Nikolai Patrushev, a Kremlin hawk, career intelligence officer and close associate of the Russian president, is the head of Russia’s Security Council, known for his fiery nationalism, conspiratorial world view and extensive espionage experience.
An unofficial Balkans portfolio for Patrushev would fit an emerging pattern. While Russian foreign policy officially falls to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, actual decision-making is increasingly driven by a small coterie of intelligence officers and defense officials with close access to Putin.
“Russia has been increasingly becoming an ‘adhocracy,’ where individuals get tasked with responsibilities that may or may not fit with their formal remit,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services and a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
The former spy’s involvement indicates a more hard-line Russian approach to the region.
“Patrushev is definitely one of those people who think Russia is in an existential struggle for its survival,” Galeotti added. “It’s a Cold-War, Manichean vision of the world. And one in which any reversals for the West are implicitly good for Russia.”
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Patrushev joined the Soviet Union’s KGB in 1974 and is believed to have first met Putin — also a former intelligence officer — in the early 1990s. After 10 years as head of the FSB, the domestic successor agency to the KGB, he moved in 2008 to the Security Council, an influential body of senior officials set up by Putin.
With much of his career spent in the shadows, Patrushev has little public record of involvement in foreign policy. But he is known to have been one of the small group of advisers close to Putin intimately involved in the planning of the annexation the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014.
Russia’s security services are exerting more and more influence on foreign policy, according to Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank advising the Kremlin.
In public statements, Patrushev has claimed the United States is striving to dismember the Russian state to “open up access to rich resources that they think Russia unfairly controls.” He has also criticized what he sees as increasingly aggressive behavior from NATO, claimed that European Union foreign policy is dictated from Washington and warned of the rise of Nazism in Eastern Europe.
Patrushev’s unofficial new position leading Russia’s Balkan strategy comes at a time of poor relations between Russia and the West.
Russia is particularly angry over the accession to NATO earlier this month of Montenegro, the small Adriatic country that accused Russian intelligence officers of masterminding an attempted coup in the country last year, apparently designed to derail its bid to join the alliance.
In the wake of allegations of Russian involvement in the murky coup plot, Patrushev rushed to Serbia to meet top government and security officials, in what many saw as a mission to smooth ruffled feathers. Media reports had suggested Belgrade had extradited several Russian nationals accused of masterminding the plot.
Officials in Moscow insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary about the trip, but Patrushev’s role has only grown since.
Last month, Patrushev was the one to meet Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic during his visit to Moscow for talks on issues from organized crime to the internet.
“Over the last year, it has become clear that Patrushev has been given the Balkans,” said Galeotti. “That says something about how important the Balkans is or how important it will become.”
Patrushev has no known professional ties to the Balkans, but appointed Leonid Reshetnikov, a controversial Balkans expert and extremely hawkish former intelligence officer to the Security Council. Last October, on the eve of the Montenegro coup attempt, Reshetnikov said it was “time [for Russia] to return to the Balkans.”
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Patrushev’s rising profile in the Balkans has coincided with an uptick in Russian activity in the region.
Two Russian nationals, Eduard Sismakov and Vladimir Popov, were charged in absentia earlier this month by a Montenegrin court for attempting to subvert the country’s constitution during last year’s alleged coup attempt. Montenegrin prosecutors believe the two men are Russian intelligence officers. Sismakov was reported by Russian media to have worked as a military attaché in Russia’s embassy in Poland before being expelled in 2014 on spying charges.
Documents leaked this year also suggest a concerted effort by Russian spies and diplomats in Macedonia, Serbia’s southern neighbor, to increase support for pro-Russian groups.
Russia could take “very serious” measures in response to any further NATO expansion in the Balkan peninsula, according to Yelena Guskova, a professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies in Moscow.
“Judging by Montenegro, lots of different steps can be taken,” she said, referring to the Kremlin’s decision to cut economic ties and urging Russian holidaymakers not to visit the country, which is dependent on tourist revenues.
Patrushev warned earlier this year that NATO is also looking to persuade Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Macedonia to join the security bloc.
Russia is likely to concentrate its efforts on shoring up existing alliances in the Balkans, according to experts. This means, in particular, Serbia, with whom Russia has historically strong links. The two countries share common Slavic origins and are both primarily Orthodox Christian.
“Russia will stick to the countries on the Balkan peninsula that confirm their commitment to not joining NATO,” said Kortunov.
Author: Howard Amos