“Russia plotted to overthrow Montenegro's government by assassinating Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic last year, according to senior Whitehall sources
Russia plotted to assassinate the prime minister of a European nation and overthrow its government last year, according to senior Whitehall sources.
An election day coup plot to attack Montenegro’s parliament and kill the pro-Western leader was directed by Russian intelligence officers with the support and blessing of Moscow, to sabotage the country’s plan to join Nato.
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The allegation came as Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, criticised Nato as a “Cold War institution” whose expansion had led to unprecedented tensions in Europe over the past 30 years.
The planned Montenegro coup, scheduled for Oct 16 last year, was one of the most blatant recent examples of an increasingly aggressive campaign of interference in Western affairs, Whitehall sources told the Telegraph.
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson, are understood to have discussed the issue last week at their first face-to-face meeting.
Interpol is now hunting two Russians the Montenegrin government says are intelligence officers who hatched the plot.
The pair spent months overseeing the recruitment and equipping of a small force of Serbian nationalists to attack the parliament building, disguised as local police, and kill Milo Djukanovic, the prime minister at the time.
The Kremlin has strongly denied any involvement, and the Montenegrin special prosecutor has publically stopped short of alleging Moscow’s involvement in a plot it has blamed on “Russian nationalists”. The country’s pro-Russian opposition bloc says the alleged coup was “fake”.
But British and American intelligence agencies called in to help the Montenegrin authorities unravel the conspiracy are understood to have gathered evidence of high-level Russian complicity.
Encrypted phone calls, email traffic and testimony from plotters-turned-informants are now part of the criminal investigation of 21 conspirators accused of terrorism and “preparing acts against the constitutional order of Montenegro”.
Predrag Bosković, Montenegrin defence minister, told the Telegraph there is “not any doubt” that the plot was financed and organised by Russian intelligence officers alongside local radicals.
Sources said the plot appeared to have been constructed so it was deniable and could be blamed on rogue Russian agents and nationalists, but evidence showed it was inconceivable it did not have high-level backing.
“You are talking about a plot to disrupt or take over a government in some way," one source said. "You can’t imagine that there wasn’t some kind of approval process.”
Nemanja Ristic, one of the alleged plotters wanted by Montenegrin authorities, was recently photographed standing next to Sergei Lavrov as he visited Serbia.
Details of the conspiracy have been disclosed after Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, warned of a “step change” in the Kremlin’s meddling in Western countries during 2016.
Sir Michael used a speech earlier this month to warn that Russia is “clearly testing Nato and the West” by “seeking to expand its sphere of influence, destabilise countries, and weaken the alliance”.
Alex Younger, the chief of MI6, also warned recently that attempts to subvert democracy by states like Russia pose a fundamental threat to sovereignty for Britain and its allies.
The October plot followed repeated warnings from Moscow that Montenegro should abandon plans to join Nato later this year.
Moscow has been keen for the country of 600,000 people to remain inside its own sphere of influence, or at least neutral, and has in the past lobbied hard for naval access to its Adriatic ports.
In the months before the coup was due to take place, the Kremlin is suspected of pouring millions of pounds into a slick pro-Russian election campaign run by the country’s main opposition bloc, the Democratic Front.
The country’s special prosecutor told the Telegraph that the plotters would have mingled with Democratic Front protesters outside the parliament building in the country’s capital, Podgorica, as the election results were announced.
The plan was to attack the Montenegro Parliament building in Podgorica
At an appointed sign, the conspirators would have forced their way inside and, in the confusion, colleagues dressed in police uniforms would have also opened fire on the crowd “so that citizens would think that the official police are shooting at them”.
“Had it been executed, such a scenario would have had an unforeseeable consequence," he said.
The prosecutor, Milivoje Katnic, said he had “obtained evidence that the plan was not only to deprive of liberty, but also to deprive of life the then prime minister.””