- - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The latest announcement that Turkish President Recep Erdogan is looking to Russian President Vladimir Putin for assistance will surely be a sign to NATO hopeful countries that Europe and America are distracted. The past few years have been difficult for the former Baltic States and their neighbors as the U.S. has grown increasingly more withdrawn from world affairs and Europe has struggled with its growing divisions. Amidst this vacuum of global leadership, Mr. Putin has stepped up.

Eastern European leaders are left to watch as Germany’s Angela Merkel struggles with serious domestic immigration issues and the next U.S. presidential hopefuls continue America’s preoccupation of looking inward. Hillary Clinton’s Russian re-set policy gave Moscow permission to go from privately challenging U.S. foreign policy to publicly moving military hardware into Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad and annexing Crimea from Ukraine. And Donald Trump seems to support the idea that Putin will be Putin. It’s enough to leave America’s allies confused.

Mr. Putin’s current buildup of military hardware along the Ukrainian border signals serious trouble for Poland, Georgia, Estonia, Turkey and Moldova to name just a few. The Russian president has successfully used propaganda, natural gas, intimidation, money laundering, military hardware, corruption, and his opponents’ weaknesses to chip away at the West’s influence throughout Eastern Europe and Baltic states.

Moldova’s present struggle to move closer to the West is perhaps the best current example of the simmering proxy fight taking place in the region between the United States and Europe on one side and the Russian world view on the other.

It’s been a rough few years for Moldova whose people are still fuming over a massive banking scandal, accompanied by an economic meltdown, where $1 billion was suddenly erased from the ledger sheets of the country’s three largest banks. In an unfortunate twist, the money was later tracked to Moldova’s former prime minister, a supporter of EU integration, and several co-conspirators.

The theft shed light upon weak anti-corruption laws not only in Moldova, but throughout the region. Moldova proved an easy and active flume for Russian money launderers. An estimated $20 billion, nearly three times Moldova’s annual GDP, passed through the country’s banks in four years. The EU, the IMF, and the World Bank responded to the heist by quickly withdrawing their support for the previous Moldovan leaders and freezing their international financial assistance. The crisis stirred street protests which in turn fueled distrust toward supporters of European style governing. Many believed it would be the end of EU integration.

But Moldova, a former Soviet Republic which has had five Prime Ministers since 2015, responded by appointing a skilled technocrat completely committed to transparency and the continuation of a Western style democracy. Prime Minister Pavel Filip took office six months ago but is relentlessly pursuing the priority reforms demanded by the IMF, the UN and other international organizations. Filip has stabilized the banking sector, passed anti-corruption reforms, moved the IMF to sign a new aid package plan and motivated Romania to offer a EUR150 million loan.

But with roughly one-third of Moldovans loyal to Mr. Putin’s Russia, Mr. Filip needs international assistance to ensure Moldova continues to face West. The EU and the U.S. should realize now is the time to pick a side. The Russian propaganda machine, even in the U.S., is not to be discounted.

The American business magazine Forbes last week was forced to print embarrassing corrections of two separate stories after failing to do basic research, but delivering as fact repeated conjecture hurled by a former Moldovan official. The Forbes writer failed to question the controversial source who, according to several independent media organizations, has been investigated on suspicions of how his own personal fortune was amassed. The writer also failed to read the post-mortem report from Kroll, the Manhattan-based, independent audit and financial security company who identified the perpetrators, one of whom sits in jail today for his crime. (Forbes failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.)

The Forbes correction was broad and emphatic leading one to believe that the whole article should have been deleted: “This article reported that Vladimir Plahotniuc had a controlling stake in three banks that were part of a scheme to defraud the Moldovan central bank of $1 billion. Upon further review, we found no evidence that Plahotniuc had any major equity stake in Unibank, Sociala and Banca de Economii.”

Today is seems clear that Mr. Putin is pleased with the Brexit vote and Europe’s shrinkage. Reports have indicated he is closely watching the U.S. Presidential race and is working to influence Parliamentary elections in Montenegro, Macedonia, Georgia, Croatia, Romania, and Moldova – all of which take place in September, October and November of this year. With much of the world distracted by its own domestic politics, Russia is calculating how best to continue its offense undeterred by the West.

Richard Grenell served as the U.S. spokesman for four U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations. He is the longest-serving American to hold that position, having served from 2001-2008.

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