Tuesday June 25th, 2024 4:47PM

Blinken pledges $135 million in US aid to Moldova to counter Russian influence

By The Associated Press

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 buoyed by recent successes in its war in neighboring Ukraine.

Opening a short visit to eastern Europe with a stop in Chisinau before traveling to the Czech Republic, Blinken announced the assistance at a news conference with Moldovan President Maia Sandu.

Before Wednesday, the U.S. had provided Moldova with $774 million in financial aid since the Ukraine war began in February 2022, $300 million of which was earmarked for energy security. Blinken’s trip, organized around a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Prague, comes amid concerns that Moldova and the former Soviet republic of Georgia are facing renewed threats from Russia.

The trip comes two weeks after Blinken made an unannounced trip to Ukraine 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, where it has 1,500 troops stationed in the disputed territory of Transnistria, 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 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. Stephen McGrath contributed from Sighisoara, Romania.

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