By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Interpol has issued several Red Notices (requests to locate and provisionally arrest individuals before extradition) for Russian intelligence operatives on behalf of the Montenegrin government. Interpol wants these Russians for attempting to overthrow Montenegro’s government during the elections this past October.
Milivoje Katnic, Montenegro’s chief special prosecutor, told a local television station this week that he has evidence of Russia’s Federal Security Service involvement in the coup attempt. One of the individuals listed in the Red Notices was expelled from Poland in 2014 for espionage.
It certainly seems that anytime an incident like the alleged coup attempt in Montenegro occurs, the same Russians tend to be involved. For the most part, this is because the 45th Spetznas, a sub-unit of Russia’s GRU intelligence organization, is tasked with special warfare.
Russian Meddling in Foreign Elections Is Nothing New
The last few months leading up to the U.S. presidential election and into 2017 included numerous accusations of Russian meddling. This is nothing new and Russia has played this game in the past. But it’s important to point out that Moscow has not attempted a coup in Washington, nor was there a viable Russian threat to the U.S. election.
Russia’s approach has largely been suggestive – using carefully leaked information to undermine public trust in the electoral process. In other words, Moscow wants to be seen as capable of meddling in U.S. elections without actually doing anything beyond information leaks to the media. This isn’t the case for other targets of Moscow’s wrath.
Russia has used black propaganda to target pro-Western governments in former Soviet bloc nations, while some of their leaders were actually targeted for assassination. The attempt to poison Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 is a case in point.
The small Baltic state of Montenegro gained its independence from neighboring Serbia in 2006, much to Russia’s chagrin. That didn’t matter much to Russian policy.
Montenegro Seeks Eventual Integration into NATO and EU
Ethnic Russians own nearly half of Montenegro’s real estate and invest a significant amount of money in the nation. However, with long-time Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic pushing for integration into NATO – and eventually into the EU – Russia’s potential enclave on the Adriatic is quickly closing.
Mid-October saw Montenegrin elections proceed without any hiccups until the final hours, when 20 Serbian nationals were arrested for attempting to kidnap Djukanovic and attack other institutions of the state. Some of the detained suspects are alleged to have fought in Ukraine, so it’s possible they were capable of kidnapping.
Immediately after Djukanovic made the plot public, he earned the scorn of Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who maintains a close relationship with Moscow. Inexplicably, Djukanovic resigned shortly after making the claim despite his party winning the election.
Having spent time in the Baltic states during elections, I know it’s not uncommon to hear these types of accusations. Each region has its own brand of conspiracy theories that make the rounds during an election cycle. But this alleged attack went from conspiracy to reality rather quickly.
After Serbian Prime Minister Vucic made light of the allegations, Montenegro’s special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic offered to provide evidence of the plot to his larger neighbor. Two days after the initial accusation, Vucic made another and noticeably different public statement. Vucic said there was indeed a plot to assassinate Djukanovic after Serbian security forces found uniforms, money and weapons in the possession of several Serbian nationalists.
Serbia Blames Plot Against Montenegrin Prime Minister on East and West Intelligence Agencies
Further arrests were made, but Vucic claimed that no politicians from Serbia or Montenegro were involved in the plot. Instead, he claimed that the plot was the work of several Eastern and Western intelligence services.
Vucic’s claim is certainly extraordinary. Owing to the Serbian prime minister’s close working relationship with Moscow, Russian intelligence services operate openly in Serbia. This hasn’t been a problem for Serbia in the past until this recent plot came to light.
According to Montenegrin sources, Serbia expelled several Russians who were allegedly involved in the plot. Expelling Russian operatives who were likely operating under official cover didn’t sit well with Moscow, even though the assassination plot was made public.
Nikolai Patrushev, the chief of Russia’s Security Council, made a trip to Serbia shortly after the Russians were expelled. After the meeting, the story changed. Moscow claimed that no Russian citizens were expelled and Vucic refused to elaborate.
Although the Montenegrin plot incident looked finished, Vucic was next in the crosshairs. The Serbian prime minister’s bodyguards rushed him to a safe house after weapons and uniforms were found in the forest near his home, ostensibly for use in an assassination plot.
No new arrests have been announced and all parties involved have been silent on the issue. But the implications of a plot – first against Montenegro, and then against Serbia – is not something to be taken lightly.
Russia’s involvement in the region is long-standing because of Moscow’s need for a toehold in southern Europe, but also because of their shared linguistic and cultural ties.
Montenegrin moves to join NATO have been met with substantial scorn from Russia. Vucic’s playing to the West publically while acquiescing to Moscow privately may have been the final straw.
From Russia’s point of view, it cannot lose the influence it has in the Balkans. That would allow NATO to continue its eastward march and apply pressure to other former East bloc states that are still aligned with Russia.
Westward Drift May Cause Russia to Act Against Balkan Neighbors
The continued westward drift of the Balkans to NATO and the EU might have forced Russia to act. And there is indeed prior evidence to support Russian involvement in the Montenegrin plot.
In 2010, the Kyrgyz government fell into chaos. But just before the anarchy erupted, a Russian contingent of GRU Spetznas arrived in Bishkek. According to publically available information at the time, the contingent numbered around 20 individuals.
While it is not certain that Russia was involved, the methodology used in the alleged plot is eerily familiar. Moreover, the involvement of Interpol lends further credence to the accusations. Many of Russia’s targets have been small nations with some form of political instability that Moscow can exploit.
Montenegro and Serbia fit the bill nicely and Russia certainly has an interest in preventing them from fully embracing the West. If this was the case and Moscow was indeed involved in this plot, then it has failed.
Russia’s interest in the region has not changed and there will be further attempts in the Balkans to undermine any integration with the West. Ukraine learned this lesson the hard way. Russia tried and failed to sway Ukrainian politics, only to opt for chaos and a frozen conflict. It’s an ugly route to settle for, but it still serves Russia’s interests.