NATO, Russia and a Balkan Intrigue you Haven’t Heard About

montenegro_politicalCan you pick out Montenegro on a map? (It’s a nation in Europe). If you’re American and you can, you’re probably a vet of our 1990s Balkan imbroglio, or at least someone who’s studied the mess that was once Yugoslavia, and before that was a bunch of fractious provinces in the Habsburg Empire, and before that was a bunch of fractious provinces under the Ottomans. The Montenegrins and their small province, which is Crna Gora (“Black Mountain”) in their own language,  were swept up in 1918 into the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. They became one of the Provinces (later Republics) of Yugoslavia (a name that means the nation of the South Slavs, recognizing that its many people were related, but not identical). The Montenegrins have had generally friendly relations with their neighbors, even as those neighbors at times came to blows, or nearly so.  Among other ethnic groups jammed into the Yugoslav micro-empire were Albanians (mostly in the Kosovo sub-province of Serbia) and Macedonians. Nowadays, these nations all have their own, well, capital-N Nations.

If you were alive in the 1990s (or took the US Institute of Peace’s course on Conflict Analysis), like Your Humble Blogger in both cases, you may have anything from a vague impression of fratricidal bloodshed, to a deep understanding of a war that didn’t need to be and that resulted from the decisions of particular, individual men. (Chief among them? Serb Slobodan Milosevic and Croat Franjo Tudjman). But the fact is that these former Yugoslav Republics and Provinces are nations now. Just as the wounds of the American Civil War healed, slowly and sometimes painfully, the wounds of the Wars of Yugoslavian Devolution are gradually easing. And most of them look to the West, even though the Serbs looked historically to Russia.

Montenegro has a small, professional Army and Navy.

Montenegro has a small, professional Army and Navy.

To Russia, losing the opportunity for Adriatic bases — with the small nation of Montenegro, and its 2,000 man military (which has already deployed volunteers on NATO missions), set to join NATO, and the other coastal Adriatic nations all NATO members already — changing the direction of the small state was a high-stakes game. An article by Damir Marusic in The American Interest argues that Russia did not take this lying down — but underestimated the canny mountain tribesmen of Montenegro.

On the day of Montenegro’s Parliamentary elections on October 16, a remarkable story emerged: Montenegrin security services had arrested some 20 Serbian nationals who were alleged to be preparing an attack on various state institutions that very evening, as the results were rolling in. Among those arrested was a retired Serbian general who was also the leader of a right-wing nationalist movement based in Novi Sad, almost 500 kilometers away in Serbia’s Vojvodina region.

The immediate reaction from Serbia was disbelief leavened with thinly-veiled contempt. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic demanded he be shown proof of the plot, and many in Montenegro’s opposition, who are in large part made up of Montenegro’s Serbian minority, claimed that Prime Minister Milorad Djukanovic’s security services had ginned up a false flag operation in order to help cement his victory.

Montenegrins have been gradually preparing to interoperate with NATO.

Montenegrins have been gradually preparing to interoperate with NATO.

Conspiracy theories are always current, of course, in the Balkans, but that is in part because the region exports conspiracies; as some wag said in the last century, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” At this point, only Serbian extremists were implicated, but the Montenegrin investigator, Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, then showed his cards.

[A]n “unprecedented massacre” had been prevented by the arrests. … The plan was for several individuals to enter the parliamentary building in the capital, Podgorica, wearing uniforms of Montenegro’s elite security services, and subdue the guards inside. They would then open fire on unarmed opposition supporters gathering outside the parliament awaiting election results. Finally, they would kidnap the Prime Minister, and either declare the election invalid, or somehow hope to throw it to the opposition.

Either some part of that plan is missing, or the former Serbian general was guilty of Underpants Gnome planning. Does anyone plan a coup with three question marks after they put the habeas grabbus on the Prime Minister they’re ousting? Or is something else going on? Something else was going on. A number of Russian “diplomats” across the region were suddenly PNG’d. (Declared persona non grata for violations of their diplomatic status. This usually, although not always, means that they were caught out as intelligence officers. As the alternate explanation is that the diplomat committed a crime inconsistent with his or her dip status, when a whole bunch are expelled at once, the host nation is discreetly accusing them of espionage or unconventional operations). And the Balkan officials had more to say.

[Serbian Prime Minister, and initially, coup-attempt skeptic] Vucic confirmed that there had in fact been a plot to assassinate Djukanovic. Another set of [Montenegrin] special forces uniforms and €120,000 in cash had been found in Serbia, Vucic said, and several other Serbian nationals had been arrested. He added that no politicians, in either Serbia or Montenegro, were involved in the planning, but rather he vaguely gestured at “foreign services, both from the West and from the East”, and said that those that have been arrested would be dealt with.

On Thursday [27 Oct 16], another bombshell landed… Serbia had secretly expelled several Russian citizens in connection with the Montenegro plot. … [T]he Serbs arrested earlier had in their possession several devices allowing for encrypted communication, as well as some unspecified sophisticated technology used to continuously track the location of Djukanovic. Some of the arrested Serbs had reportedly fought on the Russian side in Donbas, in Ukraine.

OK, but it’s not like Russians at high levels were involved in the coup, right?

It just so happened that Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the FSB and the current head of Russia’s Security Council, had just arrived in Belgrade. Could his visit be linked to the expulsions of what appeared to be Russian agents?

Russia has many interests in Montenegro, some commercial (the economy is driven in part by extensive Russian investment) and some political, although the cleft between the two in the Russian oligarchy is all but nonexistent. Previous Russian attempts to gain influence in Podgorica have been limited to funding, supporting and controlling the political parties and institutions of the pro-Russian ethnic Serbian political party, something which has been monitored by Western intelligence for a very long time. This operation seems to have been compartmented and to have used a separate group of irredentist Serbs; it was not only separate from, but unknown to Moscow’s ethnic-Serbian allies in Montenegro. That makes sense on several level. Given the normal level of intrigue in the Balkans, the experience level of Balkan security services, and the normal level of paranoia in a professional intelligence officer, the FSB Montenegro desk would have to consider their ethnic-Serbian Montenegrin operations almost certainly penetrated by the Montenegrin (and possibly other) intelligence agencies.

So their trade-off was this: use Serbs from Serbia or other complete foreigners, and protect the clandestine operation while insulating your controlled Montenegrin-Serb politicians from any possible blowback, while risking, if the operation blows up, unmistakeable (but deniable) Russian fingerprints on the operation. Serbs are useful because all the South Slav languages (Serb, Croat, Slovene, Montenegrin) are mutually intelligible, to a greater degree than, say, Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Frisian).

We would say than an American agency would not approve an operation with this level of risk. You might want to do it but your superiors, who spent their entire career, functionally, working 9-5 in HQ,  would never let you. Maybe in Berlin or Cuba in 1966, but never today. In the end, Russia almost got away with it, and doesn’t face much in terms of diplomatic or political consequences.  This means that this is not the last such bold clandestine operation we’ll see in that part of the world.

28 thoughts on “NATO, Russia and a Balkan Intrigue you Haven’t Heard About

    1. W. Fleetwood

      As I recall, Slovenia was the first to bolt the barn, with virtually no violence. I suppose “virtually” no violence could be whipped into “the glorious war of independence” fairly easily for the purposes of national myth.

      Sua Sponte.

  1. Keith

    The Balkans have been a mess for 2000 years. First the Romans came into the area and introduced the Gecko-Roman society to the area. Then there were several hundred years of successive ‘barbarian’ invasions from the east as the same time Christianity was being introduced from the west. Then there was Islam coming from the south and east. Then you add all the issue’s from W W I and II. Tito was able to hold things together by basically pointing to what the Soviet’s did in the WarPac counties in the 1950’s and 1960’s and basically say if we don’t hang together we will surely hang separately. I was not surprised at all that after the Wall came down and the WarPac and Soviet Union disappeared that Yugoslavia fell apart and all that followed happened.

    1. Boat Guy

      The money quote for “Former Yugoslavia” for me was a guy who told one of our JCO Teams “We waited 45 years for Tito to die; we can wait 45 years for you to leave.” course we left long before that time limit. A fascinating and ultimately sad place; I’m glad (sorta) I spent time in the region (several times, different jobs) but I don’t feel any need to return.

      1. Pathfinder

        Had almost the exact same words said to me and others during my time there.

        I didn’t leave anything there, so there is no reason to go back.

  2. S

    It’s their backyard. Considering their opposition (FUSA, EU, ISIL, Erdolf, Tehroristan, Gulf Oil), just what is wrong with Putin & Co. prevailing there, as opposed to Brussels, Rhiyad, Constantinople or DC? Hey, anyone that slaps Muschi Merkel is a winner, in the view from this shrubbery.

    You transatlantics had better tend to your current domestic matters, pronto, because if you lot go Balkan, so does everyone else; because dollar. Don’t forget, the globalists want 90% population reduction, and that is what is prophecied to occur; which means it will. Nobody believed that Israel would ever be a nation again for nigh on 2000 years, but my Source got it right. The thing is, none of the coming events laid out in detail feature FUSA, so that means your exit stage left is imminent, despite and because of whatever you do now. How would you view the Russian perspective on FUSA meddlings in Mesoamerica, or Canuckistan, for that matter….and how would you respond if they were caught so openly incompetent in meddling there as you are in Syria and Ukraine…without even considering the Baltics, Central Europe, or the coming SEA Shitstorm V 2.0? This the time of wars and rumours of wars, ethnos against ethnos, because a timetable is running. Were you awake in 1948, or 1967? The clock is ticking, and nothing can be changed. We know what is coming soon, and many jmen’s hearts will fail them when they finally realise and admit it.

    As a sop to curiosity and a spur to the scholarly, consider that the trigger to Psalm 83/Isaiah 17 could be the removal of FUSA….and which in turn provokes Ezekiel 38/39, after which the stage is perfectly set for the final acts. What is most embarassing for an observing Jew? Where do you offer the daily sacrifice, today? Get your eschatology right…..all your opponents have theirs, time to consider yours.

    1. Scott

      If history is any guide, the only sure thing about eschatology is that pretty much nobody gets it right.

      Oh, and generally, the more one studies eschatology outside their own narrow, if preferred, POV, the less dogmatic they generally become on things eschatological.

  3. Brad

    Wow. That’s timely, relevant, and completely unknown news to me. Thanks.

    Can you shed any light on the rumors of a coming Russian offensive to seize a land link to Crimea?

    1. Steve

      Considering the amount of men and ground hardware the Russians have been pumping into Syria – along with what’s likely a large chunk of their modern airfleet in the southwest of the country, and their entire western navy – I doubt the war in Ukraine will flare up anytime soon. When the sideshow/product demo for Rosoboronexport in Syria ends, all bets are off, but we’re not there yet.

  4. Steve from Downtown Canada

    I’m of Montenegrin stock and the country generally is pro-western and only wants people to stop fucking with it. When you’ve been invaded and occupied as many times as Crna Gora has been, its understandable.

      1. Steve from Downtown Canada

        The amount of guns in that country would probably astound people. I walked into a farm house once and was greeted with a wall full of AK-pattern rifles, handguns and your regular civilian-type arms.

        1. Boat Guy

          I’ve seen BrEn guns stacked like cordwood in Albania. Waist-high and running for a goodly length.

          1. Hognose Post author

            Brens, or ZB-26s? We took a quantity of ZB’s in a cache in the mountains in Afghanistan, north of Bamian about 8 hours drive and south of Konduz or Mazar e Sharif about the same amount. No mags, no ammo, but dozens of 1930s machine guns.

          2. Boat Guy

            BrEns; airdropped during WWII. There were some No 4’s as well IIRC. Kept during Hoxha’s regime to be issued to civilians who would then occupy all of those conrete toadstools.
            Country was a treasure trove, MG-34’s and -42’s in the same little (relatively) building.

    1. robroysimmons

      From what I have read the Serbs “proper” lay claim to them and that land. And I gather that to the Montes business meaning crime lay to the West which makes it understandable as people drift towards money, myths and conventional wisdom to follow.

      Same in America, plenty of money and myths and conventional wisdom created to justify following the money. It’s the way of man

  5. Aesop

    It’s the Balkans, which is the closest equivalent the You’re-A-Peons have to actual Africa. So “Meh.”

    As for Russian adventurism there, it’s unavoidable, but until the Cold War generation formerly behind the Iron Curtain dies off (and probably not even then) the “Fool me once…” response isn’t likely to do them any favors this side of snowball fights in Hell.

    But if they want to try, they should, by all means, tinker with that tar baby.
    Personally, I think ol’ Vlad Vladimirovich is about to have a Kurdish problem in his own lap, and become rather pre-occupied and humbled, in a 1940 Finnish War sort of way. Just a hunch.

    The Baltics are looking like they plan to be a seriously pissed porcupine sandwich too, should the Bear’s appetites run to that.

    Now all we need is for the Chinese to start sponsoring some Asian ruusian ethnic dyspepsia, and it’s a picnic.

    1. RostislavDDD

      Dreams of a “Kurdish problem” for Russia do not leave the West with 91. The more trying to please the west, the more the West helping “fighters for independence”.
      Example – Cossacks were listed as “oppressed nations of Russia.” But the State Department does not mind when the Don Cossacks “oppresses” Ukraine.
      Putin has just realized that before the “mammoth Cold War” good Russian will not, under any circumstances. Before start showing teeth and they do not die of old age.

  6. Damocles

    What is past is prologue…

    “A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.” Otto von Bismarck

    1. Boat Guy

      “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier” OvB

  7. Simon

    I have heard talk of Republika Srpska wanting to split from Bosnia, and that our old friend Vlad Vladimirowitsch is sponsoring the movement. The only people who could possibly benefit from that are the Serbs (independence then joining Serbia). Could also help to make life interesting. Only rumours up to now, which are very common in the area anyway.

    1. Boat Guy

      We’ve heard that talk for well over a generation now. There are any number of intrigues continually in progress…

  8. Aesop

    Intrigue, plotting, conspiracy, and self-destructive bomb-throwing are the national sports in every Balkan country.

    “When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.”

    Best to leave the entire miserable little region to its misery, and if anyone wants to lose an arm just to say he wrassled that ‘gator, let them go on ahead.

    Just put the highlights on YouTube for slow days.

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