In 2016, law enforcers in Montenegro, a country that's far from being Russia's immediate neighbor, busted a group plotting a violent coup in the country, aiming to topple Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, the leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists. Around 500 people were set to be engaged in the attempt, divided into three groups, while all planning and supervision was done by Russian nationals Eduard Shishmakov (aka "Shirokov"), a former deputy military attaché at Russia's embassy in Poland, and Vladimir Popov. Both are active duty officers with the Russian GRU military intelligence agency.
I recalled this story for a reason. See, every time in my opeds and interviews I talk about Russia's efforts to sow chaos and pursue anti-government projects around the world, many perceive this as a kind of a conspiracy theory that has nothing to do with reality. Meanwhile, just yesterday we saw (ONCE AGAIN, I should note), how dangerous and even frantic Russia is in its desire to seize power in neighboring countries and beyond...
However, yesterday's arrest in Belarus of the Wagner PMC mercenaries didn't come as a surprise to me. I've been seeing something like this coming since early summer, proceeding from the chain of events and the latest quite noticeable row between Minsk and Moscow. So let me remind you how things were going down.
On June 19, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Minsk amid pulsating scandals regarding the exposed Russian funding of Belarusian opposition candidates for the presidential post. The background of Sergei Lavrov's Minsk visit was as follows: retired lieutenant colonel with the Russian police, Andrei Novikov, has been detained and accused of plotting and organizing riots during the Belarus presidential election campaign; accusations have been put forward against Russia's energy giant Gazprom of their interference in the election campaign; the Belarus president has boasted of successfully foiling external forces' plans to destabilize the country; Russian online media platforms have published incriminating stories about Lukashenko's eldest son Viktor; while Belarusian state-owned companies have been instructed to stop cooperation with and withdraw their funds from Russian banks and their local branches.
So Lavrov did have a lot to discuss during his visit, but most importantly, he tried to smooth out the sharpest corners that have accumulated over the past two years of friction between Minsk and Moscow, with a single goal – to have Alexander Lukashenko attend the Victory Parade in Moscow. Also, just like in 2016, when the GRU failed their coup d'état in Montenegro, he apologized to Lukashenko – as Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev did in Belgrade where he issued an official apology for the Russian organizers of the Montenegro coup.
And it would seem that all the i's have been dotted and the fraternal nations, following a minor spat, are once again heading towards a brighter future, hand in hand. But, this is only a picture drawn for the naive and oblivious. In fact, the developments were unfolding in a dramatically opposite way.
Indeed, as early as at year-start came the reports that the Russian GRU had taken over supervision of efforts to sow chaos in Belarus. Many might immediately ask, how come it's PMC Wagner mercenaries who were detained? After all, Wagner is an FSB branch supervised by Yevgeny Prigozhin, not that of the GRU…. We'll talk about this little "dissonance" a bit later, but for now let's get back to the events that unfolded immediately after Sergei Lavrov's departure and Alexander Lukashenko's visit to Moscow to attend the Red Square Victory Parade.
First of all, in Russia itself, rallies have started in the Khabarovsk Territory, with the media support coming from GRU-supervised online platforms. These very websites also contribute to information spins about the protests in Belarus. Meanwhile, Belarusian "opposition figures", one after another, are exposing their own affiliation with the Russian side, either when their funding sources unearth, or when they flee to Russia "from the persecution by Lukashenko's regime" to the "democratic" Russia, or when they provide ambiguous answers to questions regarding the status of Crimea…
Secondly, a fugitive Belarusian restaurateur, opposition's Vadim Prokopyev spoke up from Kyiv, proposing to make the capital of Ukraine an assembly point for "Belarusian protest". Thus, not only did the infamous restaurateur-provocateur try to exploit a tiny moment of misunderstanding between Minsk and Kyiv – he also attempted to shift public attention in Belarus from the real threat looming from within the country toward some kind of a secondary one, allegedly emanating from Ukraine.
Besides, by employing the Ukrainian narrative, Vadim Prokopyev through in a hint about some element of "Western influence" on chaos in Belarus – through Ukraine. And yesterday, this "element" was manifested to some extent.
In particular, Belarus law enforcers detained a political strategist Vitaly Shklyarov, known for once advising an "opposition figure" Ksenia Sobchak during Russian presidential election campaign (we do remember it was merely a clown show organized by the Kremlin), as well as for his work with campaign teams of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Well, here it is: the Western trail! But, it's not that simple at first glance. At present Vitaly Shklyarov has been advising admins of political groups on social networks, united by the name "Country for Life", as well as a video blog managed by the earlier detained Sergei Tikhanovsky – not just a video blogger but also a husband of the Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. It's the same Tikhanovskaya who couldn't come up with a definite answer on her stance toward the status of Crimea.
But most importantly, along with the detained Sergei Tikhanovsky, another four Russians nationals were nabbed, who turned out to be active duty officers with the GRU. And, incredibly enough, all four were part of the video blogger's team. A coincidence? A political strategist who worked with Ksenia Sobchak, the GRU men in the team of an opposition candidate's spouse… What else are we missing here? Oh, yes, it might seem to many that there's dissonance: the GRU and PMC Wagner, on the same side...
There is no dissonance, in fact. After all, the apprehended militants could actually have been PMC Wagner's mercenaries, but now, while on freelance, could also become a right type of motley crew for destabilizing Belarus. Moreover, their participation in the Donbas hostilities, one way or another, weaves in a Ukrainian trail in this whole story. After all, only few consumers of media fast food delve into the details of that "participation in hostilities" note. They wouldn't even learn on whose side the mercenaries have been fighting… That's why the main thing here is a vague narrative to spin.
The ephemeral image that's been created therefore contains: claims of an "assembly point" voiced by an odious chef, as well as the emerged political strategist who had previously worked as part of Western teams and thus personifying the "Western trail" in this Minsk fuss. Although they fail to mention the name of one this spin doctor's latest clients, and that he was detained alongside his GRU colleagues.
So the story is actually not so complicated and mysterious, and it doesn't even smell like conspiracy theories. And most importantly, once again the GRU guys failed their yet another coup d'état – "Montenegro 2.0", this time on Belarus soil.
But to complete the piece, I unfortunately can't say anything definite, since there's a final question yet to be answered. The question is quite pertinent, as it was four years ago: who will fly to Minsk this time to apologize and blush?