The Struggle for Montenegro

Moscow’s Hybrid War

For the Kremlin, controlling Montenegro is an opportunity to have its own proxy in NATO. For Belgrade, it’s a chance to regain the territory, which declared independence in June 2006.

What Russia fears most. Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović (L) and NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, 2018.

The Montenegrin government survived a coup attempt in 2016, and the country joined the Western alliance the following year.

In 2017, Moscow began a campaign to destabilise Podgorica through its most important allies in the area: Serbia and Republika Srpska, and the Church of Serbia.

Although Russia played a significant role in the peaceful restoration of Montenegrin independence in 2006, and Russian oligarchs who invested in businesses and real estate were the driving force behind the Montenegrin “economic boom” since 2007, the government’s pursuit of the West and the decision to join NATO were key reasons for undermining the new state.

To increase its political influence in Europe, Moscow decided at the end of 2008 to unite the forces of the intelligence and counterintelligence agencies – GRU, SVR, FSB – and to create a network that would be able to destabilise countries of strategic importance to Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy.

These initiatives aligned with Russian interest in controlling the Western Balkans. Moscow began an extensive campaign to destabilise Montenegro, instrumentalising local pro-Russian and pro-Serbian parties, radical organisations and associations, as well as public figures and the media.

At that time, Montenegro was not yet under direct attack; it was counted on for long-term, friendly business connections.

For Moscow, ex-Soviet states such as Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as Georgia and Kazakhstan, and indirect action in politically strong member states of the European Union, such as Germany, Italy and France, were more critical.

In the Balkans, the key pillar of Russian influence was Serbia, especially after the pro-Western Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated, and Serbian progressives, renegades from Vojislav Seselj’s radicals – Toma Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić – took absolute power in the largest and most populous country in the region.

In the meantime, Montenegro welcomed Russian oligarchs ready to invest with open arms, such as aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska whose company Rusal bought the aluminium plant in Podgorica, and the company Midland, which acquired the ironworks in Nikšić.

Russian investments in Montenegro were significantly higher compared to other countries in transition in the region. This was the conclusion in 2007 of the European Commission, which, at the request of the European Parliament, investigated Russian money laundering in the country.

The Moscow-Podgorica idyll lasted only a few years. Everything turned around in the middle of 2013.

No Bar and Kotor

“The Russians offered Montenegro billions of dollars for a Russian military base on the Montenegrin coast,” according to US Senator Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) unveiled the bid in 2015.

Moscow had made the offer to Podgorica through secret channels. Not for real military bases but for a “zone” for Russian military ships.

According to a January 2015 report in Pobjeda, the Russian military attaché (most likely at the beginning of 2013) asked the Montenegrin government if Moscow’s Mediterranean fleet could use Bar and Kotor for the stationing and servicing of Russian military ships and “other material and tactical needs, supply of fuel and supplies”.

Since Syrian ports were limited in their ability to host Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean then, Moscow was forced to look for other locations.

At first glance, it does not seem like a request for bases, but thousands of Russian soldiers on the ships would be in Montenegro and could be activated at any moment.

Vladimir Putin was convinced that Milo Đukanović’s government would not be able to reject a Russian “request” like that.

However, Podgorica said no. Defence Minister Milica Pejanović-Đurišić never met with Russian officials to discuss the proposed deal.

Moscow persisted. Andrej Nesterenko, the Russian ambassador in Podgorica, announced that Moscow “was interested” in talking with Montenegro’s military leadership about Russian warships docking in the ports of Bar and Kotor, but the Ministry of Defense “didn’t… want to hear about it”.

At the end of that year, Đukanović was on an official visit to the United States and in talks in Washington, he insisted that Montenegro “receive an invitation to NATO as soon as possible”.

While the announcement was welcomed in the West, a warning message came from the Kremlin. Montenegro was “turning its back on its historical interests and friends”.

At that time, it was clear to the Kremlin that Montenegro was moving towards the West, and a plan was quickly hatched in Moscow to “stand in the way of Podgorica’s intentions”.

Moscow Against Podgorica via Belgrade

Everything went according to script. In just a few years, Russia established a network through Serbia.

Along with the Church, Orthodox brotherhoods, pro-Serbian parties, organisations, associations, and Serbian-Russian-Montenegro friendship societies were activated.

A network of local and Serbian media was also created, which became loyal propagandists for Serbia and Russia in Montenegro.

The key task of Belgrade and Moscow was to expand the network to the press and non-governmental organisations that were reputed to be Montenegrin, that is, not branches or “proxies” of Russia or Serbia.

On the contrary: NGOs and specific media opposed the long-term rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists “and satellites” and fought against blatant and long-term corruption in Montenegrin society.

Therefore, they jointly assessed in Belgrade and Moscow that such “pro-Montenegro” checkpoints were the best means for effective pressure on the government.

Stories about the anti-Serb politics of the Montenegrin government, about the persecution of the Church of Serbia and the Serbs in Montenegro, were quickly spread by “fighters for a democratic state and freedom of speech”.

“Hard” Russian Power

In 2015, when Montenegro was officially invited to join NATO, Dimitrij Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, threatened that “Montenegro will regret it.”

A year later, Montenegro almost regretted it due to the 2016 coup attempt.

It was later revealed that the coup and the planning of the assassination of Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović was the work of Russian military intelligence (GRU).

Serbian extremists and former war veterans, such as Bratislav Dikić, a retired general in the Serbian gendarmerie, and several volunteers from Donbas were involved.

The indictment includes two leaders of the pro-Serbian and Russophile Democratic Front, Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević.

One important Kremlin player, Ananije Nikić, took refuge in Russia, which refused to extradite him and the GRU officers involved to Montenegro.

In May 2017, during a meeting with the indicted leaders of the Democratic Front in Moscow, an adviser to the Russian President, Sergei Glazev, announced that “Russia will do everything to contribute to the elucidation of the so-called coup d’état in Montenegro.”

Although, after the verdict of the High Court in Podgorica, in which everyone on the indictment was convicted, it seemed that Montenegro had escaped danger, political developments in the country showed the opposite.

The indicted Democratic Front politicians appealed their conviction and their appeal is still in process. In the interim, they retook their seats in parliament, and Mandić is standing as a candidate in the presidential election on 19 March.

Soft Espionage and the Silence of the Government

Serbia and Republika Srpska are considered vital Balkan targets for Russian intelligence operations.

Belgrade is alleged to be the home of the Russian civilian intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is behind intelligence operations in neighbouring countries, according to Grzegorz Kuzminski, a Polish expert on geopolitics and security issues.

According to Kuzminski, the FSB carries out influence operations on several levels in politics and culture. “Soft espionage” is an increasingly important segment of Russian intelligence activities, he said in an interview with the BBC.

According to the Polish analyst, FSB strategy emphasises the engagement of influential people in organisations “who sometimes willingly, sometimes because they are manipulated, and sometimes completely unconsciously, work for foreign country interests”.

Admission to NATO in 2017, deepening its cooperation with Western partners, and leading regional advocacy for EU integration did not strengthen Montenegro. Instead, it played into the Kremlin’s hands.

Making an Army

Since 2016, the Russian strategy of exerting influence in Montenegro has become more subtle.

With the logistical help of Russia, various anti-NATO associations were founded, and “young and energetic new people” were favoured from Moscow, such as Marko Milačić, the then-leader of the Movement for the Neutrality of Montenegro, and Igor Damjanović, the coordinator of international cooperation of the movement No to War – Not in NATO!

Apart from prominent individuals, the media supported creating a Russo-Serbian Montenegro via Russian news outlets such as Sputnik and Serbian portal IN4S.

According to a 2021 analysis by the Digital Forensic Center (DFC), Montenegro’s joining of EU sanctions due to the Russian annexation of Crimea was an additional incentive for a strong campaign and the installation of an influence network in the country.

In a DFC analysis entitled “The Role of Russia in the Balkans: The Case of Montenegro”, the  Center lists numerous non-governmental organisations that Moscow indirectly controls.

In the records of active NGOs, according to the DFC, many organisations have a Russian prefix. There are also numerous Orthodox brotherhoods.  Most of the associations are directly connected to the Church of Serbia.

The network installed a few years ago meant the spread of influence. But for the real fight against the “godless and blasphemous government of Đukanović and his epigones”, as the Metropolitan of the Church of Serbia Amfilohije once said, what is needed is the church, as a political umbrella that will unite the interests of both the Serbian and Russian worlds.

A Coup, However

And then a new onslaught began. This time not with weapons or subversive groups. The key instrument was the Church of Serbia, the key tool, liturgies. Along with the church, which was led by Metropolitan Amfilohije, a political-religious movement was formed to overthrow the “nonpartisan government” in Montenegro.

The defeat of Milo Đukanović’s coalition government on 30 August 2020 was a sign that not only the “unchangeable government” had been defeated but that Montenegro had lost the battle.

Two and a half years on, after the fall of the clerical Government of Zdravko Krivokapić, following the collapse of the government of Dritan Abazović (still holding on to power as caretaker prime minister), little has changed: Montenegro is firmly in the Russo-Serbian camp.

State institutions and the security sector have been destroyed. The ANB national security agency, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Armed Forces of Montenegro are under the control of services from Belgrade.

The only question is whether this is understood by the vast majority of citizens, 75 per cent of whom, according to polls, declare themselves in favour of European Union membership.

This article originally appeared in Pobjeda and is adapted with permission. Photograph courtesy of NATO. Published under a Creative Commons license.