Unpacking the Kremlin media blitz surrounding Gagauzia leader’s Russia visit

Eugenia Gutul’s meeting with Vladimir Putin drives Kremlin news cycle positioning Russia as “protector” of Gagauzia and Moldova as its “oppressor”

Unpacking the Kremlin media blitz surrounding Gagauzia leader’s Russia visit

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Banner: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Gagauzia Governor Eugenia Gutul meet in Sochi, Russia, March 6, 2024. (Source: Kremlin.ru/archive)

During a visit to Russia on March 1, 2024, Gagauzia Governor Eugenia Gutul accused Moldovan leadership of “oppressing” the pro-Kremlin inhabitants of her region. She also asked Valentina Matviyenko, president of the Russian Senate, for Russia’s support.

Gagauzia is an autonomous region within Moldova, home to the Gagauz people, a Turkish Orthodox Christian minority, of which a majority speak Russian. Gagauzia has been at odds with the pro-European Union Moldovan central government. Many local residents hold a pro-Russia stance and seek greater alignment with Russia instead of the EU. Russia has used cultural and linguistic connections to foster pro-Russian sentiment in the area, enhancing its influence through the Orthodox Church.

The warnings from Gagauzia may pose a more significant challenge for Chisinau than those from Transnistria. While Russia exerts influence over both regions, Transnistria’s self-declared “independence” means it is not directly involved in Moldova’s political process. Gagauzia remains engrained in Moldova’s domestic governance, allowing it to exert more domestic influence.

The DFRLab investigated how the Kremlin, Russian state media, and propagandists used Gutul’s visit as a news hook to amplify Russia’s protective stance over the Gagauz region, depicting the Moldovan government as oppressors of both Russian speakers and ethnic minorities, prompting the need for “protection” from Russia. This orchestrated media blitz by pro-Kremlin outlets serves as a potent tool to shape public perception and influence political dynamics within Moldova.

Gagauzia is the second region in Moldova to engage in outreach to Moscow for “protection” from the Moldovan authorities. The first appeal occurred two days earlier on February 28, when the separatist authorities of Transnistria’s Congress of Deputies accused Moldova of violating the rights and freedoms of Transnistria’s inhabitants by stifling its economy and requested Russia “defend” the region from “increasing pressure from the Republic of Moldova.”

The Putin photo-op

Gutul met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 6. An associate of the fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, Gutul is the first Moldovan official to engage with Putin since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The encounter occurred against the backdrop of the World Youth Festival in Sochi.

Gutul announced the meeting on her Telegram channel, mentioning that she “discussed with Putin the complex regional and geopolitical issues,” informing the Russian president “about the unlawful actions of the authorities in Moldova, which are retaliating against [Gagauzia] for [its] civic stance and loyalty to national interests.” She stated that “Chisinau is provoking instability and destabilization in Gagauzia and throughout the country,” adding, “The Russian leader promised to support Gagauzia and the Gagauz people in defending our legal rights, authorities, and positions in the international arena.”

Screencap of Gutul's Telegram post announcing she met with Putin.
Screencap of Gutul’s Telegram post announcing she met with Putin. (Source: Евгения Гуцул/ archive)

Minutes after Gutul’s post, the Kremlin posted a picture of Putin and Gutul, with a brief description that said, “On the sidelines of the World Youth Festival, a meeting took place between Vladimir Putin and the head of Gagauzia, Eugenia Gutul.” Unlike other posts on the Kremlin’s website that day, this post did not include a description of the discussion or any statement from Putin. As reported by TASS, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov confirmed the encounter between Putin and Gutsul but noted it was “a brief interaction.”

Screencap from Kremlin.ru. The caption reads, “On the sidelines of the World Youth Festival, Vladimir Putin met with the head of Gagauzia, Eugenia Gutul.”
Screencap from Kremlin.ru. The caption reads, “On the sidelines of the World Youth Festival, Vladimir Putin met with the head of Gagauzia, Eugenia Gutul.” (Source: Kremlin.ru/archive)

RT shared the same photo on their Telegram channel. They reported that Putin pledged support for Gagauzia’s autonomy and people. RT’s Telegram channel also quoted Ilan Shor, a sponsor of Gutul’s political party, who expressed optimism about Gagauzia’s future “no matter how much [Moldovan President Maia] Sandu and company sabotage.”

Ria Novosti’s Telegram channel published a different photo from the same meeting. The caption said that Gutul would return to Moldova after her Russia visit despite pressure from the central Moldovan authorities.

Screencap from the Ria Novosti Telegram channel. (Source: Ria Novosti/archive)

Concerted amplification from Russian press

Russian media had rarely reported on Gagauzia in the ten months prior to March 2024. Then on March 1, during visit to the Russian Senate in Moscow, she accused Chisinau of “oppressing” the rights of people in Gagauzia. Senate President Matviyenko reportedly added, “The Russophobic policy of Moldova’s current authorities does not correspond to the national interests of the country.”

Russian state media coverage of the visit appeared synchronized, with initial reports circulating within minutes of each other. The first coverage came from Ria Novosti, which shared the news on their Telegram channel by saying, “The head of the Gagauz autonomy of Moldova arrived on a working visit to Moscow, the Gagauz executive committee told RIA Novosti.” Two minutes later, both TASS and RT’s Telegram channel reported on the visit simultaneously, citing information from the Gagauzian executive committee.  The media momentum around Gutul’s visit to Russia intensified on March 6 following her meeting with Putin.

A targeted keyword search across leading pro-Kremlin media platforms found a significant uptick in articles mentioning Gutul. Notably, the DFRLab found that between March 1-11, 2024, RT published thirty mentions of Gutul’s visit to Russia. This sharply contrasts with previous months, during which Gutul received a maximum of two mentions per month from RT. We noticed a similar increase with Ria Novosti, who mentioned Gutul fifty-six times during the first eleven days of March, and TASS, who published thirty-six mentions of Gutul.

Chart shows the number of mentions of the keyword “Гуцул” (“Gutul”) by Russian state media from June 1, 2023 to March 11, 2024. (Source: DFRLab via Flourish)

Russian media criticized Moldovan authorities for their alleged pressure on the Gagauzian leader. The articles claimed that the Moldovan government had initiated a targeted campaign against Gutul because of her pro-Russian stance. The articles on RT depicted Gutul as a national hero, tirelessly striving to foster and maintain friendly ties with Russia despite pressure from Chisinau. 

There were also spikes in mentions of Gutul on the corresponding Telegram channels of Russian state media. From March 1 through March 11, the highest volume of coverage came from Sputnik Moldova, followed by RTRia Novosti, and TASS

Bubble graph shows the volume of Telegram mentions from Russian state media for the keyword “Гуцул” (Gutul). The size of a channel’s bubble indicates the number of mentions. (Source: @MejlumyanAni/ DFRLab via Flourish)

Crafting the narrative of Gutul’s alleged persecution

Last year, the general prosecutor of Moldova launched an investigation into illegal financing within the Shor Party, which was later disbanded after being deemed unconstitutional. Law enforcement authorities conducted several investigations into voter corruption by individuals associated with Shor in support of Gutul. On March 6, the same day as Gutul’s meeting with Putin, Moldova’s interim Attorney General stated that the case is expected to go to court soon.

Russia’s propaganda machine swiftly seized upon the investigations by Moldovan prosecutors to depict Gutul as a victim of political persecution from Moldovan authorities.  RT insinuated that the Moldovan prosecutor general initiated a criminal case against Gutul after she met with Putin. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan posted the photo of Putin and Gutul and said Gutul “barely had time to publish the photo with Putin” before being prosecuted. Simonyan added, “Brave woman – Eugenia Gutul. She cannot be intimidated by such ‘democratic’ methods.”  

Another well-known Russian propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, echoed this narrative on his Telegram channel, alleging that “Moldovan authorities are preparing to arrest the head of Gagauzia, Evgenia Gutul, after her return from Sochi.” Solovyov cited Shor as his source.

Major Russian TV channels also spread the narrative alleging Gutul faced political persecution from Moldovan authorities after meeting with Putin. Russia’s Channel One mentioned the narrative at least five times, stating, “As soon as news of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Evgenia Gutul emerged, reports from Chisinau indicated that the Moldovan General Prosecutor’s Office is prepared to take legal action against Gutul.” Channel One posted seven news bulletins about Gutul.

Screencap of Channel One’s news coverage of Gutul's visit to Russia.
Screencap of Channel One’s news coverage of Gutul’s visit to Russia. (Source: 1tv.ru/ archive)

Broadcaster Russia 24 also covered Gutul’s visit. The channel promoted Gutul’s pro-Russia messages, including “We need to be friends with Russia,” “The majority of Moldova’s residents do not want to sever ties with Russia,” and “The meeting with Putin inspired Moldovans and stirred the authorities.”

Gutul’s ‘triumphant’ return to Moldova

Russian state media thoroughly covered Gutul’s return to Chisinau on March 8. The DFRLab found videos from Chisinau airport, captured and disseminated by Sputnik, RT, Ria Novosti, and TASS. These videos were used to imply that Gutul has widespread public support, portraying large crowds gathered at the airport. The coverage from Russian state media aimed to amplify the perception of Gutul as a popular leader within her region and to highlight the solidarity and backing she enjoys from the public, framing her not just as a political figure but as a symbol of resistance against the perceived overreach of the central government.

Russian state media Telegram channels closely tracked Gutul’s return, and Sputnik Moldova traced her flight using Flightradar. Of the fifty-seven Sputnik posts about Gutul, as seen in the above bubble chart, eighteen were about her return to Moldova. Similarly, fifteen of RT’s thirty posts about Gutul covered her return trip. Ria Novosti dedicated three out of fourteen posts to the return, while TASS used three out of ten posts.

RT’s Telegram channel publishes a daily note covering the “most important” topics of the day. In its March 9 note, Gutul’s return was the first item listed, followed by news about the heads of state of the United States and France.  

Screencaps of Telegram posts about Gutul’s return home via Sputnik Moldova, RT, Ria Novosti, and TASS.
Screencaps of Telegram posts about Gutul’s return home via Sputnik Moldova, RT, Ria Novosti, and TASS. (Source: Sputnik Moldova/archive, RT/archive, Ria Novosti/archive, TASS/archive)

Russia 24 interviewed Gutul after her return to Moldova and asked about the possibility of political or military provocations from Chisinau. Gutul said, “You can expect anything from the authorities of Moldova.” In another publication discussing Gutul’s intentions to enhance cooperation with Russia, Russia 24 referenced a documentary noting that Gagauzia was within the historic boundaries of Russia.

Engineering threats

Moscow’s keen interest in Gagauzia must be viewed within the broader context of Russia’s global information strategy and the Kremlin’s concern over its waning influence in former Soviet countries. Moldova’s shift towards the European Union is considered a threat to the Kremlin, which Russian state media exploits by drawing parallels between Moldova and Ukraine, emphasizing a desire from local populations for Russian protection against perceived Western aggression. Additionally, Kremlin messaging portrays the West as orchestrating Moldova’s shift. These Kremlin narratives position Moldova as the next potential adversary.

Following Gutul’s visit to Russia, Ria Novosti published two analytical pieces focused on Moldova. One article, titled “Russia is trying to prevent a major war in Europe,” featured a photo of President Sandu and French President Emmanuel Macron shaking hands. The article highlighted the appeal from Gagauzia’s leadership to Putin, seeking Russian defense against the actions of Moldovan authorities. The article noted that the call for protection came alongside Macron’s pledge to strengthen military and economic relations with Moldova. “It is no coincidence that Moldova was chosen as a ‘battlefield’ for two continental powers,” the authors asserted, emphasizing that “geopolitically, Moldova is a frontier zone.” They also suggested that President Macron’s policies and actions are not primarily driven by democratic values but by France’s decreasing influence in Africa, where Russia is increasingly gaining power.

Ria Novosti added that Macron’s geopolitical motives were exposed by France’s defense agreement with Moldova and commitment to providing “military support” to Armenia, the latter of which has also distanced itself from Russia. The outlet concluded that politicians such as Macron seek a spillover of the Ukrainian conflict into Europe, and claimed that Russia is trying to prevent a larger war. Articles such as this seek to position Russia as a stabilizing force, in contrast to the portrayed “belligerence” of Western powers. This inversion of roles—from aggressor to peacemaker—is a classic element of Russian propaganda, aiming to garner domestic and international support for its policies.

A second Ria Novosti article delved into Moldova’s complex political landscape under President Sandu’s leadership, portraying a country grappling with internal conflicts and external pressures. The article referenced Transnistria and Gagauzia’s struggle against Moldovan authorities, painting Sandu as someone who might resort to oppressive measures to maintain power amidst waning popularity. Additionally, the article accused her of using the alleged threat of a Russian-orchestrated coup as a pretext for suppressing dissent, including banning the Shor Party and shuttering several Russian media channels. The DFRLab has previously observed similar narratives being used to discredit political leaders in Armenia and Kazakhstan.

By constructing narratives that depict countries in Russia’s vicinity as unstable, under oppressive leadership, or suppressing Russian-speaking populations, Russian state media provide a pretext for Russian involvement or intervention. Russia is positioned as a protector of Russian speakers and interests, countering what it frames as Western encroachment or influence. This strategic narrative construction undermines the legitimacy and stability of governments like Moldova, rallies support from Russian speakers or sympathizers, and challenges Western influence.

Cite this case study:

Victoria Olari and Ani Mejlumyan, “Unpacking the Kremlin media blitz surrounding Gagauzia leader’s Russia visit,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), March 19, 2024, https://dfrlab.org/2024/03/19/kremlin-media-blitz-gagauzia.