It’s Putin’s World Now
As the Kremlin worked hard to facilitate Trump’s rise, its maneuvering elsewhere in the world has been downright chilling.
If, as the poet says, America is not the world, then the world is surely owed an apology for the lack of attention paid to a series of alarming developments throughout Europe and the Middle East. Perhaps appropriately, all have involved or implicated a revanchist authoritarian power for which the incoming commander in chief has repeatedly professed his admiration and which, after having done all it could to facilitate an upset American electoral outcome—“maybe we helped a bit with WikiLeaks,” as pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov put it Wednesday morning—offers its hearty congratulations on his victory. Meanwhile, Russia’s alleged “wet work” and maneuvering outside the United States in the last two weeks has been even more impressive.
In Montenegro, a tiny and relatively young Balkan nation sandwiched between Bosnia and Albania, a cabal of Russian nationalists has been accused of trying to assassinate the prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, following a campaign of election interference. U.S. officials say the abortive putsch bear all the hallmarks of a Kremlin project of subversion, including the funneling of money to a pro-Moscow opposition party, biased news organizations, and key “influencers.” A former Serbian special forces commander and Serbian veterans of the Russian-backed “separatist” movement in east Ukraine were part of the conspiracy.
The plan, as outlined by Montenegrin chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, was as follows. Around 20 Serbian and Montenegrins, dressed as elite police officers, were going to attack a demonstration in front of the national parliament in the capital of Podgorica on Oct. 16, election day. From there, they would storm the legislature and murder the prime minister. The result would be the installation of a Kremlin-friendly government in place of Djukanovic’s pro-Western Democratic Party of Socialists, itself a liberalized hangover or reinvention of the old Yugoslavian Communist party.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who was at first incredulous about what sounded like a conspiracy theory, has corroborated the coup attempt, claiming that Serbian nationals involved have been identified and €120,000 and police uniforms had been recovered.
Vacic has cryptically alluded to a “third country” being behind this foiled scheme at violent regime change in a democracy of just 600,000, and you can probably guess which one he has in mind. Indeed, Serbia has since expelled several Russian nationals from its borders after they were found to have been tracking Djukanovic’s movements digitally and communicating with one another on encrypted electronic devices. The expulsions also coincided with a visit paid to the capital Belgrade by Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organ of the Soviet KGB, and now the chairman of Russia’s Security Council. This concatenation of circumstances, Balkan watchers have written, suggest the long, dark arm of Moscow.
Serbia was also a target of what appears to have been an assassination attempt or coordinated act of anti-state violence. According to Serbia’s Interior Ministry, an impressive cache of weaponry—grenades, ammunition, sniper rifles, and a bazooka—was later uncovered in the woods close to Vacic’s family home, outside Belgrade. As Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic put it, “It is very disturbing that [the hidden weapons] were located on this turning, where the Prime Minister’s vehicle must slow down to minimal speed… That is an ideal distance, of only 50 meters, for such weapons to be used.” Might the murder of a second head of a European government have been in the offing? And if so, who were the culprits and their sponsors?
Of particular concern is that one alleged participants in the Montenegrin plot is Bratislav Dikic, a former Serbian special forces commander, who was sacked for criminal and “terrorist” activity. Another conspirator has been identified as Aleksandar Sindjelic, a well-known Serbian fascist who is one of the top 300 “terrorists” being sought by the Ukrainian government for his participation in Russia’s dirty war in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk—a war thetas overseen by Russian intelligence officers, paratroopers and special forces. Sindjelic stands accused by Ukrainian soldiers as leader of a pro-separatist militia known as the “Serbian Wolves.”
So why overthrow Djukanovic? He has been an ardent advocate and architect of Montenegro’s NATO membership, which is set to commence next spring, making it the 29th state in the U.S.-led (and now, under a Trump presidency, rather fragile) military alliance, as well as of European Union membership, which seems a more distant prospect owing to the nation’s runaway corruption and illiberalism. Needless to add, the Putin regime openly opposes both decisions, although it categorically denies it had anything to do with trying to kill Montenegro’s prime minister. Special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic has also conceded, “We don’t have any evidence that the state of Russia is involved in any sense.”
Djukanovic, the godfather of Montenegro’s independence, has led the small Balkan country as both president or premier since its formal breakaway from Serbia in 2006. He fought a fiercely contested election that was waged more than anything as a plebiscite on Montenegro’s further integration into the transatlantic system versus its becoming, in his words, a “Russian colony.”
Nevertheless, he is considered a godfather of a more dubious kidney. Last year he was named “Man of the Year in Organized Crime” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. “Nobody outside of Putin has run a state that relies so heavily on corruption, organized crime and dirty politics,” OCCRP editor Drew Sullivan said in bestowing the “award” on Djukanovic, who is accused of cigarette smuggling, embezzlement and fraud. “It is truly and thoroughly rotten to the core.”
Other European leaders have faced more conventional threats of late. Estonia’s 36-year-old center-right Prime Minister Taavi Roivas did not survive no-confidence vote yesterday after his coalition government fell apart, owing to differences with his social democratic partners on health care, education, and economic issues.
The chief beneficiary of parliamentary collapse is the Center Party, which draw on a sizable constituency of ethnic Russians and whose recently remove chairman is seen as pro-Kremlin. This, as the country prepares for the most dire contingency of a Ukraine-style Russian invasion by bolstering the Estonian Defense League, a 24,000-strong corps of citizen-soldiers now being trained in partisan warfare tactics in the event that “little green men”—a euphemism for Russian troops in disguise—steal across the border to do in the Baltic state (and NATO member) what their confederates did in Crimea and the Donbass.
The Center Party’s current leader, 38-year-old Jüri Ratas, the speaker of Estonian parliament, has vowed to continue the Baltic state’s strong Atlanticist commitment, fearing a popular backlash should he do anything to vitiate national ties to NATO or the EU.
Nevertheless, there may well be intramural pressures (and subtle external ones) to lower the temperature on Estonian deterrence, which, apart from insurgency drilling, also takes the form of annual intelligence reviews that expose agents of Russian influence in the country of 1.3 million. Catching Russians spies is a routine business for Kapo, the state's domestic security service. Added to which, a leading candidate for U.S. secretary of State under a Trump administration is Newt Gingrich, a man who has described Tallinn, the Estonian capital, as a suburb of St. Petersburg in the course of downplaying America’s obligation to defend its treaty-bound allies.
Neo-Nazi Cop Killers
The ascent of the Hungarian far-right has been well documented in recent years, particularly under the leadership of the current prime minister Viktor Orban, a creeping authoritarian who has tried to split the difference between his right-wing Fidesz party and the more plangently anti-democratic (and anti-Semitic) Jobbik.
According to the Hungarian government, one prominent member of Jobbik, Béla Kovács, himself a member of European parliament, is a Russian spy. Yet for all its counterintelligence rigor, the Orban government—still another NATO member—has tried to cozy up to Moscow in its own way, by inviting Vladimir Putin to Budapest at the height of a European chill over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and by awarding the lion’s share of contracts for the construction of a planned Hungarian nuclear power plant to Russian state-owned companies. (That move that was declared illegal by the European Commission.)
Now, however, comes proof, courtesy of Orban’s special services, that Russian intelligence is also meddling in internal Magyar affairs with lethal effect.
Agents of the GRU, or Russian military intelligence—one of two spy services that hacked the Democratic National Committee—have been accused of underwriting a prominent neo-Nazi organization whose elderly founder, 76-year-old István Győrkös, last month shot and killed a Hungarian police officer and critically wounded another in the village of Bőny.
Győrkös is a longtime leader in the fascist Hungarian National Front 1989, or MNA, which aims to defend Hungary from Jewish Bolsheviks and other subversive elements by training paramilitaries for war. It has given military instruction to Hungarian and German Hitlerists at Hungarian training camps. (Caveat: “Fags, gypsies and Jews cannot participate.”)
In 2012, MNA split into two factions, with Győrkös heading the one that draws inspiration (PDF) from the Eurasianist ideology of Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, who has advocated genocide in Ukraine and who, perhaps not irrelevantly, is a strong admirer of the U.S. president-elect.
Győrkös opened fire after his home was raided for illegal weapons possession. According to the Hungarian press, Russian state diplomats had often participated in paintball and airsoft exercises, which feature rifles with plastic bullets.
Győrkös’s explicit ties to the Kremlin came to light when the Facebook page of a website his movement founded, Hídfő, or Bridgehead, featured supposedly “reader submitted” content supposedly showing that Budapest had sent T-72 tanks to the Ukrainian military in August 2014, at the height of Russia’s invasion. The images, as Hungarian intelligence has now established, actually came from the GRU as part of a hyper-caffeinated disinformation campaign to scandalize any and all European support for embattled Kiev. It was, as Hungary’s then-foreign minister Tibor Navracsics phrased it, an “unfriendly gesture” by Moscow.
Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov, spent weeks groaning and wheezing its way from Murmansk to the Mediterranean, emitting plumes of black smoke, as it was often towed at sea by a tugboat, along with a flotilla of ancillary vessels. Not exactly the cutting image of a formidable warship, the Kuznetsov is nevertheless preparing to launch a new offensive on the rebel-held district of east Aleppo, Syria, which loyalists to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad have spent four years trying to retake.
Putin had last week offered a “moratorium” on the well-documented Russian pulverization of Aleppo and “safe passages” for rebels to flee the city, although rebels say no such thing was ever evident to them.
That sham deal expired Friday. Now, 24 hours after America elected a man with whom Putin intends to do quick and vigorous business, the armada is set to get to work. A Russian Ministry of Defense source has said, The group’s main goal is to carry out missile strikes on terrorists outside of Aleppo that are attempting to get into the city”—with “terrorists” here being the standard placeholder for opposition fighters of all ideological stripe as well as countless civilians, hospitals, schools and residences, which Russia’s year-long intervention in Syria have turned to dust.
Pro-Assad soldiers and Iranian-trained militiamen, meanwhile, are said to have deployed to frontline positions in what looks to be the start of the final campaign to sack the opposition stronghold.
The Kuznetsov is accompanied by three submarines, two destroyers, a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, and a frigate. The collective arsenal includes Kalibr cruise missiles and S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems and, aboard the Kuznetsov, a small fleet of Su-33s and MiG-29s fighter jets. This will mark the first time in Russian history that carrier-borne aircraft have ever launched sorties.
Still, many analysts contend, the deployment is mainly for show. “They haven’t done anything like this in a long time, and its getting heavily covered by the local and international media,” Peter Zwack, a former military attache to Moscow told The Guardian. “It’s posturing and secondarily adding capability in Syria.”
Maybe, but the men, women and children about to be put under the rubble won’t see the Kuznetsov’s presence off the Syrian coast as mere “posturing.”