вторник, 1 ноември 2016 г.

Bulgaria Analytica: The limits of Russian hybrid power - the story of the failed coup in Montenegro

Several events during the past three weeks related to a failed coup attempt in Montenegro, which went largely underreported and not analyzed, give fresh ground for revisiting the strategy and policy script of Moscow in the Western Balkans, and in particular to Montenegro and Serbia. 
The news story covered the arrest of 20 Serbian citizens in Montenegro on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks and an armed assault on the parliament building in Podgorica on the evening after the election. 
According to the head of the Montenegrin police Slavko Stojanovic, the investigation traced down a criminal terrorist organization that had all the resources needed to carry out the attacks – a large amount of cash (€ 125,000); the latest communication and surveillance equipment, including satellite photos and sophisticated mobile communication devices; and detailed information about routes of movement of top politicians. The ultimate objective, according to the investigation, was to generate chaos in the country amid coordinated attacks on key state institutions, including the national police headquarters. 
The few Serbian, Montenegrin, Russian and Western media sources that reported on the plot allege the conspiracy also included plans for taking hostage Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. 
The grand scheme behind the plot is quite similar to the pattern used by Russian advisers and Ukrainian Berkut special forces at the time of the Kiev Maidan and in certain aspects copy the master plan of the Crimean operation. According to investigators in Podgorica, the terrorist groups led by Serbian instructors, dressed in uniforms of the Montenegrin Spetsnaz, planned to open fire on the opposition rallies, triggering a spiraling chain reaction and civilian casualties beyond the control of the Montenegrin authorities, discrediting them in the eyes of Western public opinion. 
It is no secret that on the eve of elections in Montenegro, pro-Russian and pro-Serbian parties and groups did their utmost to derail the election process and preempt a pro-Western government, that could undertake needed reforms and fully integrate the country into NATO and the EU structures.
These developments have to be weighted against a longstanding history of Russian oligarchs systematically “buying” significant chunks of the economy of Montenegro in order to secure a strategic access for Kremlin to the Mediterranean sea, a copycat of the Crimean operation, including a Russian military base. The fact that Montenegro joined NATO sounded alarms in Moscow’s political circles as a grave strategic loss in need of quick fix. 
This has escalated into an all-out effort to counter the spread of the Montenegrin virus and halt further erosion of Russian influence in region through shaking Montenegro to the core and throwing the country into chaos and civil war. An essential element in this strategy has been to provoke tensions between Podgorica and Belgrade, alienating along the way Brussels and key Western allies. 
The final reward the Kremlin sought has been to effectively block all Montenegrin state institutions on the road to the country’s full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community, leaving pockets of exposed vulnerabilities that could be later exploited to generate new dependencies and control future governments. This vintage instrument of Russian foreign policy is applied to other countries across the region, but the most imminent and direct parallels can be drawn with Serbia in the light of its pending travails acceding the EU and NATO. 
The arrest of the Serbian citizens in Podgorica on conspiracy charges put Belgrade in an extremely vincible and almost defenseless position as a country sponsoring terrorist groups and allowing Russian secret network a free hand to operate abroad from their base on its territory. 
With such high stakes involved the Serbian leadership did not have many options but to move against the plotters, to arrest and expel the implicated Russian citizens behind the attempts to overthrow the Montenegrin government. These development brought Russian-Serbian relations to an unprecedented low after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 
Prime Minister Vucic went out of his usual restraint and bluntly warned that “certain people have grossly miscalculated, if they believe that Serbia will somehow be an accomplice in this crime.” 
Following an emergency meeting of the Bureau of Special Services – the coordinating body headed by Serbian prime minister, Vucic spoke further in some detail on the operation, although using some double talk that it would be better for him to ‘bite his tongue’. 
Worth recalling is that many Western foreign policy and security observers still perceive Serbia as the weakest link in the security system of the Western Balkans, especially in the context of its tacit consent to host a coordinating center for Moscow’s intelligence and diplomatic operations in the region, including in Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYROM and in Montenegro. The potentially dual-use base of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations in Nis also raises major security concerns in NATO headquarters. 
Yet the gravity of this week’s crisis in the Russian-Serbian relations can hardly be overestimated – further exposed by the sudden wrapped-up in secrecy visit of the Secretary of Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev in Belgrade. 
His mission was a sheer crisis management and appeasement operation as Russia’s heavy handed approach risked serious long-term consequence with the negative effects spilling across borders. It is quite poignant that Patrushev volunteered to present his Serbian host with an MoU draft on future cooperation between the two countries in the security field going that could offer guarantees that Russia will not engage in hostile acts against Serbia and Serbia’s neighbors. 
Shortly after the scandal broke out, the seemingly “eternal” prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, stepped down and declared he will not be the next prime minister. Among the many explanations floating around, two seemed most credible, although somewhat mutually exclusive – that the long serving Montenegrin prime minister interpreted the foiled plans for his abduction was a sure sign that he is unacceptable to Moscow, while Brussels did not believe he could pull the country out of Kremlin’s reach and secure smooth entry into the EU. Thus Djukanovic was left with no option but to step back and pass on the baton of power to a new face. 
Although information on the Russian-Serbian conspiracy in Montenegro is still scarce, some raw conclusions could be drawn. 
First, the uncovered plot for destabilization of Montenegro speaks volumes for the modus operandi of Russian foreign agents’ network, which blends business – oligarchic resources – with official diplomatic and NGO channels within a joint command and control infrastructure. Under normal circumstances, Russian expats’ business community, notably those with a strong asset base in Russia, have little option but to seek and rely on the Kremlin’s good will and resources, often operating in tandem and returning “favors” back to Russian embassies. This strong private-public bond seems to be loosening recently with oligarchs less and less inclined to suffer losses and coordinate actions with the Russian state in the heat of tense Russia-West relations. But this is definitely not the case in Serbia and Montenegro. 
Second, despite the expulsions of Russian citizens from Serbia, the fact that Moscow chose not to retaliate which is a rare case of self restraint – and instead send a top man at the Security Council and possibly one of President Putin’s closest allies, clearly ascertains that Russia’s teams on the ground have been caught “red-handed”. Moscow overestimated the level of subservience of the Serbian and Montenegrin authorities, while underestimating their capacity to respond and act independently in pursuit of their own national interests. 
Since Belgrade chose not to prosecute the law offenders in Serbian courts, it is plausible that they have not been operating under diplomatic cover but rather as representatives of Russian business and NGO structures that engage in a manner closely reminiscent to that in eastern Ukraine. Their prime task is to coordinate, fund, train and manage local paramilitary networks of “volunteers;” former or active military or security services personnel; private security; and criminal formations in Serbia and Montenegro. 
According to information provided by the Montenegrin police, the plotters were led by Bratislav Dikic, the former commander of a special unit of the Serbian police, who was arrested in 2013 for contacts with criminal underworld. 
Under the umbrella of paramilitary, nationalistic or orthodox organizations registered in a country like Serbia, Russian special services are able to operate freely all over the region and in neighboring countries – which seems to be an essential moment for Moscow’s hybrid strategy. Beside the direct benefits from working below the radar of public and institutional scrutiny, this approach has so far allowed Moscow to hide its role and sow mistrust in the relations between the countries in the region. 
Bulgaria has also been the target of Russian subversive acts, affecting its relations with the FY Republic of Macedonia - notably the latest brawl around the destroyed commemorative plate on peak Kaimakchalan in Macedonia. Thus official Russian authorities and their proxies in Serbia and Macedonia remain behind the scenes without having to take any responsibility. 
A similar pattern could be traced down when observing the agents network of Russian security services in cyber warfare – hackers carrying out cyber attacks on the U.S. and other NATO countries. The hackers operate out of Europe, sparing Moscow the need to admit any role. Such distant proxies act as a “fuse” activated in case of disclosure of the role of the Russian security services adding to the difficult enough task of identifying the source of cyber attacks. 
Russia’s secret operations in other countries in the Balkans have a long track record. However, the reaction of the governments in Podgorica and Belgrade, unequivocally demonstrate the limits of Russian power and the degree of emancipation of Montenegrin and Serbian elites when it comes to the defense of national interests. The recent blunder of the Kremlin in Montenegro is a clear indication of its impotence to stop or reverse the logical process of  EU and NATO integration of the countries of the Western Balkans no matter the intensity or ‘ingenuity’ of Moscow’s hybrid or covert operations. 
Early into understanding what exactly happened in Podgorica, one should not rule out the somewhat distant possibility that authorities in Montenegro and Serbia might have deliberately overstated the plot, adding political expediency to the case and the degree of the Kremlin’s direct involvement – looking for ways to neutralize strong, local pro-Russian nationalist circles while in dire need of stating their case for membership in NATO and EU. But the basic facts undoubtedly point that Moscow has been the mastermind behind the coup desperately trying to derail the process of accession of Western Balkan countries, having nothing to offer as an alternative. Podgorica has made up its mind to join NATO in pursuing its national goals. More countries will follow. 
Patrushev’s visit and the subsequent events in Belgrade clearly prove that behind the smoke there was real fire, and further progress in Serbia’s move towards closer integration with the West in line with processes in Podgorica is likely. 
Easy analogies are premature, but understanding the pattern in Russia’s hybrid operations in the Western Balkans makes reading into ongoing processes in the region easier.
Bulgaria prior to the presidential elections makes no exception. 
It is still to be seen whether the Bulgarian government and its special services would be able to keep in check and treat analogies of the Montenegrin and Serbian cases, given the reluctance of Bulgaria’s political elite to admit the existence of the Russian threat and the degree of state capture by Russian interests.

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