British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has accused “Russians” of organising a failed coup in Montenegro and the Kremlin denied involvement. The truth, however, is far more complicated — thanks to a kind of public-private partnership that often explains Russian meddling overseas. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly knows of it, and he’s sometimes compelled to cover up for its activities, but it’s an elaborate series of relationships rather than a chain of command.
Johnson’s accusations are based on the recent revelations by Montenegro’s top prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, who said one of the leading suspects in last year’s alleged coup attempt was a former Russian military diplomat who had been expelled from Poland for spying in 2014. Poland declared Eduard Shishmakov, the naval attache, persona non grata in the wake of a major scandal involving the publication of secret conversations between top Polish officials, including Radoslaw Sikorski, the fiercely anti-Russian foreign minister who was forced to resign. The Polish government believes Shishmakov was working for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.
In Montenegro, the same man — at least according to his passport photograph, date and place of birth — is being sought as Eduard Shirokov, a private citizen, not a diplomat. It’s highly unlikely, and unusual, for an agent whose cover has been blown to be re-used for operations as sensitive as an alleged plot to kill former Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic and stop the tiny Balkan country from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. A slight change to the name hardly seems like a professional-grade cover. On the other hand, there are groups within Russia that gladly work with retired operatives to project Russian influence abroad.
Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, led one of the first volunteer Russian groups into eastern Ukraine and later became the top military commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. On the European Union’s list of individuals sanctioned in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, he is named as a GRU operative, but at the time of the incursion, he was retired and reportedly close to Konstantin Malofeev — an ultranationalist, deeply religious Russian businessman who believes in the expansion of the so-called Russian World. Malofeev has denied participation in the eastern Ukraine events, but another of his associates, Alexander Borodai, was also heavily involved in the separatist rebellion and even served as the Donetsk People’s Republic’s prime minister in its early days.
Last month, Ukrainian hackers offered more details on these activities, releasing the emails of Alyaksandr Usovsky, a Belarusian trying to raise money from wealthy Russian nationalists for pro-Russian fringe movements in Eastern European countries such as Poland and Slovakia. According to the emails — and to a comment Usovsky gave to a Russian news site — Malofeev was briefly a sponsor, though Malofeev himself denies it. In one of the increasingly desperate letters to a Malofeev associate, in November, 2016 — a month after the alleged failed coup in Montenegro — Usovsky proposed a “perfectly legal” project in Poland whose effect, he promised, would be “100 times more significant than that of the abortive mess in Montenegro”. “After that, nobody will remind K.V. of the Montenegro adventure,” Usovsky wrote, using Malofeev’s first and middle initials.
Immediately after prosecutor Katnic claimed Montenegro security officials had thwarted the coup attempt, he accused “nationalists from Russia” of helping plot it. The Russian ultranationalist community is small, and information spreads fast within it. Although Usovsky is hardly a trustworthy source, his emails show he’s plugged into the network.
In eastern Ukraine, the privately-funded nationalist volunteers — including military and intelligence veterans — turned protests against Ukraine’s pro-western revolution into a bloody war and made some of that war’s early gains. By the fall of 2014, just a few months after they drifted into Ukraine with their guns, the Kremlin took over control of the separatist republics, sending people like Borodai and Girkin home. Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov assumed a broad supervisory role instead, and regular Russian troops began entering Ukraine at decisive moments in the fighting. Borodai and Girkin, however, live peacefully in Russia, though Girkin is now a fierce Putin critic who claims the Kremlin has betrayed the rebels.
All in all, the conflict has been useful to the Kremlin despite the messy way it unfolded and continues to unfold. Rather than on rebuilding the country, Ukraine is preoccupied with counteracting the Russian threat. Even if the nationalist instigators were not following the Kremlin’s orders, they have won impunity, if not gratitude, for creating an increasingly volatile political situation in Ukraine.
The Montenegro story — assuming the government is right about the coup plot — bears the same marks as the beginning of the eastern Ukraine conflict. The Russian ultranationalist community has long taken an interest in the Balkans, and its volunteers fought in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Now, this community, augmented by intelligence veterans, may be trying to run ahead of a more cautious Kremlin in the region. It could be an attempt at guessing Putin’s secret wishes and earning a reward; it could just as easily be a move to overcome Putin’s caution and involve official Moscow the way it became involved in eastern Ukraine.
Semi-private adventures of this kind, however, only lead to official interference if they are successful. If they fail, the Kremlin isn’t obligated to assume responsibility, and problems may even ensue for the freelancers at home. That, in turn, may lead to fresh adventures.
The symbiotic relationship between the imperialist community and the Kremlin is not formalised in any way; it’s one of tolerance. Putin appears to put more faith in the wise Soviet-trained professionals who make his official foreign policy, but he also appears grudgingly to agree with some of the nationalists’ ideas. That introduces an element of unpredictability into Russia’s game of restoring the Soviet Union’s international influence.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti.