Tue Jun 13, 2017 | 10:13 AM EDT
Moldovan intelligence believes five Russian diplomats expelled from Moldova last month were spies who were recruiting fighters for the Moscow-backed insurgency in neighboring Ukraine, a government source and two diplomatic sources told Reuters.
Moldova, a former Soviet state that has long been the focus of a struggle for influence between Russia and the West, expelled the diplomats on May 29. It did not explain the decision, with Prime Minister Pavel Filip saying only that his government had “good reasons”.
According to the sources, who are familiar with the case, the five were ejected because of their alleged activities as undercover officers with the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU.
They said Moldovan officials believed the Russians were recruiting fighters from Gagauzia, an autonomous southern region home to an ethnic Turkish population that is pro-Russian and opposes closer integration with the European Union.
The Moldovan government source and Chisinau-based diplomatic sources all spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. They did not say how the Russians allegedly recruited the fighters, how many were recruited or the reason for their recruitment.
Reuters could not independently verify the allegations about the activities of the five Russians.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin described the allegations as “idle gossip”, saying they were not supported by facts.
“Someone is deliberately trying to whip up a wave of propaganda,” Karasin was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency. “The people (diplomats) carried out their stated official duties to the letter.”