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Kremlin Octopus — part III. How GRU used the Serbians for a coup in Montenegro and the war in Ukraine

The Insider

In an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson one day after meeting Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, President Trump referred to the small Balkan nation of Montenegro as “strong but aggressive people” whose temper may spark a war with Russia. At the same time the US president was displaying unexpected knowledge of the national psychology of NATO’s newest – and tiniest member, YouTube users could watch a live broadcast from Montenegro’s Supreme Court. In the Podgorica court room, an all-female panel of judges were listening to telephone intercepts - in Russian – of what Montenegro’s special prosecutor claims were Russian secret service operatives directing a failed coup in October 2016. The Kremlin, predictably, denies any involvement in the coup, and calls Montenegro’s prosecution an anti-Russian provocation.

The Insider has obtained fresh evidence pointing to the role of Russian special services in organizing the failed coup in Montenegro, as well as in financing Balkan mercenaries fighting in Ukraine. The new body of data includes court documents, video and audio-recordings and photos, as well as witness testimony, exclusively obtained by the Insider. In addition, the Insider has identified a previously undisclosed GRU operative linked to the Montenegro coup, making a successful living under the cover of an insurance agent.

A Brief Backstory

In the previous installment of this investigation, we already disclosed how Russian secret services used mercenaries with military experience from Donbass to try and stage a coup in Montenegro, aimed at preventing the country’s accession to NATO. On October 17 2016 – the day of parliamentary elections – two dozen conspirators from Montenegro and Serbia, disguised as policemen, were poised to break into Podgorica’s Parliament building and stage a clash with peaceful demonstrators intermingled with armed co-conspirators.  The latter would then use the pretext of “policemen firing at crowds” to take over parliament and detain (and possibly also kill) the country’s prime minister. The plan foresaw a temporary usurpation of power by the “Democratic Forum” – an anti-NATO and pro-Kremlin party. Presentient of these plans thanks to a conspirator turncoat, Montenegro police arrested 20 persons and announced capture of a stash of 50 rifles as many pistols. The following week, on October 24m Serbia detained three Russian citizens who – per Serbian police – stored counterfeit Montenegro police uniforms, €122,000 in cash, and communications encryption devices. Serbia handed over the Russians to Moscow promptly after Nikolay Patrushev, former FSB chief and then chairman of the Russian Security Council, took a trip to Belgrade.

Originally Montengro prosecutors based their indictments on testimony by two key suspects: Mirko Velimirovich (who surrendered to authorities and became an informed on October 16th), and the nationalist activist Alexander Sindjelic, leader of the pro-Kremlin organization Serb Wolves, and veteran from the Donbass war (the Insider has covered his story earlier). Velimirovich told authorities he was recruited by Sindjelic to procure weapons and to take part in capturing the parliament building on election night.

According to Sindjelic’s own pre-trial testimony, he was initially contacted by “Russian nationalists” whom he met during his stint fighting on the side of pro-Russian separatists in Donbass in 2014-2015. He met them again in Moscow on September 26th 2016, in his description – ‘at a luxurious apartment”. The self-styled “nationalists” introduced themselves as Eduard Shirokov and Vladimir Popov, and let him understand that they work for the Russian special services. They ultimately proposed to him the plan for forcible takeover of power on the night of elections,  in order to prevent the country’s entry into NATO (an idea that appealed to the staunch NATO oponent Sindjelic). At the initial stage of the operation, Sindjelic received more than €200,000 in cash. Sindjelic also told court that Shirokov bought his airline tickets to Moscow and met him at the airport, guiding him to bypass passport control to avoid leaving trace of Sindjelic’s trip to Russia. He also said Shirokov had a building plan of Podgorica’s parliament, which he used to plot – and show to Sindjelic – the takeover operation.

In the previous part of the investigation, the Inside along with Bellingcat managed to confirm that Eduard Shirokov (having in fact the legal name Shishmakov) studied at the Military-Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Defense Ministry (more commonly referred to among GRU staff as the “Conservatory”). The Conservatory specializes in preparing military attaches for overseas deployment, as well as military intelligence operatives. Later, Shishmakov served as military-naval attache at the Russian embassy in Warsaw until his expulsion as a persona non-grata in 2014, when he was accused of trying to recruit a Polish lieutenant-colonel. Despite this overseas blunder, he obtained a new passport under a different family name (Shirokov) and, as confirmed by border records consulte by the Insider, used this passport to travel to Serbia. In Serbia he failed once again, this time in the Montenegro putsch operation. The Montenegro special prosecutor was able relatively fast to corroborate Sindjelic’s testimony, and provided the court with photographs of walk-and-talk meetings between Sindjelic and Shishmakov in a Belgrade park.

The Rezident’s Misstep: How GRU officer Shishmakov Burned Moscow Center

Shishmakov continues to deny any involvement: in December 2017, he sent the Montenegro prosecutor an explanatory note, in which he referred to himself under the new, fictional name Shirokov, and insisted that he met Sindjelic in a Moscow open-air museum in 2015, where they “exchanged phone numbers”. More than a year later, while in Beltrade “in the latter part of October 2016”, Shirokov/Shishmakov says he contacted Sindjelic to arrange a single meeting  “to request help in organizing an interview with the leaders of Serbia’s Chetnik movement”, help he says he needed for an academic article he was working on.  

The narrative with the “article on Serbia’s Chetniks” was apparently needed to explain the photographs where he is seen with Sindjelic in Belgrade (see photo below); however, the prosecutors got their hands on more substantial pieces of evidence, for which neither Shishmakov nor Sindjelic could come up with a plausible legend. One of these was a Western Union transfer from Shishmakov to Sindhelic in the amount of $800, wired on September 25th 2016 – less than a month before the botched coup, and certainly not in the timeline of the incidental contacts described by Shiskmakov. According to Montenegro prosecutors, this urgent money transfer was only a small piece of a total amount of over $300,000 which were allocated for the planned coup. The date of the wire transfer would also place it just a day prior to Sindjelic’s alleged trip to Moscow, and might have been intended to cover pre-trip expenses.

Eduard Shishmakov (1) and Eduard Sindjelic in Belgrade

Below is a photocopy of the Western Union wire transfer, obtained by the Insider from the case file. It’s worth focusing on the sender’s address: Khoroshevskoe Shosse 76, Moscow. If this address rings any bells with certain readers, it might be because it featured prominently in The Insider’s and Bellingcat’s investigation into the shoot-down of MH17: this is the address of the headquarters of the GRU (recently also identified as one of the addresses from which GRU officers hacked into the DNC server before the US elections).

Sceptics would certainly scowl at this point: but this, after all, is only what the Montenegro prosecutors allege: they could, after all, fabricate evidence to suit their own narrative? Indeed, except that the US FBI, at the legal assistance request by Montenegro, investigated the authenticity of this transfer document, and obtained a direct confirmation by Western Union: an original document from the money-transfer company’s internal system showing that an amount of $850 (inclusive of a $50 handling fee) was indeed wired from the Russian Forabank serving as a WU agent. Here are scans of the original Russian-language Western Union slip and Russian bank settlement document carrying Shishmakov’s signature (the signature is identical to the one in his own passport).

A document from Forabank proves that transaction:

And yet, could it have been a setup staged to frame th GRU? Could someone else have shown up at the Russian bank’s office and forged Shishmakov’s signature? Hardly feasible. Since 2009, international money-laundering regulations, to which WU and Russian banks are strictly bound, require the presentation of an official government-issued ID document upon submitting a wire transfer request.  Therefore, no one other than Shishmakov alonе could have initiated this transfer, and similarly, he alone could have provided the GRU headquarters as the sender’s address.

There are several other documents reviewed by the Insider that point to discrepancies in Sishmakov’s statements to the prosecutors. Here is, for instance, an extract from the Booking.com reservation system, confirming the fact that Sishmakov was booked at Le Petit Piaf hotel in Belgrade from 2nd to 9th October 2016, i.e. literally days before the planned coup.  However, in his affidavit to the Montenegro prosecution Shismakov states under perjury that he was in Belgrade “in the latter half of October”.

Notably, in the booking form Shishmakov remarked that he would be paying via a corporate credit card, as he will be travelling “on business”, while in his affidavit he stated that he was travelling to Serbia on private matters:

Indeed, airline travel records seen by the Insider confirm that Shishmakov stayed in Belgrade throughout most of October 2016: travelling under the alias Shirokov, he flew from Moscow to Belgrade on October 2nd, and departed back to Moscow on October 22nd, eight days after the failed coup. It is unclear why he booked only the initial seven days at the Le Petit hotel, indicating possibly that he might have planned to stay only for a week, but his plans changed subsequently.

One explanation might lie in the cryptic public statement by Montenegro’s prosecutor in late October 2016, that a few days after the unsuccessful coup attempt, several suspects “who have nothing to do with the Serbian state” had been arrested by Serbian authorities in Belgrade”. Diplomatic sources leaked to The Guardian in 2017 that around the time of Patrushev’s visit to Belgrade (24-26 October), Russia quietly deported two Russian citizens. The Insider could not verify conclusively whether Shishmakov was deported by Serbia in the eve of the Kremlin security chief’s visit, or left on his own accord after extending substantially his initial travel plans.

 

Insurance And Other Agents: Vladimir Popov and Nikita Minin

 The Insider was able to track the telephone number, provided as a contact number at the time of booking Shishmakov/Shirokov’s hotel stay in Belgrade.  Surprisingly, the number was registered to Nikita Minin – until recently, Director of Transport Insurance of one of Russia’s largest insurance companies, Rosgosstrah. While initially the Insider assumed this may be a case of mistaken identity, further inquiries suggested that Mr. Minin did have a direct involvement in organizing the Belgrade-based activities of at least two of the GRU operatives accused of masterminding the failed coup.

The Insider identified that Vladimir Popov - one of the two Russians accused by Montenegro to be acting on behalf of Russian spy services, and placed by Podgorica on the Interpol wanted list in early 2017 – has been working for years under the cover of a transport insurance agent, and is even listed as a correspondent for the Russian “Marine Insurance” journal. Coincidentally, Minin is one of the founders and acts as editor-in-chief of this journal. The Insider has reviewed travel records that showed that Minin and Popov travelled to Odessa in January 2014, shortly before the notorious developments in the area.

Nikita Minin

 

Per his official CV, Nikita Minin was born in 1976, and in 1997 he graduated the Financial Academy at the Russian Government, specializing in “Global Economics”. Between 1996 and 2007 he worked in foreign insurance giant Ingosstrah, at that time controlled by Oleg Derispaska, and as of 2007 and until 2015 he was chairman of the Transport Insurance Department of Rosgosstrah. These days, Minin is founding shareholder and managing director of the marine insurance agency “Nautilus”.  Minin’s CV appears as unintriguing and bland as that of any insurance functionary, with the possible exception of his role as chairman of the publishing board of “Russian Paratrooper” newspaper.

Initially, Minin denied to the Insider that at the time of the events in late 2016, the phone number used for Shishmakov’s booking had belonged to him. However, confronted with evidence that this same number was listed as his in open sources as of 2011, he presented a different version of events. He confirmed that Vladimir Popov did work for his magazine, and even told the Insider that he himself sent him on a business trip to Serbia.

“In 2016, our magazine published a number of stories, including such of historical character, among which an article by Popov dedicated to the participation by the Serbian River Flotilla in the First World War. This sparsely researched historical fact evoked broad interest among our readership. In this connection we got the idea to continue researching this topic, and, in future editions, possibly to continue the topic of the flotillas not only of Serbia but of other former Yugoslav republics. We even played with the idea of publishing a book on the topic. But for commercial reasons the idea was dropped. In order to gather further data on this topic, we sent our correspondent Vladimir Popov on a business trip to Serbia”

 When confronted with the information that Shishmakov’s booking.com reservation contained his phone number as contact, Minin did not have an explanation:

“I do not know the persons Shishmakov and Shirokov. We have never worked with them, and did not cross paths in either our insurance or our editorial business. That’s why I cannot comment on their travel and bookings. I cannot comment on the question why my phone number is used without my permission. I have no idea why someone would use my phone number”

While Minin may deny his acquaintance with Shishmakov and argue that his phone number’s presence on a GRU asset’s hotel reservation is a random fact, Sishmakov and Popov’s acquaintance – and meetings in Serbia – is proven in photographs provided by Montenegro’s police in the ongoing court case. Serbian special services videotaped a meeting between Shishmakov and Sindjelic on October 19th 2016 (in that meeting, Sishmakov is seen handing over an A4 paper to Sindjelic), and Vladimir Popov was following them closely and photographing them.

In a later part of the videorecording, Shishmakov and Popov are seen sitting next to each other on a park bench, Popov holding what appears to be a high-zoom camera.

 Eduard Shishamov and Vladimir Popov

In our previous investigation, we reported on Vladimir Popov’s alleged expulsion from Moldova in June 2014 over accusations of organizing anti-government mass hostilities ahead of the planned EU accession treaty. Moldova’s national security agency declined The Insider’s request for further information on the case, citing “secrecy of an ongoing investigation”. At the same time, The Insider obtained information from Ukrainian sources that in May 2015, Vladimir Popov communicated via telephone with the director of counter-intelligence of DNR Georgiy Kondratinyn. Based on data disclosed by the Montenegro prosecution, the marine insurance agent Popov, in the period 2013-2016 took trips to Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany and Switzerland – and this data is based on only one of his passport, while he appears to have used multiple passports. For example, the Slovak anti-crime agency reported to Montenegro (as seen by the Insider in the case file) information that Popov made three visa applications at the Slovak consulate in Moscow, and each time submitted a different passport.

Serbs in Ukraine: How the Secret Services Recruited Mercenaries for Donbass

 The Insider obtained an exclusive interview from Vencislav Bujic, a Serb national currently residing in Minsk. In the period 2014-2015, Bujic got to know Sindjelic and several other indicted suspects in the Montenegro coup attempt.

From Bujic’s testimony, supported with Skype recordings he kept, it becomes clear that Russian special services were in the business of recruiting Serbs, not only for the attempted coup in Montenegro, but also for the ongoing war in Ukraine:

 “I met Sindjelic via Facebook in 2014, where we chatted on a variety of topics. He came to visit me once in Minsk, in the fall of 2014; that was our first face-to-face meeting. During that first meeting, he did mention that he was interested in the topic of Serbian mercenaries in Donbass, but I do not remember him sharing too many details. He was in Minsk to try to sell his patriotic merchandise: T-shirts and souvenirs with [Serb] Chetniks. I wasn’t interested.

In 2015, we agreed to meet in Moscow and go on to Crimea, where I had to meet an unpleasant type, Miroslav Andonovich, a hustler and fraudster who owed me quite a lot of money (According to Ukraine’s SBU, Miroslav Andononich is a Serb, living in Crimea, who was recruited by GRU in 2013). I didn’t want to confront him alone, and hoped to bring Sindjelic along as my companion. But my meeting with Sindjelic fell through, as he asked me to lend him money just before our Moscow meeting, and I declined. He got offended, and said he would go to Moscow and get as much as he needs, as “I have people I know at the Defense Ministry”.  I didn’t take his words seriously at that time; this was around March 2015.

The second time I saw Sindjelic in person was May 20th 2015, in Moscow. I had arrived to Moscow to meet an acquaintance, Radomir Pocuca. Pocuca used to be in charge of Serbian Army’s PR, but was fired when he started publicly opposing Vucic. In the fall of 2015, he also went to Donbass as a “volunteer”. For some reason, he got arrested there along with his friend Vlada Stanic, and ironically, they were arrested by other Serbs. I – being a Serb – was unhappy with the mess of Serbs arresting one another, and tried to help him get released – I helped in the negotiations, and translated Serbian to Russian and back. I was released in April, and moved to Moscow. So in May I arrived to Moscow to meet him. We were sitting in his apartment, with Vlada Stanic also present, and then Radomir got a call from Sindjelic – who was also in Moscow and wanted to meet.

So we sat down at a café in downtown Moscow for about 3 to 4 hours, and then, closer to dusk, I remember Sindjelic started calling a certain Ed or Edik, and arranged to meet him. About half an hour later he and Radomir moved to another place nearby to meet with this Edik, for around 20 to 30 minutes.  Based on their reaction after they returned, the conversation was quite intense as they appeared deep in thought and introvert. I think that “Edik” was namely Eduard Shishmakov. About six months later Radomir returned to Serbia, and no one bothered him anymore.

The meeting at the Moscow café. Right to left: Radomir Pocuca, Vlad Stanic, Alexander Sinjelic, Vencislav Bujic.

 At the end of July 2014, Miroslav started to insist that I go to meet him in Rostov-on-Don, kept saying “there are important people here, we can make good money”. I said no for the longest time, as he wouldn’t give me any details via phone. In one or our skype calls he was talking to someone else in the room, off camera, and told me he was “Vladimir from the special services”. Vladimir spoke off-camera, until I said I would go to Rostov a couple of days later. Then Miroslav said to Vladimir: “okay, now you can show him your face, he will see you in Rostov anyway”. So he came online in the frame.

I arrived to Rostov a few days alter and while I didn’t catch that Vladimir, Miroslav presented to me others: “Sanya” from St. Petersburg, who was also introduced as a person from the special services, and Sergey the Cossack. We sat at an airport café, and Sanya offered me that I being using my company in Minsk to purchase airline tickets for Serb “volunteers” travelling to and from Donbass. He promised to reimburse me in cash. Then I realized that this cannot be a legitimate operation, as he insisted on unaccounted, cash-only handovers.  

Serb volunteers were paid 11,000 Rubles per day, or more than 300,000 per month

 Earlier, Miroslav had told me that at that time, i.e. in July 2014, Serb volunteers were getting 11,000 Rubles daily for their fighting in Donbass. At that time, prior to the Ruble depreciation, that came to about USD 10,000 per month, a crazy pay rate for Serbs (and for most Russians). Later the pay was lowered, but initially, they needed to get people hooked and motivated, so they offered generous salaries. Thus there cannot be any talk of volunteers; these were pure mercenaries. “Sanya” confirmed to me that Miroslav was right about the money, and when I asked him where these funds were from, he said “don’t worry, this is money from Putin”

Selection of skype conversations from Vencislav Bujic’s archive

In the end, I decided to give the offer up, but out of courtesy I said I would think about it. I had a return flight 3 days later, and Miroslav said: come one, come along with us for a couple days. We got into a car, and he drove me to a sanatorium called Polyus, right on the river bank. It looked like a regular vacation establishment, but a whole sector of the place was leased out to Russian mercenaries and their secret service handlers. I personally met two of these handlers: that Sanya from St. Petersburg – a young, sporty guy of about 30, short blond hair and missing a finger on one hand; and the other one was not talkative, had a short beard, also around 30; he didn’t live on the base but commuted from town in the morning and was typing on his laptop all the time. We were warned not to take any photographs and not to make any recordings, or “you’ll end up in the river”. I stayed there for a couple days, met two more Serbs who were there among the Russian “volunteers’, and then left and never heard from them again. After I decline to offer my company as intermediary, Sanya told me directly to forget his number and never to call or SMS him".

The Insider was able to corroborate Vencislav’s Bujic’s assertion that the vacation base “Polyus” was used as a training camp or barracks for mercenaries. The Serbian fighter Davor Savicic, who admitted in an interview for Fontanka that he took part in the war in Donbass, is seen in one of his photos provided to Fontanka posing with Wagner PMC soldiers, at a base that we geolocated as Polyus.

This is the interior courtyard of the Polyus vacation base, as seen on its official VK page:

The court proceedings against the Russian, Serb and Montenegro suspects continues with nearly daily presentations of evidence at the Podgorica Supreme Court, and is expected to last through the end of the year.

Previous parts of the investigation:

The Kremlin’s Balkan Gambit: Part I

Balkan Gambit: Part 2. The Montenegro Zugzwang

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