A Balkan Gambit: Kremlin’s Outsourced Hybrid War in the Balkans

In this two-part investigation, I look into a series of active measures, hybrid warfare and false-flag operations in the countries of the Balkans orchestrated by Russian nationals working in close coordination with the Kremlin. 

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PART 1:

Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 2014:

On 2 October 2014, a short announcement appeared on the website of the Border Police of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The matter-of-fact alert was titled “Entry of nationals of the Russian Federation” and read:

“In order to objectively inform the public on the entry of citizens of the Russian Federation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we inform you that in the period from 25 September to 2 October 2014, 144 citizen of the Russian Federation entered the republic via the International border crossing of Raca, as  follows: on 25.09 (11 persons), 26.09. (36 persons), 27.09 (24 persons), 28.09 (24 persons), 29.09  (5 persons), 30.09 (40 persons) and 1.10  (4 persons). All persons satisfied the requirements for entry into Bosnia and Herzegovina, were not wearing uniforms and military artefacts, and among them were women and men of different age groups.”

This odd news item was the police’s attempt at calming the public, after local media had reported an unusual number of burly Russian men, all dressed in Cossack uniform, popping up in the tiny Balkan country in the weeks leading up to presidential elections on October 12. More alarmingly, the nation’s Federal TV had identified some of the Cossack visitors – in particular their leader, Nikolay Djakonov,  as having led a paramilitary Cossack unit during the accession of Crimea earlier that year.

Now, more than a hundred of these same men, wearing the same uniforms, were all heading to Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska – the 1.2 m-people, Serb-majority entity that together with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, makes up the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.   The purported reason for the Cossacks’ arrival was to take part in a folklore performance on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. However, local media quickly discovered that none of the sheep-skin hatted dancers seemed to know when the planned performances were going to be, nor how long they planned to stay in the country. Nor, for that matter, could they dance. The Cossack delegation was accompanied by knyaz Zurab Zhavchavadze, the monarchist son of a former Russian Imperial Guard commander, and director of the Russian charity fund Basil the Great. The fund, along with the RS Ministry of Culture, were the official organizers of the Cossacks’ visit to the Federation.

(read the full first part of the investigation at Bellingcat)

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Part 2: The Montenegro Zugzwang

Montenegro, July 2016

On July 14 2016, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted what appeared to be a series of messages threatening the tiny republic of Montenegro:

These vague threats came from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova as reaction to Montenegro’s prime minister statement that “people from the lowest classes in the Balkans falling prey to Russian propaganda.” This remark, in turn, was precipitated by increasingly hostile Russian rhetoric in the months following Montenegro’s decision to orient itself westward, and to accept NATO’s invitation to join the alliance – a political decision that was controversial from a popular perspective (between 40% and half of the population is estimated to be opposed to membership in the military alliance).

On December 2, 2015, Kremlin spokesman Peskov threatened that Russia would take “retaliatory measures” in case Montenegro accedes to NATO, and Russian parliament threatened to freeze all cooperation projects with the small Balkan country. Ignoring these Russian warnings, Djukanovic signed an accession protocol with NATO in May 2016, permanently depriving Russia of its only potential ally with naval access to the Mediterranean.

Despite all the warning signals, when on October 16th 2016 – the day of general elections in Montenegro – Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic announced that a day earlier, the republic’s special services had arrested twenty Serbian citizens who had been planning a paramilitary plot to throw the mountainous republic into chaos – and potentially have him assassinated. Global reaction was skeptical. The alleged plot, described over the next several days by prosecutors, ministers, and local media, in at-times contradictory renditions, sounded too cartoonish to be reported on seriously. The authorities alleged that two dozen Serb and Montenegrin conspirators, acting under foreign guidance, conspired to purchase arms, infiltrate parliament on election day dressed as policemen, initiate a false-flag police attack on crowds of protestors gathering outside the building, arrest – or possibly even assassinate the Prime Minister, and install a government led by the Democratic Front – the staunchly anti-NATO, pro-Russia opposition alliance. The story barely registered in the global news flow.

It was not until Serbia – initially just as skeptical of Montenegro government’s claims – on October 24th arrested two Russian citizens who – Serbian police said – were in possession of counterfeit Montenegro special-police uniforms, €122,000 in cache, and sophisticated encrypted telecoms equipment – that global media started paying attention to this story. On October 26th 2016, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev travelled to Belgrade on a previously scheduled visit. In early November, the Guardian quoted an undisclosed source close to the Serbian government as saying that Patrushev had apologized to the Serbian government for what he described as “unsanctioned rogue operations”, an assertion that Russia later publicly denied and called a provocation.

The Serbian Plot

Several days after Patrushev’s visit, on October 29th, Serbian police discovered a cache of weapons near Prime Minister Vucic’s family home in Jajinci, along the route the would be riding to work. The arsenal was hidden in a car parked in the forest approximately fifteen meters from the roadside, and included a grenade launcher, four hand-grenades and more than a hundred rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition, as well as ammunition for automatic weapons.

The startling discovery sent Vucic into hiding until the investigation was completed; an understandable reaction in a country that had already seen one of its prime ministers killed by a sniper in 2003. In a written statement to media, Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic alluded that the masterminds of the attempted assassination may have been powers from outside the country, unhappy with Serbia’s sovereign choices. “History has proven that a Serb hand is always available for hire to do their dirty work”, Dacic wrote.

At a press conference on the next day, Vucic downplayed the weapons find being a sign of an imminent assassination plot, but said that warnings and threats have been registered in the preceding days, and confirmed that investigators suspected a foreign link, but said that threats were “not as concrete and proven as the ones for the coup attempt in Montenegro”. Vucic confirmed that he had “seen and heard hard evidence as clean as a whistle in support of Montenegro prosecution’s allegations. I heard the conversations with my own ears; I was not satisfied with the transcripts, I wanted to hear with my own ears. Only after I heard them, do I dare confirm this to you”, Vucic said.

In the evening of the following day, November 1 2016, Serbian police, acting on the trail of the cache discovery, found an automatic “Heckler & Koch” gun with ammunition plus 200 grams of TNT, mobile phone paired to detonators, and a pistol. The weapons were stored in the trunk of a stolen Renault Megan parked in a garage in New Belgrade.

In the following days, Serbian media published unsourced information that two Russian citizens had been repatriated to Russia following Patrushev’s Belgrade visit.

The Montenegro Plot: The Prosecution Narrative

In the first press conference since the October 16th foiled coup announcement, on November 6th, Montenegro’s chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnić provided details of the alleged plot. Per his narrative, the plot involved citizens of Serbia, Russia and Montenegro, and had the goal of changing the political system in Montenegro.

The plan had been hatched, he said, by two Russian nationals, who had recruited a Serbian national – now a key indicted defendant – as the main organizer of the plot. Via him, further Serbian and Montenegrin nationals were recruited, with the goal to recruit up to 500 persons by election date.

The plan was, Katnić said, for dozens of conspirators to infiltrate crowds protesting in front of the Parliament building after 23:00 on election night. Then a certain politician from one political group (later defined as the anti-NATO, pro-Russian Democratic Front) would take the stage, and would trigger the crowd and the terrorists to storm Parliament by force. The infiltrated crowds would retain control over the building for 48 hours, and shooters would aim to assassinate Prime Minister Djukanovic. The end-game of the plot would be to change Montenegro’s political course and prevent its accession to NATO.

Katnic said a core group of fifty armed and trained terrorists with “military experience from fighting in third countries” had been recruited from within Montenegro, Serbia and Russia. He declined to confirm explicitly if that was a reference to Eastern Ukraine. Fifty automatic rifles and fifty pistols had been acquired to the criminals group.

The prosecution presented a three-minute video, provided by Serbian authorities, showing large quantities of riot police gear, Topcom and Motorola communication equipment, pepper spray, batons, gas masks, rolls of barbed wire, and drones; all allegedly captured in possession of plotters detained in Serbia at the request of Montenegro.

Katnic told reporters that the two Russians had been apprehended by Serbia’s special prosecution, and that they had been monitored surreptitiously by Serbia’s secret service and thus “the evidence could not be used in court”, as a result they “could not keep them in detention”. The two had already left the territory of Serbia, he said without specifying if they were in Russia.

The special prosecutor was careful to disconnect the accusations towards the suspected Russian nationals from Russia as a state. “We believe this was the work of Russian nationalists who wished to prevent Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integration. We are cooperating with both Serbia and Russia on this case”, he said.

However, Montenegro’s position on Russian state involvement changed after it transpired that one of the two Russians whom Montenegro was searching via the Interpol red-notice alert system, had travelled under a false family name on an officially issued, fresh Russian passport. Furthermore, it transpired that the person – Eduard Shishmakov – had until recently served as deputy military attaché in the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. According to a former head of government of another Balkan country familiar with the matter (speaking to us on condition of anonymity), both the Serbian and Montenegrin prime ministers had initially taken Patrushev’s assurances that the initiatives were those of Russian nationalists unrelated to the state, at face value, and the discovery that at least one of them was linked to GRU came as a shock.

Read Part 2 in full at Bellingcat

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