinary and phytosanitary surveillance, announced it would restrict the import of Moldovan agricultural products, claiming that five types of pests were found in fruits and vegetables. If not reversed, the measure could have a devastating effect: 95 per cent of Moldovan apples end up in Russia, for example.

Relations with Gazprom, Russia’s giant energy company which supplies Moldova’s entire gas needs, is also on thin ice and consumers may face a four-fold increase in tariffs, from about five to 22.26 lei (0.25 to 1.30 dollars) per cubic metre. The worst-case scenario is for gas to stop flowing altogether.

Vitalie Marinuta, another former defence minister, told IWPR that the bomb threats were part of a strategy coordinated by Russia and its allies within Moldova.

“They are just like the so-called attacks in the breakaway Transnistrian region in April-May this year. They had no strategic effect, but caused panic and political rhetoric,” Marinuta stated, referring to a series of blasts in the pro-Russia separatist region which shares a border of nearly 400 kilometres with Ukraine and that heightened fears of regional destabilisation.

This publication was prepared under the “Countering Disinformation in Moldova Project”, implemented with the support of the United Kingdom's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Support our journalists