By RFE RL
By Denis Dermenji and Carl Schreck
(RFE/RL) — In August, Moldova kicked out 45 Russian diplomats and embassy staff, citing fears of Moscow’s efforts to “destabilize” the country after a media investigation found an “excessive” number of antennas on the roof of the embassy buildings.
But diplomats with links to Russian intelligence remain among the skeleton staff at the Russian Embassy in Moldova following the mass expulsions, a new investigation by RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service has found.
At least two of these diplomats have ties to the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s powerful domestic intelligence agency, while two others have been associated with Moscow addresses linked to the Russian military’s intelligence directorate. Known as the GRU, the organization has been implicated in poisonings and sabotage across Europe, according to databases of leaked government records reviewed by RFE/RL.
These records come from a range of official databases posted online thanks to Russia’s leaky data market, which has helped unmask suspects in a range of Russian intelligence operations in recent years. The databases include Russian vehicle, employment, passport, and credit records dating back more than a decade.
The Russian diplomats at the Chisinau embassy with ties to the FSB include two first secretaries — senior officials in Russian diplomatic ranks — while the military attache and his assistant have been registered at addresses used by the GRU, the leaked records show.
The findings of RFE/RL’s investigation indicate how Russia continues to staff its European embassies with personnel with intelligence backgrounds despite efforts by EU states to curb the number of Russian spies working under diplomatic cover following President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
An investigation by RFE/RL in March found that at least three Russian diplomats who were expelled or blacklisted by EU member states, several of which cited espionage by the banned emissaries, had resurfaced as accredited Russian diplomats in Serbia.
Asked about RFE/RL’s new findings, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry said in a September 5 statement that the government has taken “several firm steps necessary to counter the destabilizing actions of the Russian Federation directed against our country,” including the paring down of Moscow’s diplomatic presence, in response to “unfriendly actions…including in the context of suspicions regarding possible espionage actions.”
The ministry added that under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a 1961 treaty that codified diplomatic practices and principles among signatory states, the “selection of the diplomatic staff of the embassy of the Russian Federation is the responsibility of the Russian authorities.”
The Russian Embassy in Chisinau did not respond to a request for comment on the findings of the RFE/RL investigation in time for publication.
Since Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has continued to wield considerable influence in the small country of 2.6 million people — most significantly by exploiting Moldova’s traditional dependence on Russian energy. Since the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moldova has made moves to weaken its reliance on Russian gas and has repeatedly condemned the Kremlin’s aggression, taking in more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Moscow still has more than 1,000 troops stationed in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniester, ostensibly as peacekeepers after Chisinau and Russia-backed separatists fought a short but bloody war in 1992 that settled into a frozen conflict following Russia’s intervention on the side of the insurgents.
FSB Addresses And GRU Housing
Diplomatic lists maintained by the Moldovan Foreign Ministry show that just 10 accredited diplomats remain at the Russian Embassy in Chisinau following the August expulsions.
Among them are two first secretaries, Boris Suchilin and Konstantin Zyablikov, who both have previous addresses associated with the FSB in Moscow, according to the databases of leaked Russian government records reviewed by RFE/RL.
Vehicle records from 2019 list Suchilin’s address as Dobrolyubova Proyezd 3a in northeastern Moscow. That building was previously the registered address of the FSB’s military unit No. 93544 and is now an FSB training center.
Other government records from 2010-15 show Zyablikov’s listed address in Moscow as Bolshaya Lubyanka 2, the notorious former Soviet KGB headquarters that now serves as the FSB’s headquarters. Zyablikov’s place of employment in multiple leaked records is indicated as military unit No. 14057, the FSB’s military counterintelligence directorate in the Moscow Military District.
Registering FSB employees at the agency’s facilities is a common practice in Russia. Zyablikov himself was among hundreds of individuals that the Ukrainian military’s intelligence directorate publicly identified in March 2022 as FSB employees registered at the agency’s Moscow headquarters who were allegedly “participating in criminal activities” in Europe on Russia’s behalf.
Zyablikov was accredited as a Russian diplomat in Chisinau in August 2021. The following month, he met with the leadership of the General Directorate of the Moldovan police. A Moldovan police press release said the meeting was required as Zyablikov was “responsible for the security of the internal premises” of the Russian Embassy.
The Attache And His Assistant
Meanwhile, the leaked government records also reveal potential GRU links of the Russian military attache and his assistant at the Chisinau embassy. Vehicle records for attache Andrei Lobov, who was accredited at the embassy in October 2021, list his address as Narodnogo Opolcheniya 48 in northwestern Moscow.
A contract with a company that provided utilities for the building where Lobov was registered stated that the facility was for Russian military housing, and the same building is home to a housing maintenance company attached to military unit No. 22177.
Multiple sources, including a Russian court record that RFE/RL located, have identified this unit as the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military Academy, which is widely known as the GRU “conservatory” and responsible for training Russian military intelligence operatives.
Vehicle records for an alleged GRU officer expelled by the Netherlands in 2018 after operating there under diplomatic cover show his association with unit No. 22177 and a neighboring building to the one in which Lobov was registered, the Associated Press reported.
Leaked vehicle records for Dmitry Kelov, Lobov’s assistant at the Chisinau embassy, list his previous address as Marshal Biryuzov 4 in northwestern Moscow. According to the Dossier Center, an investigative group funded by Russian tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, that building has been used to house employees of the GRU, including Anatoly Chepiga, an agent accused in the 2018 Novichok poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. Czech authorities have also sought Chepiga for questioning in connection with a 2014 explosion at an arms depot in that country.
The Dossier Center reported that, based on a 2011 directive, the GRU masked the personal data of the children of Russian spies living in the building on Marshal Biryuzov street by backdating their dates of birth. As a result, some of these children were listed as being more than 100 years old, according to the report. RFE/RL reviewed leaked Russian state pension fund records for the building and confirmed that numerous residents there are listed as having been born more than a century ago.
In November 2021, Kelov joined the Russian delegation to the Joint Control Commission, a trilateral Moldovan-Transdniesterian-Russian body tasked with peacekeeping in the breakaway region.
In a photo published by the Transdniesterian news website Novosti Pridnestrovia, Kelov appears alongside Dmitry Zelenkov, head of the Operational Group of Russian Troops (GOTR) stationed on the left bank of the Dniester River.
Other Russian diplomats currently posted in Moldova have ties to the Russian military, including the embassy’s commercial representative, Vladislav Darvai, who was born in Tiraspol, the capital of the Transdniester region. Leaked government records from 2011 and 2012 show Darvai’s registered address as a dormitory at Sadovnicheskaya 53, which has been used by multiple entities controlled by the Russian military and is also a listed address for Russia’s state-run defense procurement agency, Garnizon.
One of the Russian diplomats cited in the July investigation by the Latvian-based Russian news site The Insider and Moldova’s Jurnal TV about the antennas on the roof of the Russian Embassy was Vladimir Gorokhov, an attache who was accredited by the Moldovan Foreign Ministry in July 2021, according to the ministry’s diplomatic lists. The investigation alleged that Gorokhov was frequently seen on the roof of the embassy.
Gorokhov was not among the dozens of diplomats and embassy staff who left Moldova in August after Chisinau ordered the embassy to reduce its diplomatic presence in the country. He remains at his post in the Moldovan capital, according to the most recent diplomatic list maintained by the Moldovan Foreign Ministry.
After he was summoned to the Moldovan Foreign Ministry following the July investigation, Russia’s ambassador to Moldova, Oleg Vasnetsov, who has remained in his post, argued that the antennas were installed during the construction of the embassy in the late 1990s when phone networks and the Internet were of poor quality in Moldova.
“This so-called espionage scandal is just an excuse to implement a decision already made some time ago to reduce the number of diplomatic staff,” Vasnetsov said at the time.
Mark Krutov from RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Riin Aljas from RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom, Maja Zivanovic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, and Andrei Soshnikov from Systema, RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit, contributed to this report.
- Denis Dermenji is a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service.
- Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL’s enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.