By the time Montenegro’s police got wind of the plans, the 2016 election-day coup plot was about to launch.
Disguised as police, the plotters would storm the Parliament in Podgorica, firing at citizens awaiting election results and generally creating chaos. They would declare their favored candidates the real winners of the elections, and would detain and perhaps assassinate the prime minister.
If breaking up a plotted coup at the last minute wasn’t shocking enough, when Montenegrin officials investigated the plan it quickly became clear that the source of this planned chaos wasn’t even local. The plan began with Russia. At the same time in the United States, voters were hearing the first warnings about what would come to be known Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Later, the notion of possible collusion by members of the campaign of President Donald Trump would be added.
But this is what Russian active measures to interfere in a democratic election looked like in the tiny Balkans nation of Montenegro last year. This cautionary tale came from testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. The committee investigating Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election listened to witnesses talk about what Russia has done across Europe. As committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., stated in his opening statement, the American focus remains on “paid social media trolls,” fake news and hacking.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., explained that “Russia’s blatant interference in the United States’ 2016 presidential election was unprecedented in scale and scope, and we’ve seen it replicated across Europe. In fact, Russia’s active measures are only growing bolder and more brazen in the digital age.”
The lesson, however, from the testimony to the committee on Wednesday was obvious: As troubling as Russia’s attempts to interfere in the last U.S. election might have been, it could get much worse in the future.
It’s tough to find an example much more illustrative of this than Montenegro.
Former Montenegrin Ambassador Vesko Garcevic, now an international relations professor at Boston University, said the Russian active measures in the former part of Yugoslavia (which had historic ties to the Soviet Union) began as a reaction to a 2013 denial of a Russian “request” to moor warships at their Adriatic Sea ports.
Instead of remaining linked to Russia, the nation of about 700,000 was moving towards membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Garcevic explained that the denial angered Russia, and that, combined with the idea of Montenegro joining NATO, “brought Moscow to conclusion that only a change of the current government in Montenegro may enable Russia to make gains in the small Balkans state and secure its strategic interests in this part of the Adriatic Sea.”
He said that democracy was new to Montenegro, and while dealing with “corruption or weak state institutions… Montenegro provided an opportunity for Moscow’s stronger involvement and murky political games.”
Russian efforts, he added, didn’t begin with guns. They began with fake news and social media trolling.
“The coup plot is just a tip of the iceberg, the culmination of more than 18-months long synchronized actions, which includes an aggressive media campaign,” he said.
In this case, the Russian goal was to “reverse a pro-western course of the state and prevent it from joining NATO.”
The investigation into the matter included the use of intercepted phone conversations that led to a confession from Aleksandar Sindjelic, “a supposed founder of the pro-Russian organization in Serbia ‘The Serbian Wolves,’” Garcevic said. The Serbian Wolves have been reported fighting in the Southeastern Ukraine, the so-called Donbas area, as part of a Russian-backed effort to destabilize that nation. Police said Sindjelic used about $230,000 from Russia for weapons, uniforms, shields and other equipment for the attack on the Parliament.
Garcevic’s written testimony noted that a suspected “key plotter still at large” named Nemanja Ristic was photographed months after the failed coup “standing near Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.”
“It should be noted that all conspirators arrested in actions of the Montenegro’s and Serbia’s police enjoy the reputation of being supporters of pro-Russian nationalist extremist groups and Russian separatists in the Eastern Ukraine,” he wrote in his submitted testimony.
The similarities in the first steps of the Montenegrin coup attempt and the joint assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies on what Russia attempted in the United States wasn’t lost on Republicans or Democrats on the committee. There wasn’t much pushback on the idea that the Russians had attempted to interfere, though Republicans made the point that President Barack Obama certainly should have done more to stop it as it was taking place.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said it was important to focus on what comes next from Russian President Vladimir Putin. She called the Russian efforts in 2016 “the crime of the century.”
“If this is going to lead to other attacks, we have a responsibility to hit back,” she said.
And that, she said, is now Trump’s responsibility.
Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and former U.S. ambassador, served as a top Soviet or Russia expert for both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, and was later appointed as an ambassador by President George W. Bush. His testimony focused on the lack of a reaction to Russian efforts by Trump. The president, he suggested, "continues to deny the undeniable fact that Russian interfered in our elections in the U.S. and is doing so now in Europe."
In his written testimony, Burns said Trump “has refused to launch an investigation of his own. He has not made this a priority in his conversations with Russian officials. He has taken no known steps to work with the Congress and with state and local governments to prevent such interference in our 2018 mid-term elections or in the 2020 elections beyond. Senior members of his Administration have admitted that he has never asked for their own views on this problem.”
Burns added: “I cannot imagine any of President Trump’s predecessors denying that such a problem existed. None of them would have argued, as he has publicly, that these hearings and your work are a waste of time and a problem manufactured by his political opponents. All of our previous Presidents would have understood that it was their responsibility to investigate.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the committee is taking its responsibility seriously. Fully understanding what had happened in recent elections, in the U.S. and around the world, he said, was clearly a matter of great importance, both to the committee and Americans.
“I don’t believe it’s going away any time soon,” he said. “And that’s for one simple reason: It worked.”