Pro-Kremlin actors amplify video to target multinational military exercises in Moldova
A video featuring a local Moldovan farmer accosting military personnel participating in multinational exercise was used as a pretext to attack the West
BANNER: Screencap of a video posted to Facebook on September 18, 2023, showing troops participating in a military exercise in Moldova. (Source: Andrei Dobrovolschii)
Pro-Kremlin actors spread a video shot in Moldova regarding a multinational military exercise held in the country in an attempt to manipulate public perception around the West more broadly. In the footage, a Moldovan man can be seen accosting US military personnel; pro-Kremlin outlets, pro-Kremlin Moldovan politicians, and social media accounts all amplified the clip, using it as a pretext to argue that the West is attempting to drag Moldova into war.
In early September, Moldovan authorities announced that the country would host the multinational joint exercise Fire Shield/Rapid Trident 2023, providing advance notice military equipment would be moving throughout the country during the exercise. According to the announcement, an estimated 500 soldiers from Moldova, Romania, and the United States would participate in the drills. The advance notice also advises “citizens to respect the conditions of access near the training centers of the National Army during the exercises and to be vigilant to avoid the spread of false information to prevent disinformation.”
The Republic of Moldova, although a neutral country, has a long history of military cooperation with external partners, including NATO. The foundation of this cooperation is the Partnership for Peace program, which Moldova joined in 1994. In the current security context, with Russia’s war in Ukraine on its borders, Moldova’s efforts to enhance its defense capabilities and interoperability with partner countries are part of a broader strategy to strengthen its security, contribute to regional stability, and align with Western security institutions and practices.
The DFRLab previously covered how pro-Russian political actors in Georgia are also spreading the dragging-into-war narrative in that country.
A video as a pretext
On September 18, a man who identified himself as a resident of the village of Munteni in the Cimișlia region of Moldova shared four live video clips to his Facebook account. In the clips, the man holds a small child in his arms, interrogates the soldiers participating in the exercise aggressively, and ultimately demands that they leave “his land” and “go home!” He also walks up to US military personnel and demands to see the magazines of their rifles to determine the type of bullets they were using. The man further accuses the US soldiers of dragging Moldova into war and yells profanities at them. At one point, seemingly frightened by the man’s shouting, the child begins to cry, so the military requests police intervention.
The video quickly went viral online. On Facebook, the original videos garnered over 400,000 views, more than 4,000 reactions, as well as thousands of shares and comments. Some of the comments criticized the man’s inappropriate behavior and the fact that he exposed the child to danger, questioning his intentions and urging him to go to Transnistria to confront the Russian soldiers. Meanwhile, others came to his defense, reiterating common war-dragging narratives such as “[Moldovan President] Maia [Sandu] wants war,” “This is how the war in Ukraine began,” and “Moldova will soon be like Ukraine.”
Pro-Kremlin politicians in Moldova exploited the incident, reposting the video to fuel discontent with the pro-Western government and sow unrest more generally. For example, on his Facebook page, Member of the Moldovan Parliament Alexandr Nestervovschi accused the country’s authorities of pushing it into a military conflict. He expressed outrage over the presence of US soldiers in southern Moldova and questioned the need for such protection. He praised the individual who confronted the US military, echoing his statement in his own video recording: “American soldiers, go home! You are not welcome here! Wherever you go, you bring sorrow, blood, and destruction! Moldova is a peaceful, neutral country!” In March, Nesterovschi left the pro-Russian Socialist Party and subsequently joined the Renaștere (Revival) Party, the platform for which calls for Moldova’s accession to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and granting the Russian language official status in Moldova.
Likewise, Adrian Albu, a former candidate for Chisinau mayor from the Socialist Party, raised similar questions in a Facebook post: “What are American soldiers doing far from military training grounds? Why is the current irresponsible government scaring its own people with military equipment…? What war do the puppets in Chisinau want to drag us into?”
In a video posted on his page, Igor Dodon, a former Moldovan president known for his pro-Russian stance, asserted that Sandu has allegedly been given the mandate by “external forces” to steer Moldova toward NATO membership. Dodon also accused Sandu of wanting to drag Moldova into military conflict with Russia.
Russian media outlets and propagandists used the video clips and developments around them as a pretext to further undermine the credibility of the West in Moldova, notably NATO and the United States. They used the video clips as the basis for stories portraying Western military forces, especially US troops, in a negative light, as a means of fueling anti-NATO and anti-Western sentiment in Moldova.
As the videos went viral and pro-Kremlin actors used them to spread disinformation, the spokesperson for the Moldovan Ministry of Defense clarified to StopFals: “Regarding the recent video captured by a resident of Munteni village, Cimișlia district, we would like to clarify that Moldovan and American military personnel were conducting training exercises on adjacent land to the village, not on the individual’s property or garden.”
Apart from Facebook, the incident also garnered significant attention on Moldovan pro-Russian Telegram channels. Contributing to the dissemination, these channels selectively edited the original videos, distorting the context in order to make misleading claims. For instance, the Telegram channel “Баба Параска” (Baba Paraska) insinuated that there were Ukrainian soldiers among the US troops, alleging that “some of these militants were seen wearing green armbands on their sleeves, a common practice among Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel.” The authors of the post also claimed that Moldova had long become “a transit hub for mercenaries from Western countries and Latin America” who are going to fight in Ukraine. Baba Paraska is a relatively new channel, created on August 24, 2023. According to the information available on Telegram, the channel was initially named “RENASTEREA MOLDOVEI – ВОЗРОЖДЕНИЕ МОЛДОВЫ” (Revival of Moldova), likely after the name of the recently relaunched pro-Russian political “Revival Party” in Moldova.
Another example was “Приднестровец”(Transnistrian), one of the largest Telegram channels within the pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria. The channel shared two video cuts, one lasting twenty-five seconds and the other twenty-two seconds, and both featuring the caption “‘Go home to your America!’ A Moldovan found a NATO soldier in his garden. Cursing in all the languages available to him, the man tried to drive the soldier away.”
According to a query using Telegram-monitoring tool TGStat, this post was later shared by other Moldovan pro-Russian Telegram channels, including “Молдавский пистон” (Moldovan Piston), “Молдова сейчас” (Moldova Now), “Антимайдан 2.0 (молдавская версия)” (Anti-Maidan 2.0 Moldovan version), and “Евразийская Молдова” (Eurasian Moldova).
Other pro-war Russian Telegram channels also amplified the truncated clip of one of the live videos and presented it in a distorted context, claiming that the soldier seen in the video was lost at the time of filming.
The 22-second cut
In addition to amplifying one or more of the full videos while distorting the context, the 22-second cut extracted from one of the four specifically spread, accompanied by captions providing incomplete or fabricated contexts. This edited version garnered at least 1.5 million views across different platforms. The first channel to download the 22-second cut from the Приднестровец Telegram channel and repost it on its own appears to have been that of Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.
On September 19, Solovyov’s Telegram channel shared the shorter cut with a caption that read, in Russian: “Go home to your America! In Moldova, a farmer accidentally met an American soldier in his property. It is unknown whether he got lost during the exercise or simply had nothing to eat, but the farmer’s rhetoric towards him was categorical.”
On September 20, a Wagner-affiliated channel as well as two pro-war channels also posted the same 22-second-long cut with the exact same caption as Solovyov. The four posts garnered a total of more than 400,000 views and around 15,000 reactions, the majority of which seemingly expressed support – in the form of thumbs-up, clapping, or heart emojis – of the Moldovan in the video.
Data from TGStat revealed that the posts from the four channels were forwarded more than 3,000 times and shared in public channels and chats twenty-seven times.
On September 19, X account Lord Bebo shared the same 22-second-long cut, which garnered more than 1 million views on the platform. The caption for the video echoed that of the Telegram posts, claiming that a Moldovan farmer had discovered “American/NATO soldiers in his garden.”
Accounts on Russian social network VKontakte (VK) also disseminated the same edited cut, garnering a total of more than 60,000 views. The captions of all of the VK posts mentioned the words “go back to your America.”
The video also gained some engagement on TikTok. For instance, two TikTok accounts that share only content from Sputnik Moldova posted two videos with the same caption, “Americans soldiers are not welcome here.” Combined, the TikTok videos had garnered total over 90,000 views and had been shared over 1,800 times at the time of writing.
Besides Moldovan TikTok channels, the video was shared by a significant number of pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian channels that have also spread conspiracy-related content. For example, TikTok account @putinbidenzelensky4, with over 34,000 followers, posts anti-Ukranian content in the Russian and German languages, mainly targeting Ukrainian refugees in Germany. @putinbidenzelensky4 shared the same 22-second video on TikTok, reiterating the false claim from Russian propaganda that a Moldovan farmer found a US soldier on his farm. As of writing, the video had garnered over 1.6 million views, 52,000 likes, and more than 12,000 shares.
Another TikTok account to spread the video, @dragoslav7777, seemingly operated by a Serbian citizen according to a pinned post on his channel, wrote “NATO starting war again in my Homeland Serbia.” This account has over 13,000 followers and consistently posts anti-US, pro-Russian content, often referencing a “Slavic brotherhood” and spreading anti-vaccine theories. @dragoslav7777 posted the 22-second video with the following description: “A Moldovan citizen accidentally discovered US marines near the Russian territory of Pridnestrovia [Russian name for Transnistria] in Moldova.” Besides referring to the Transnistrian region as Russian territory, as implied by the use of the Russian version of the name, the claim was false, as the incident was filmed in the village of Munteni, approximately 100 kilometers away from the Transnistrian region. The video had garnered over 550,000 views, 25,000 likes, and more than 4,000 shares at the time of writing.
In the light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, pro-Kremlin actors continue their attempts to divert attention away from Russia and its culpability, to portray the West as an initiator of the war, and to deepen divisions among societies around the world as a means of undermining support for Ukraine and other pro-Ukraine governments on Russia’s periphery, such as that of Moldova.
Cite this case study:
Victoria Olari and Eto Buziashvili, “Pro-Kremlin actors amplify video to target multinational military exercises in Moldova,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), November 28, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/11/28/pro-kremlin-actors-amplify-video-to-target-multinational-military-exercises-in-moldova/.