Exclusive: Russian Military Spies Backed Attempt to Assassinate Leader of Montenegro, Report Says

Anti-government protesters light flares and hold pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Montenegrin parliament in the capital of Podgorica, Montenegro, on September 27, 2015. Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's rivalry with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) runs deep. But would the Kremlin try to assassinate a democratically elected leader to stop a country from joining the alliance?

According to investigators and researchers digging into an alleged coup attempt in Montenegro, a tiny European country that lies along the Mediterranean, that is exactly what Russia did two years ago.

A new report by the Foreign Policy Research Institute reveals new details about an ongoing investigation into an attempt to topple Montenegro's government on the eve of parliamentary elections on October 16, 2016. Investigators say Russia was to blame.

"We have a new member state Montenegro, who on the cusp of joining NATO was faced with, not just any coup, but one backed by the Russian government," Richard Kraemer, one of the report's authors and a Eurasia fellow at the U.S. think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Newsweek.

"My hope is that this report will raise the alarm that Russia is so serious as to deploy hard power forces to achieve its political objectives in the Balkans. Russia has an agenda in the Balkans, and they'll employ violent means to see it realized. It doesn't get any more serious than that," Kraemer added.

For Moscow, the NATO alliance, which guarantees collective defense for 29 countries across Europe and North America, is an existential threat that aims to limit Russia's ability to control what happens in its own backyard. Several of Russia's neighbors, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, have already joined NATO. And Russia has done its utmost to ensure that its neighbors Ukraine and Georgia don't go down the same path.

Over the past decade, Russia has supported separatist movements in these countries and even occupied parts of their territories. After all, the Kremlin knows NATO will be reluctant or unwilling to admit a new country if the aspiring member is already embroiled in a conflict. But until recently, few suspected Moscow would seek to have an elected official murdered.

Still, two members of Russia's military intelligence, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, are being tried in absentia after escaping to Serbia and later being repatriated to Russia. Twelve people in Montenegro have also been indicted by Milivoje Katnic, the country's special prosecutor for organized crime.

But the plot allegedly involved much more than just 14 wayward individuals, and brought together Russian agents, extremists from neighboring Serbia and members of Montenegro's political opposition, according to the report's authors. Investigators now claim that around 50 Russian military intelligence officials (GRU) entered Montenegro illegally from Serbia on the night before the coup, allegedly to provide the plotters with assistance. The event marks the first time Russia attempted to use violence outside of the former Soviet Union to achieve its political aims, the report says.

"In the months leading up to the parliamentary elections of October 16, 2016, Russian agents, Serbian extremists, and leaders of the Montenegrin opposition alliance (Democratic Front) prepared to oust the government violently on election night," the report, based on testimonies and physical evidence reviewed by researchers, reads.

"They planned to instigate political violence with the hope of triggering nationwide protests and toppling the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) government led by [now President] Milo Djukanovic. According to officials, Serbian nationals initiated the enterprise in early 2016 under the direction of Russian GRU and FSB operatives," the report underscores.

Russian military intelligence special troops soldier train during military exercises in southern Russia’s Volgograd region, on April 4, 2014. Investigators claim that around 50 Russian military intelligence officials entered Montenegro illegally from Serbia to support a coup attempt. Andrey Kronberg/AFP/Getty Images

At first glance, the plot sounds like something out of a spy novel. The alleged ringleader was Bratislav Dikic, the 48-year-old former commander of Serbia's special police unit, also known as the gendarmerie. Dikic fought in Serbia's war in Kosovo in the late 1990s, and again against an ethnic Albanian separatist movement in Serbia's Presevo Valley in the early 2000s. He led Serbia's gendarmerie from 2009 until 2013, and has since appeared at rallies around the country speaking against NATO's involvement in the Balkans.

According to the plot allegedly cooked up by Moscow, Dikic was to lead a group of around 20 insurgents, disguised as Montenegrin police officers, to occupy Montenegro's parliament and open fire on protesters on election night. According to the indictment, Russia's Shishmakov and Popov paid Dikic over $200,000 to purchase weapons and encrypted telephones to carry out the coup. The violence would lead to a state of emergency that would allow pro-Russian politicians, leaders who would oppose Montenegro's NATO membership, to take control of the government. During the chaos, the plotters were going to assassinate then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

An economist and former communist who steered Montenegro in NATO's direction, Djukanovic has dominated Montenegro's political landscape since his country gained independence, following the breakup of Yugoslavia over two decades ago. According to research by Dimitar Bechev, a Balkans expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Djukanovic was once a close friend of Moscow's former mayor Yuri Luzhkov and helped facilitate Russian investment in the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin confers with Prime Minister of the Republic of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic (left) during their meeting in the residence of Bocharov Ruchei, outside Sochi, Russia, on August 28, 2006. Sergei Zhukov/AFP/Getty Images

He also oversaw the privatization of the country's main aluminum plant and its sale to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has deep ties to the Kremlin. Deripaska allegedly helped Djukanovic's political career by hiring consultant Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman, to work for him. In 2015, the Organized Crime and Corruption reporting project named Djukanovic "Man of the Year in Organized Crime" for building "one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world."

But Djukanovic's relationship with Russian oligarchs fell apart as the country pursued integration with the West. His ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) supported NATO and European Union membership. In December 2015, the DPS-led government officially accepted NATO's invitation to join the alliance and began preparing the country to become a full-fledged NATO member.

Russia's stake in Montenegro is well-known. The number of Russian visitors to the small Balkan nation rose to over 300,000 in 2016, a significant number for a country of around 600,000 inhabitants. Billboards across the country advertise in Russian, and Montenegro's coastline is dotted with yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs. Budva, a popular tourist destination, is known colloquially as "Moscow on the Sea."

Six-time Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic bows in front of the national flag after he was sworn in as Montenegro’s president in Cetinje, Montenegro, on May 20. Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

But Russia's claim over Montenegro is about more than just summer homes and vacation spots, experts say. For several years, Moscow had been lobbying for permission to use Montenegrin ports to refuel and repair military vessels, which are used for major operations in places like Syria.

"Russia's interest in Montenegro heightened several years ago. As the reliability of its naval base in Tartus, Syria became less certain, Russia began seeking alternatives. In September 2013, the Russian government requested a meeting with the Montenegrin Ministry of Defense to discuss the temporary moorage of Russian warships at the ports of Bar and Kotor," Tuesday's report reads. "By Moscow's proposal, Russian ships would dock under a privileged status that would allow for the extensive use of territorial waters."

Djukanovic, however, rejected these advances. In response, Russia set out to put people into power who would reverse the country's Euro-Atlantic integration and allow Russia to gain a foothold in the country. That's where the coup plot and Montenegro's Democratic Front came in, according to Tuesday's report.

Montenegro's Democratic Front (DF) is a right-wing opposition group made up of nationalist Serbs, Russophiles and a variety of fringe groups that oppose the country's NATO membership. According to the report, the DF planned to declare victory during the 2016 parliamentary elections. Dikic and his crew, disguised as Montenegrin police, would open fire on pro-DF demonstrators, giving the appearance that pro-Djukanovic police were trying to prevent the DF from taking power. Meanwhile, the Russian military officials were standing by to offer assistance.

But the coup plot fell apart. Montenegrin officials allegedly received a tip from their Serbian counterparts that raised alarm bells about the presence of Russian military officials in the country. Four days before the election, Mirko Velimirovic, a former police officer, confessed to participating in the plot and helping transport arms. The encrypted phones used by the plotters were discovered in the possession of several DF members. The Russian military officials, realizing that the plot had been discovered, fled the country, according to the report's authors, who conducted numerous on-the-ground interviews with prosecutors and witnesses.

Montenegro’s opposition leaders (from right) Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic attend a protest in front of the parliament building in Podgorica, Montenegro, on February 15, 2017. Some 400 people protested outside Montenegro’s parliament ahead of a vote to lift the immunity of two pro-Russian opposition MPs allegedly involved in a foiled coup last October. Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

Two DF leaders, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, have both been indicted.

Aleksandr Sindjelic, the head of the Serbian chapter of the Kremlin-linked biker gang the Night Wolves—and a veteran of Russia's war in eastern Ukraine—has also been indicted. He later identified Shishmakov as one of the main financiers of the coup attempt.

Many Montenegrin officials have publicly stated that they have evidence Russia was behind the attempted coup, but some analysts say there is still room for doubt.

"Although Montenegro is one of the smallest members of the [NATO] organization, its decision to join was symbolically very important. Montenegro has traditionally had very good relations with Moscow. Russia took Montenegro's decision to join the organization very badly," James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics, told Newsweek.

"At one point, there were very serious concerns about Russian infiltration of the Montenegrin intelligence services.... However, despite claims that there is hard evidence to link Moscow to an attempt to overthrow the government, it is worth noting that many observers remain somewhat skeptical about the story. There is a sense that it all appeared rather too amateurish. If Moscow wanted to destabilize the country, surely it could have done so more effectively," Ker-Lindsay continued.

So far, only Shishmakov and Popov, the two Russian officials being tried in absentia, have been identified from among the 50 GRU officers allegedly in Montenegro at the time. The two men flew back to Russia from Serbia's capital, Belgrade, in late October 2016, a day after Russia's former spy chief Nikolai Patrushev visited the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (center) arrive for a meeting with security and intelligence chiefs. Despite hard evidence Moscow was linked to the Montenegrin coup attempt, others found it amateurish and remain skeptical. Yuri Kotchetkov/AFP/GettyImages

Today, Montenegro is a member of NATO and is actively pursuing European Union membership. Former Prime Minister Djukanovic has remained in power and was elected president in April. The prosecutor's investigation into the 2016 coup attempt is still ongoing.

But experts warn that the situation is precarious. The DF continues to be one of the largest opposition blocks in Montenegro, and many warn that Russia and its anti-NATO allies maintain the ability to destabilize the region.

"The risk of Russian involvement and destabilization of these countries remains high. Russia is increasing its role in the Balkans to the detriment of their security interests," Mark Simakovsky, an expert on Russia at the Atlantic Council in Washington and a former adviser for the Department of Defense, told Newsweek.

"The coup attempt was a bellwether for Russia's continued involvement in the region. Montenegro is a case study. It showcases Russia's ability to use hard power and covert means to undermine and destabilize the region," he added.