Not in Our Backyard II: Russia’s Secret Fight to Deny the West Influence in the Balkan States

An attempted coup in Montenegro in October 2016 as the country prepared to join NATO prompted accusations of Russian involvement. But how credible are the allegations? In the final part of this series on Russian involvement in the Balkans, Lekisika's Sean Crowley investigates this incident as well as broader Russian efforts to maintain influence in the region. 

Back to the Balkans

In 2000, the non-violent Optor (“Resistance”) movement ousted Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in a preview of the so-called “color revolutions” that would later spread across the post-Soviet space. (The group would later become a non-governmental organization, or NGO). For Russia, the fall of President Milosevic and the overall dissolution of Yugoslavia was a humiliation. Still, regaining hegemony in the region was not a priority for the Kremlin in the first years of President Boris Yel’tsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin. It was under President Putin that Russia withdrew its peacekeepers from Bosnia and Kosovo. Moscow only resumed its push into the Balkans after President Putin perceived that the West implemented regime change in Ukraine in 2014 and had plans to do so in Russia.

It would be a mistake to see the Balkans as a priority for Russia, though. Russia does not seem to want to replace the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the region so much as it wants to appear more favorable. Appearing more powerful than it is allows Russia to gain more concessions from the West. Additionally, Russia’s intervention in the Balkans is a way for it to project itself as a superpower and to make up for its inability to intervene in the 1990s. Russia believes that it must control the Balkans to be considered a great power; to have access to the Bosporus and influence over the pan-Slavic community. Upset at what it sees as NATO and EU expansion in the region, Russia supports a number of hardline nationalist leaders in the Balkans. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 with Serbia and Montenegro in talks for membership. Membership for Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and Macedonia will likely occur in the long term. However, this does not mean that Western support in the Balkans is resolute. Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia have all refused to support EU sanctions against Russia. Montenegro, conversely, supported the sanctions (later earning membership in NATO). 

Much of the contest also concerns control over natural gas routes. Gas makes up a quarter of Europe’s energy consumption, and Gazprom, Russia’s major state-owned natural gas company, supplied a third of Europe’s gas in 2016. Dependence on gas will only increase as the EU encourages Balkan states to end their reliance on coal. However, Russia has yet to construct the pipeline infrastructure in this region needed to exert such influence. In response, Western states hope to complete their own pipeline projects first.

One example is the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). Backed by the EU, by 2020 the TAP should bring gas from Azerbaijan to Greece, Albania, and Italy through Turkey. The EU and the United States want to extend the pipeline through Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia. The EU also supports the construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on Krk, an island in northern Croatia. In May 2017, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro signed a deal to create a natural gas pipeline, a proposal supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The EU-backed Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline (IAP) will run from Albania, via Montenegro and Bosnia, to Croatia. Russia is not far behind. In October 2016, it signed a deal with Ankara regarding the TurkStream pipeline which will pump Russian gas through the Black Sea and into Europe. President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia wants the pipeline linked to his country.

NATO and EU intervention in the Balkans gave Russia new narratives of Western hypocrisy that it could exploit for propaganda purposes. President Putin used Kosovo’s push for independence as an excuse to justify Russian intervention in Georgia’s restive South Ossetia and Abkhazia provinces and the Crimea in Ukraine. Russia was not the only state to take advantage of this.

Interestingly, Kosovo is now accusing Serbia of following through with the Crimean precedent. Kosovo accused Serbia of attempting to create a breakaway region in the country’s northern, predominantly Serb region. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci referred to Serbia’s meddling as “the Crimean model.” Many in Northern Kosovo do not recognize the Pristina government. Before the 2013 Brussels Agreement, which eased relations between Serbia and Kosovo to an extent, Serbia funded parallel hospitals, schools, and courts in the region.

Russia’s meddling in the Balkans extends beyond the realms of political propaganda and economic competition with the West. The involvement of Russia’s intelligence services in the region has greatly increased since the 1990s. President Putin’s point-man for the Balkans appears to be the head of Russia’s Security Council and former director of the Federal Security Service (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; FSB) Nikolay Patrushev. A longtime Putin ally prone to nationalistic and conspiratorial thought, Patrushev represents a growing pattern in Putin’s Russia in which the president selects members of his inner circle to oversee Russian operations overseas regardless of what jurisdiction their official title gives them for a certain region. (Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, appropriately, takes point on Russian military operations in Syria, but in Ukraine, President Putin relies on political fixer Vladislav Surkov and oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev to maintain ties with the separatist movement in the east.)

Like President Putin, Patrushev served in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti; KGB) beginning in 1973. The two met in the 1990s, and after serving as FSB director following Putin, Patrushev came to head up the Security Council in 2008. He was a key proponent and planner of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Patrushev’s role in Russian intelligence activities in the Balkans has already become quite apparent. He arrived in Serbia to meet with a government and security officials after a failed coup in Montenegro that reportedly had Russian sponsorship. In May 2017, he met with Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic in Moscow to discuss organized crime and Internet security. Additionally, Patrushev appointed Leonid Reshetnikov, a hawkish Balkans expert, to Russia’s Security Council, and it was in October 2016 that Reshetnikov declared it was “time [for Russia] to return to the Balkans.”

Thanks to its propaganda networks and connections to nationalist figures through both its intelligence services and ideological affinity, Russia maintains influence in most of the Balkan nations. This investigation, however, will focus primarily on its activities in Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Its influence in Croatia and Albania is considerably weaker. Albania has bases that the West can use for air activities and counterterrorism (CT). Croatia, already a NATO member, announced plans to buy jets in response to a Russian-backed Serbian arms buildup. Also, it rejected an offer by Russia to conduct firefighting operations along the Adriatic coast. 

Before turning to Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, though, it is worth giving attention to Russia’s influence in Bosnia. In Bosnia, Russia supports the separatist ambitions of the Republika Srpska and its leader, Milorad Dodik. Russia’s support for Republika Srpska comes from a desire to create a sense of crisis in Bosnia, therefore undermining the West. On 11 November 2014, for example, Russia abstained from a United Nations vote on extending the EU military mission to Bosnia which began in 2004. This was the first time that Russia staged such a protest, and it was a reaction to the prospects of Bosnia joining the EU.

Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb leader, shows clear signs that he intends to sabotage the 1995 Dayton Accords. The Muslim-Croat government of Bosnia, meanwhile, intends to join NATO and does not wish to cooperate with Russia even on natural disaster relief operations. Russia’s annexation of Crimea encouraged Dodik to seek independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina, an act also urged on by Serbian President Vucic. Also, Dodik chose to propose a Statehood Day referendum to have the holiday moved to 9 January, the Orthodox holiday of St. Stephen’s Day and the date of the 1992 declaration of a Bosnian Serb state. He consulted with Moscow about the referendum first rather than the central Bosnian government. Meeting with President Putin on 22 September 2016, Dodik claimed that the two met only to discuss terrorism and economic issues. Outside of the Republika Srpska, Statehood Day, especially when celebrated on St. Stephen’s Day, is seen as exclusionary of Muslims and Catholic Croats. At the 25 September referendum, 99.8 percent voted for St. Stephen’s Day as the holiday. Dodik defied a court order to hold the referendum. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic did not take on a public stance on the Bosnian Serb referendum.

Blood Brothers

As mentioned earlier, Serbia is Russia’s key ally in the Balkans. Belgrade has a long history of supporting Moscow’s policies and vice-versa. Serbia supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as it maintained previously close ties to Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine. It refused to impose sanctions on Russia. President Yanukovych opposed Kosovo’s independence and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko supported Serbian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Serbian paramilitaries have assisted Russian forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russia hosts certain controversial figures from the Yugoslav wars. Russia gave shelter and citizenship to former Yugoslav army chief of staff Veljko Kadijevic until his death in 2014, and President Milosevic’s widow, Mirijana Markovic, is a permanent resident in Moscow. Serbian figures who made money during the wars thanks to their access to the Milosevic family now run businesses in Russia.

In its own sphere of influence, Serbia emulates Russia’s political influence strategies. Similar to how Russia courts ethnic Russians abroad, one can also expect Serbia to provide support to diasporic Serb populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, and Macedonia. Like Russia, Serbia makes extensive use of propaganda and disinformation, especially about Kosovo. Serbia has launched disinformation campaigns in Kosovo and has threatened to arrest and extradite Kosovar political figures. Serbian agencies operating illegally in Kosovo help spread its efforts. Serbia insists that Kosovo is part of its territory, and Russia supports this position. The majority of EU and NATO states support independence for Kosovo, an act which Russia claims violates international law and puts ethnic Serbians in Kosovo at risk. Serbia, with Russian encouragement, continues to stoke tensions in Kosovo. In January 2017, Serbia sent a Russian-made train into Mitrovica, Kosovo bearing signs in Cyrillic (Serbian and Russian) reading “Kosovo is Serbia.” When Kosovars protested the provocation, President Vucic threatened military intervention. On the flipside, Kosovo Serbs erected a wall in Mitrovica, adorning it with pictures of President Putin and anti-NATO propaganda.

Russia’s primary means of influence in Serbia is through propaganda, the dissemination of which is made all the easier by the ideological affinity between Russia and Serbia. Russia maintains an extensive propaganda campaign in Serbia that promotes Serbian nationalism and disseminates anti-American and anti-EU messages. Narratives include the rehabilitation of President Milosevic as a peacemaker who only wanted to save Yugoslavia. Russia’s attempts to convince Serbia that Moscow is more of a friend to its people than Western Europe appear to be quite effective. In one poll, Serbs were more likely to assume that Russia was the country’s biggest provider of financial aid when the EU’s contributions far exceed those of the Kremlin. The majority of Serbians support joint military exercises with Russia, and almost two-thirds of Serbs see NATO as a threat.

To spread propaganda in Serbia, Russia uses its RT (formerly Russia Today) television channel and website and the Sputnik Srbija radio broadcast. These stations’ content primarily targets the country’s Orthodox Christian community and had a combined staff of 30 in 2015. The outlets emphasize Russia and Serbia’s shared Slavic heritage and disseminate anti-NATO propaganda, which Serbs are quite receptive to after the 1999 bombing campaign. (Some of it is exaggerated, though, such as the suggestion that then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has a “pathological hatred of Slavs.”) Pro-Russian political and media figures spread this narrative through discussions of topics such as Srebrenica genocide resolution. They also led opposition to Kosovo’s failed U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) bid, claiming that the country could not properly maintain Orthodox churches under its control.  

In addition, there are 109 organizations promoting Russo-Serbian relations whether that entails sponsoring Russian foundations or supporting pro-Russian members of parliament. In one poll, 67.2 percent of Serbs favored being allies with Russia while 18.8 percent expressed disfavor. In contrast, 50.9 percent of Serbs support EU membership with 38.8 percent against. Serbia’s media outlets, like those of other Balkan states, are quite small-scale. Therefore, Russian media outlets fill the void, spreading propaganda that native media later picks up and disseminates further. 

Another major Russian connection to Serbia is through military ties. Despite the presence of 5,000 NATO troops in the region, Russia does not shy away from selling arms to Serbia. In 2016, Russia provided Serbia with MiG-29 (NATO reporting name: “Fulcrum”) fighter jets, equipped with updated missiles, radar, and communications systems. Serbia bought the Fulcrums from Russia to replace its aging fleet of Russian Aircraft Corporation (VSK) MiG-21 (NATO reporting name: “Fishbed”) interceptors. The shipment also included 30 T-72 main battle tanks (MBTs) and 30 BRDM-2 amphibious armored patrol cars. Belgrade only wanted more, asking Moscow for Buk 9k37M1-2 (NATO reporting name: SA-17 “Grizzly”) and S-300 (NATO reporting name: SA-10 “Grumble”) anti-aircraft (AA) missiles. In 2017, Serbia ordered six more Fulcrums from Russia. It will reportedly take $216 million to modernize the Fulcrums. The equipment will come from Russian arms reserves, and will either would have to fly them over NATO territory to transport them to Serbia, or take the aircraft apart and fly each part in separately. Russia also agreed to charge only for modernizing the vehicles with its technicians in Serbia. Serbia also expressed interest in opening a repair facility for Russian Mil helicopters. The arms shipments have only encouraged Serbia’s neighbors, such as Kosovo, to enhance their own military capabilities.

Russia opened a spy base in Nis in southern Serbia in 2012, which it uses to monitor Western activities in the Balkan region. Moscow insists that the facility is for flood relief and firefighting operations. It is not located far from the 5,000-member NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo. This force includes 600 American troops. In October 2016, Serbia shipped 40 tons of food, clothing, and medicine to the besieged city of Aleppo in Syria, Russia’s chief Middle Eastern ally. The aid shipment flew out of Nis, the alleged Russian spy base, in a Russian plane. 

On 2 November 2016, 200 Russian and Belarussian paratroopers drilled in Serbia. The exercises, dubbed “Slavic Brotherhood,” occurred alongside NATO drills in Montenegro focused on tasks such as earthquake relief. The “Slavic Brotherhood” joint-training included airborne exercises with Russian Ilyushin Il-76 (NATO reporting name: “Candid”) military airlifters deploying variants of the BMD airborne infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). One should note, however, that while Serbia engaged in two joint military exercise with Russia in 2016, it trained over 125 times with U.S., NATO, and other Western militaries that same year. In 2015, Serbia participated in 197 exercises with NATO and 370 bilateral activities with Alliance members in comparison with only 36 similar conducted with Russia that year. Out of 21 multinational training exercises that Serbia participated in, only two involved Russia. Also, Russia is not Serbia’s only arms provider. In addition to buying arms from Russia, Serbia purchased H145M helicopters from Airbus, a European firm.

There are also considerable Russian business interests in Serbia. Putin ally Vladimir Yakunin, who heads up the state-owned Russian Railways, has done work upgrading Serbia’s own rail infrastructure. The state-owned natural gas titan Gazprom – headed up by Aleksey Miller, another Putin confederate – has a majority stake in Serbia’s own gas supplier. Finally, Lukoil has an 80 percent share in the Serbian gas station chain Beopetrol. Eighty percent of Serbia’s gas imports come from Russia. Russia charges Serbia $340 per thousand cubic meters of natural gas. This is higher than what it charges Ukraine or Hungary, causing Serbia to seek Western alternatives for its gas imports. Russia did, however, expand its investment in Serbia after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cut off loans to Belgrade for failing to meet the organization’s standards. Russia promised to provide $800 million to build a railway from Belgrade to Pancevo. It also promised to expand the South Stream pipeline. After Turkish F-16C Fighting Falcon interceptors downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) fighter-bomber in November 2015, Russia said it would reroute automobile shipments destined for Turkey to Serbia and increase its investment in Serbia’s agricultural sector at the expense of Turkey’s. 

Despite its apparent closeness to Russia, Serbia maintains a delicate balancing act between East and West. In July 2017, Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabic said that if forced to choose between Russia and the EU, Serbia would choose the latter. She stated that she intends to attain EU membership for Serbia by 2020. She would not comment when asked about whether she would change the current Serbian policy of opposing sanctions against Russia over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. She also said that a reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo will depend on how Kosovo treats ethnic Serbs living there. Former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has been working to repair relations between Serbia and Kosovo after the latter’s 2008 declaration of independence. The German Chancellery also played a role behind the scenes. President Vucic hopes for Serbia to join the EU, but Russia also wants to bring the country closer into its own Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Serbia’s former president, Tomislav Nikolic, courted both Russia and the EU. In 2013, President Nikolic paid a visit to President Putin’s dacha (summer home) in Sochi, announcing a strategic partnership between Moscow and Belgrade. The two states signed a military cooperation agreement later that same year. In 2014, President Nikolic bestowed upon President Putin Serbia’s highest national order. Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009, and began negotiations for ascension in 2014. Moscow has admitted Serbia into the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO). Pro-Russian parties get almost 15 percent of the vote in Serbia’s parliament. This is stills enough to swing elections and policies in a pro-Kremlin direction.

Serbia cannot afford a complete pivot toward Russia lest it risk losing Western aid. Serbia formally adopted neutrality but 2006 but joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative. In 2015, it signed the Individual Partnership Action Plan, the highest level of cooperation between the Alliance and a country not willing to join. However, Serbian politicians fear mentioning close relations with NATO in public, fearing that doing so will decrease their popularity. On 28 June 2016, Serbia bought two Mil Mi-17 (NATO reporting name: “Hind”) transport helicopters. Serbian TV broadcast the arms deal, while not airing news of milestones in cooperation with NATO.

From the Shadows

The Kremlin’s influence in Macedonia is much less apparent. Russia supports Macedonia’s ruling party, the VMRO. Russia media outlets disseminate propaganda about Western political and non-governmental figures. Though some analysts claim that Russia’s influence in Macedonia is overstated, instead emphasizing the ethnic and political tensions driving strife in the country, it is still a mistake to underestimate the influence that Russia exerts in Macedonia, particularly through its intelligence agencies.

According to leaked documents from Macedonia’s intelligence agency, Russia has been fighting in the shadows since 2008 to keep the country away from NATO. Serbian intelligence also reportedly played a role in supporting pro-Russian and anti-Western dissidents in Macedonia. In June 2017, after facing a six-month long political crisis, Zoran Zaev became the country’s new prime minister. Two ethnic Albanian parties (Albanians are one quarter of the two million people in Macedonia) back his center-left coalition. He called for fighting corruption, and promised to bring Macedonia into the EU and NATO.

Nationalists led by former prime minister Nikola Gruevski feel that Prime Minister Zaev is giving too much power to the country’s Albanians. In April, nationalists stormed the parliament in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, beating up Zaev and his supporters. Gruevski, supported by Russia, had to step down after allegations that his government wiretapped thousands of citizens. A special prosecutor has charged him and several party associates with abuse of power, money laundering, and corruption. After Zaev’s election, Russia accused the U.S. and EU of conspiring to create a “Greater Albania.” In a conversation with foreign ministry official Nenad Kolev, Russian ambassador Oleg Shcherbak stated that Russia wanted to create a bloc of militarily neutral countries in Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia.

Macedonia’s Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (UBK) reports that Russia coordinates its subversive activities in Macedonia out of its embassy. The influence campaign began in 2008 when Greece blocked Macedonia’s efforts to join NATO as Greece disagrees with Macedonia’s name. Russia reportedly plans to use its energy relationships with other Balkan states to make Macedonia solely dependent on Russian fossil fuels. The leaked files reported three operatives from the Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki; SVR) operating on Macedonian soil, coordinating with another SVR post in Belgrade. The Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye; GRU), Russia’s military intelligence agency, maintains four operatives in the country, who work in concert with another station in Sofia, Bulgaria. Other spies came from the news agency TASS and the state cultural organization Rossotrudnichestvo.

Russian intelligence operatives bribe Macedonian journalists to spread disinformation, do not use mobile phones, use passwords and cover stories, and change meeting locations at the last minute. The documents describe them as “extremely cautious.” Russia also pushes for greater pan-Slavic unity with Macedonia’s Orthodox Church. The Russian embassy oversaw the creation of over 30 Russo-Macedonian “friendship” organizations. It opened a cultural center in Skopje and sponsored the construction of Orthodox churches across the country. Russia uses its consulates in Bitola and Ohrid for intelligence purposes.

All of this, however, pales in comparison to an operation supposedly carried out by Russian intelligence in Montenegro in October 2016.

Battle for the Black Mountain

Montenegro declared and won independence from Serbia in 2006. The country at first allowed for Russian investment in its tourism industry, and it sold off its main aluminum plant to Putin ally Oleg Deripaska. Russia also wished to purchase a port in the southern city of Bar to use as a naval base, but it failed to secure the rights. Nevertheless, Russian oligarchs and politicians reportedly own 40 percent of the real estate in Montenegro.

NATO invited Montenegro to join the Alliance in December 2015. Despite its separation from Serbia, there remains some anti-NATO sentiment in Montenegro, manifested primarily through a coalition called the Neutrality Union. In 2017, the group even tried to sue all the Alliance member states that participated in the bombing. (Greece did not participate.) The bombing killed ten people, nine of which were civilians, in Montenegro. Before its ascension to NATO, the Montenegrin government claimed that 46 percent of Montenegrins supported NATO membership while opposition polls put the figure closer to 35 percent. A poll taken in December 2016 claimed that 39.5 percent of Montenegrins supported NATO membership while 39.7 opposed it. In the same poll, 63 percent of people supported joining the EU.

In October 2016, authorities arrested 20 Serbian agents with alleged connections to Russia’s intelligence apparatus for plotting a coup. The government later charged 14 people with terrorism for their involvement in the conspiracy. It occurred around the time of Montenegro’s 16 October elections, which Russia saw as its last chance to prevent the country from joining NATO. Had Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic lost reelection, Montenegro would have likely abandoned its aspirations to join NATO. However, it appears that Russia wished to take a more direct approach to ensure that Montenegro did not join the Alliance.

Nine of 25 people involved in the plot have pled guilty. People implicated include a tailor, fisherman, waiter, and a 62-year-old woman. Still, the conspiracy shows much greater sophistication at least according to witness testimony. Much of the testimony regarding the coup relies on Aleksandar “Sasa” Sindelic, a convicted murderer with a history of mental illness. He claims to have begun work for Russia in May 2015, taken a five-hour polygraph in Moscow, and first learned of the plot against Prime Minister Djukanovic in April 2016. In September, he claims that Russian intelligence officers ordered him to purchase weapons and uniforms for the planned assault. He claimed that the Russians paid him $236,557. Authorities found $147,848.12 in his account. He also possessed three $100 bills processed in Moscow, as indicated by their serial numbers, at Bank of America and then at Sber Bank. These were not the only financial connections that authorities uncovered. One of the Serb conspirators travelled to Moscow on several occasions. One time, he did so with a ticket paid for with funds from a Western Union located on the same street as the GRU’s Moscow headquarters.  

Planning for the coup, an operation spearheaded by the GRU, took place in Serbia as well as in Russia. In addition to the aforementioned everyday folk, the plot involved Montenegrin opposition figures, Serbian nationalists, and two Russian citizens. The two opposition leaders implicated are Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic. Mandic allegedly allowed his driver to use his official car to drive to Belgrade to recruit for the plot with another conspirator. He also travelled to Moscow on several occasions. Knezevic reportedly used a secure phone given to him by Russian intelligence. He also travelled to Moscow and Belgrade. Two days before the election, he gave a speech promising to put Prime Minister Djukanovic in Montenegro’s Spuz prison. The two men come from the Democratic Front (DF), the rival to Prime Minister Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The DPS has ruled the country for three decades while the DF favors better relations with Russia. Russia reportedly funded the DF months before the coup. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is notoriously corrupt and reportedly maintains ties to organized crime. He alternates, much like Putin, between the offices of president and prime minister.

Others charged include a former Serbian secret police commander, Bratislav Dikic. Dikic was relieved from Serbia’s security services following accusations of links between him and organized crime. He previously led a pro-Russia, anti-NATO party in Serbia. He accused Montenegrin authorities of planting evidence on him. Mirko Velimirovic was a Serb from Northern Kosovo who participated in the plot but then alerted Montenegrin authorities. He pled guilty but was later released. However, when he returned to Serbia he claimed that he gave this testimony under duress.

The two Russian nationals involved in the plot were Eduard Sismakov and Vladimir Popov. Sismakov reportedly worked as a military attaché at Russia’s embassy in Poland before the government there expelled him on charges of espionage. Popov and Sismakov oversaw the plot from Belgrade. The Serbian government confirmed that Sismakov and Popov both fled to Serbia after the coup failed and used encrypted cellular phones. The Serbian government allowed them to return to Russia. They are now wanted by Interpol, and Montenegro charged them in absentia. Additional reports indicate that Belgrade extradited several Russian nationals accused of involvement in the plot.

The plot would begin when voting closed on 16 October. The plan was for 50 armed men, disguised as police officers, to use election day protests by the DF as cover to kill members of Montenegro’s Special Anti-Terrorist Unit and any law enforcement personnel guarding the country’s parliament. The terrorists also planned to open fire on the crowd to make protesters think that it was the police firing at them. With this opposition removed, the GRU agents would lead the protesters in a storming of the parliament building to declare victory for the opposition. The new government would arrange for the arrest – or, if necessary, killing – of Prime Minister Djukanovic. There are even reports suggesting that the plotters tried to hire an Orlando-based private security company to frame the U.S. for the coup. The private security company was Brian Scott’s Patriot Defense Group. He said that intermediaries for a “Canadian-Israeli” adviser to the DF approached him to provide “counter-surveillance, as well as evacuation and planning of extraction of manpower sometime after October 6, 2016.” The man who contacted him was reportedly Aron Shaviv, a British-Israeli consultant for the DF.

The reason for the plot’s failure was a decision by some of the conspirators to jump ship and inform Montenegrin authorities. After assassins failed to kill Prime Minister Djukanovic, the GRU personnel returned to Moscow. Internet communication services such as Viber and WhatsApp were cut off during the coup. Some claim that the ruling party used the panic to win votes (36 of 81 seats in the end). The DF won 18 seats, but complains that the election was rigged. Russia denied involvement in the coup. On 24 October, President Vucic claimed to have arrested another group plotting against Prime Minister Djukanovic that included Russian citizens. Two days later, none other than Nikolay Patrushev landed in Serbia to secure the release of the three Russians. Authorities from both states later denied that these events took place.

In June 2017, Montenegro became the 29th member of the Alliance prompting considerable outrage from Russia. The Kremlin promised unspecified retaliatory measures in response to Montenegro joining NATO. Montenegro’s foreign ministry scolded a Russian diplomat over the detention of a politician from the DPS at a Moscow airport. (Moscow reportedly maintains a blacklist of Montenegrin officials banned from entering Russia.) The parliament voted 46-0 to join NATO. Montenegro now hopes to join the EU by 2020.

The attempted Montenegro coup symbolized a drastic escalation in Russian efforts to curtail Western influence in its near abroad. Moscow resorted to lethal force against a sovereign government for aligning with the West, not content with simply using propaganda or cyber-attacks. Since the Maydan uprising in Ukraine, Russia has shown considerable sensitivity to NATO expansion and any perceived cases of Western-backed regime change in the former Soviet space. In Moscow’s view, such meddling only creates chaos, empowering anti-Russian elements whether they be of ultra-nationalist or Islamist orientation. This was the case, according to Russia, in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Ukraine in 2014, and Moscow now wishes to push back against this trend. While Russian subversion the Balkans and the broader former Soviet space through propaganda, intelligence activities, and cyber operations will likely continue to be the norm, one should not rule out another Montenegro-style operation given the Kremlin’s heightened fears of Euro-American meddling.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons