Another GRU failure

9 May: Thirteen people were sentenced to prison terms by a court in Montenegro. It had been alleged that in October 2016 they were part of a plot to assassinate the Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Dukanović. The hope was that the assassination of the Prime Minister would be followed by a country-wide coup which would see a more pro-Russian leadership installed. Dukanović has been leading the country towards an ever closer pro-Western position. Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 – something that Russia was very unhappy about.

The plot was allegedly led by two GRU officers, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov (Bellingcat claims to have uncovered their real identitiies). The pair had been organising the operation from neighbouring Serbia (which is strongly pro-Russian). They escaped back to Russia as soon as it became clear that their contacts had been arrested. They were sentenced in their absence to fifteen and twelve years in prison respectively. Two Montenegrin politicians each received five years imprisonment for their role in the plot. Both men are ethnic Serbs. The others jailed were much less important figures.

Montenegrin authorities have claimed that the plot was foiled thanks to an alert from Western intelligence agencies. But there are a number of oddities about this. If there really was a plan for a coup, it doesn’t appear to have been very widely organised. It is also odd that Russia should just send two GRU officers to advise on an operation of this scale without having other support personnel in the area. What seems much more likely is that Western intelligence agencies became aware of the presence of the GRU officers in Serbia and tipped off the Montenegrins. As soon as it was known that these officers were in touch with ethnic Serb politicians in Montenegro, the authorities saw their opportunity and pounced. Such an operation could not fail to make Dukanović look good. He has been in charge of the country since 1991 and his popularity needs a boost following recent criticisms about the levels of corruption in the country. But whether there was plan for a full blown coup, as the Montenegrins claim, seems much more doubtful.

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