Nearly two years after Russia launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine, there aren’t many places in the world where Moscow gets the kind of public support Kyiv enjoys in cities from Tbilisi to San Francisco. In the Donbas and beyond, the Kremlin has violently insisted on a shared “brotherhood of nations.” While that mythology has proved disastrous in Ukraine, it holds appeal for many in Serbia, where tensions between antiwar emigres and right-wing groups have simmered as Russian and Serbian state officials weigh their national interests and options. Roughly 200,000 Russians who escaped the invasion of Ukraine by fleeing to Serbia now find themselves in another hornets’ nest, caught between everything from street thugs to intelligence agencies.
United in defeat
The modern-day Slavic Orthodox Brotherhood between Russians and Serbs has its roots in the First World War when Serbia’s pendulous geopolitical orientation swung away from Austria to Russia, and Russia even went to war to defend the Serbs. However, following the October 1917 Revolution (which made Belgrade a major emigration center for the Bolsheviks’ enemies), relations became strained and weren’t normalized until after the Second World War, Carnegie Endowment expert Maxim Samorukov explained to Meduza. Even after the defeat of the Nazis, rapprochement with Moscow only somewhat survived a conflict between Joseph Stalin and Yugoslavian President Josip Tito, who demanded more policy freedom in the Communist Bloc than Moscow was happy to allow.
More recent history also animates the pro-Putin graffiti and Z-propaganda found today on Belgrade’s streets. Public polling shows that almost 70 percent of Serbs consider NATO to be an enemy — a consequence of NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbian cities in 1999 to halt the Yugoslavian army’s advance on rebels in Kosovo.
Whether they love Russia or merely hate the West (as writer and human rights activist Vladimir Arsenijevic insists), many Serbs have commiserated with Russians since the 1990s over the loss of their “union empires” to Western adversaries.
Moscow has sought to exploit this sentiment by leveraging “soft power” through allies like the Serbian Orthodox Church. After the E.U. booted out Russia Today, the propaganda outlet opened a bureau in Serbia. Even several Russian diplomats expelled from Europe later found refuge in Belgrade.
The Serbian activists who align themselves with Russia have their own agenda, of course.
Damjan Knezevic leads a movement called People’s Patrol that harasses migrants, supporters of E.U. integration, and opponents of the invasion of Ukraine. In December 2022, Knezevic and his men stormed a bar during a meeting of the Russian Democratic Society and stole the group’s antiwar flag. Afterward, he shared a photograph of People’s Patrol activists stomping on the flag, not hiding the group’s responsibility for the pub raid. Knezevic boasts that he was organizing pro-invasion demonstrations in Belgrade even before Putin staged his first rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Months later, he traveled to St. Petersburg and helped unfurl a 600-meter-long (1,969-foot-long) Serbian-Russian tricolor flag. In August 2023, Knezevic visited Russian-occupied Mariupol and Donetsk. Just last month, he appeared in a video recorded in downtown Belgrade, standing beneath a giant pro-invasion banner that quotes the classic macho film “Brother 2.”
Knezevic says he once got drunk with an unnamed State Duma deputy. He says party leader Sergey Mironov arranged for him to receive a Russian state honor, but officials supposedly canceled the ceremony at the last minute. (Meduza couldn’t corroborate these claims.) In November 2022, after visiting the PMC Wagner Center building in St. Petersburg, Knezevic held a press conference at the same bar owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin where a bomb exploded three months later and killed “war correspondent” and z-blogger Vladlen Tatarsky.
Knezevic refers to his travels as “people’s diplomacy,” and rallying Russian support for Serbian grievances in Kosovo is a priority on his agenda.
Knezevic says he owes his marvelous contacts in Russia to Alexander Lysov, a former crime reporter who later worked as an aide for politician Sergey Mironov and as the head of the “Eagles” Russian-Serbian Center, housed at the PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. Today, Lysov spends much of his time in Belgrade, where he runs a Telegram channel devoted to doxxing antiwar demonstrators and pressuring the police to entertain criminal charges and extradition claims against such activists.
The mean streets of Belgrade
More than 200,000 Russians (many fleeing mobilization or political repressions) have come to Serbia since February 24, 2022. In four known cases, Serbia’s Internal Affairs Ministry has interrogated and either refused to admit these individuals or revoked their right to remain in the country, citing national security concerns.
Given the leadership in Serbia’s intelligence community, such threat perceptions are no mystery: Until November 2023, the notoriously anti-Western politician Aleksandar Vulin served as the director of the Security Intelligence Agency. While in office, he met regularly with Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (whom some describe as the Kremlin’s most influential security official). At a meeting in 2021, Vulin even shared recordings from a seminar of Russian opposition municipal deputies held in Belgrade. Later that same year, Vulin initiated the creation of a Russian-Serbian “working group” to monitor opposition activists, NGOs, and independent journalists.
When Vulin resigned in November 2023, he said he was ousted under American and European pressure as a condition for avoiding Western sanctions against Serbia. (Four months earlier, the U.S. Treasury added Vulin to its sanctions list, accusing him of “corrupt dealings” that “facilitate Russian malign activities in Serbia and the region.”)
According to Carnegie Foundation expert Maxim Samorukov, it is the Serbian authorities’ general position that barring or expelling “the most active Russian oppositionists” is simply an easy way of “avoiding unnecessary irritation from Moscow.”
Besides these attitudes from state officials, right-wing groups in Serbia have endeavored to cause problems for antiwar Russian emigres and visitors. In addition to their brute thuggery at peace demonstrations, right-wing activists have interfered with the performances of touring antiwar entertainers by inciting outrage on social media and allegedly calling in bomb threats to venues. For example, following news that actor Anatoliy Beliy was coming to Belgrade to appear in a play in September 2023, Russian-language websites started spreading a rumor that Beliy planned to call on Serbs to answer for their culpability in the Srebrenica genocide (when the Bosnian Serb Army killed more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys). The fake story became a real scandal that led to Belgrade’s City Council lobbying the playhouse to drop Beliy.
Serbia’s nationalist media also criticizes antiwar Russian emigres. Meduza found at least eight outlets that regularly depict such Russians as paranoid cocaine junkies working for a paycheck from hostile Western powers. One website even accused antiwar Russians of coming to Belgrade to film “sophisticated pornography about the orgies of the French court in the 18th century.” Three of these outlets — nacionalist.rs, nasaborba.com, and vaseljenska.net — often publish identical articles.
Two activists doxxed by this media network say it has apparent ties to Misa Vacic, the president of the Serbian Right, a far-right nationalist political party. There is evidence to support this claim:
- Nasaborba.com’s current president is a past Serbian Right branch leader.
- Damjan Knezevic claims to know that Vacic is connected to nacionalist.rs.
- Vacic confirms that he is close to the editors-in-chief at numerous nationalist websites (though he denies asking anyone to publish stories about Russian liberals)
Russian antiwar activist Anton Soldatov accuses Vacic of trying to compromise the Russian Democratic Society by planting fake socialist and feminist protesters at one of the society’s peace rallies in Belgrade in January 2023. Soldatov says he saw Vacic at the event telling apparently hired actors where to stand for photos, and those images appeared later that same day in a pro-Putin tabloid.
In Belgrade, Meduza spoke to a 20-year-old Russian emigre named Ilya Zernov, who believes that Misa Vacic attacked him in the street in January 2023 after Zernov defaced one of the pro-invasion murals the Serbian Right has plastered on walls throughout the city.
Zernov says he flew into a rage after seeing the mural’s slogan, “Death to Ukraine,” and he started painting over the wall in broad daylight. Three men soon rushed Zernov, grabbed him, and summoned an interrogator who concealed his identity behind a rubber Putin disguise and an accent meant to sound Chechen but was clearly Serbian. This fourth man punched Zernov repeatedly in the head (hard enough to rupture his eardrum) and threatened him with a knife. At one point, the interrogator showed Zernov his Telegram correspondence with someone named “Sergey Rus,” whose messages informed him in Russian that he owed 500 euros for damaging the mural.
Zernov later returned to the graffiti to identify the men who attacked him, studying the apartment building’s directory and recalling the floor from which the first assailant shouted at him. With those names and some research on social media, Zernov found his way to Misa Vacic and recognized his “z” apparel, mobile phone, and physique.
Vacic agreed to meet for this article, leading Meduza’s correspondent on a tour of the same district in Belgrade where Ilya Zernov was attacked. He showed off other murals dedicated to Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and even Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov (a Russian militant known for murdering and torturing Ukrainian POWs before his death in October 2016). Vacic said he spent his own money to commission the paintings, “so that my son would see these faces when walking home.” During the excursion, Vacic posed for a photograph before the Motorola mural (which still showed paint smeared across Pavlov’s face where Ilya Zernov, in a separate fit of rage, had tried to add a Hitler mustache). “One Slavic soul!” Vacic said, pointing at himself and then at Meduza’s correspondent.
A year earlier, Vacic ran for Serbia’s presidency. (He delivered his candidacy endorsement signatures to the Election Commission in a car adorned with Russian flags and the “Z” symbol.) Vacic finished dead last, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. Afterward, he served as an “honored international observer” for Russia’s fraudulent annexation “referendums” in occupied Ukrainian territory, boasting that he was shuttled between cities aboard Russian military aircraft.
Like Damjan Knezevic and numerous right-wing activists in Serbia, Misa Vacic is openly obsessed with restoring “Greater Serbia,” beginning with the return of Kosovo. “We need your mercenaries in Kosovo to defend the Serbs,” Vacic told Meduza.
During our interview with Vacic at a restaurant in Belgrade, his Russian-Serbian interpreter arrived (though his services were unnecessary because the conversation proceeded in English) and insisted on photographing the meeting. Vacic immediately posted the image to his Twitter feed, leading to complaints from readers who noticed that his “liberal media interlocutress” was drinking “a goddamn [American] Coke.”
Vacic later shared his interpreter’s contact information with Meduza, revealing that he’d logged the man’s phone number as “Sergey Rus” — the same name in the message shown to Ilya Zernov by the thug in the Putin disguise.
It turns out that Sergey Rus’s real name is Sergey Belous, and he’s no mere interpreter. Belous is a pro-invasion “war correspondent” who’s worked in Ukraine on multiple occasions. In Serbia, where he’s lived for years, he collaborates as a producer with Russian state and pro-Kremlin media, including Newsfront, which the U.S. Treasury calls an “FSB-directed” outlet. (Belous denies any links to Newsfront, though researchers at Bellingcat established this connection in their April 2017 investigation into Russian involvement in the Montenegro coup attempt.)
According to internal documents from Yevgeny Prigozhin’s business empire acquired by journalists at Dossier Center, Belous was responsible for “performing special tasks and disseminating [pro-Russian] talking points in Serbia and the countries of the Balkan Peninsula.” Belous declined to discuss his “special tasks” with Meduza, saying only that Prigozhin cut most of the funding for his “Serbian news bureau” before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Vacic and Belous deny any part in the attack on Ilya Zernov, but Vacic also told Meduza that antiwar Russians are “total traitors” and should expect to face “extreme measures” in Belgrade. “No one here can resist Putin because this is Putin’s territory,” he explained. “We’ve made it so.”
A special military distraction
The war in Ukraine has presented opportunities for men of violence in Russia and Serbia. In August 2023, Meduza’s correspondent visited Zorky Stadium outside Moscow and saw the cordoned-off living quarters of Serbian mercenaries. According to Meduza’s sources at “Order of the Republic” (an underground group of antiwar, anti-Putin retired Russian security officials), these soldiers of fortune came to Krasnogorsk to sign contracts with the Russian military before joining the fight in Ukraine. As previously reported by IntelligenceOnline and the BBC, the Serbian “Wolf” squad in Russia’s 106th Airborne Division initially planned to recruit 500 mercenaries, but the effort stalled at just a few dozen men.
Journalists attribute this recruitment scheme to Moscow Governor Andrey Vorobyov and his lieutenant, former FSB operative Roman Karataev, who hatched the plan after failing to meet the Kremlin’s quotas for volunteer enlistments. Vorobyov and Karataev reportedly entrusted the recruitment itself to men with connections among Balkan mercenaries and the region’s far-right: Alexander Zaldastanov (the leader of the Night Wolves Motorcycle Club, sometimes called “Putin’s Angels” in the Western media), Wagner Group veteran Davor “Wolf” Savicic, and Dejan Beric, a Serbian sniper with extensive combat experience in the Donbas (who was recently added to “Team Putin,” a list of public figures campaigning for the president’s reelection).
Slobodan Milosevic’s son Marko, who’s lived in Russia since October 2000, has also become involved in the group’s work. (In June 2023, Marko made his first public appearance in many years at the unveiling of a monument to his father in Moscow, attending with members of the Night Wolves.) While Zaldastanov and Savicic have expressed confidence that Marko Milosevic would enjoy considerable influence if he returns to Serbia, every source in Belgrade who spoke to Meduza rejected this idea outright.
According to records obtained by the Order of the Republic (materials that Meduza could not independently verify), Zaldastanov and Savicic tried to sell their contacts in the Russian Defense Ministry on a plan to use Balkan mercenaries, far-right groups, and arms sales to “ignite the flames of war” in Kosovo as a means of diverting NATO’s attention away from Russia and Ukraine.
The group reportedly made Alexander Butenko (one of Zaldastanov’s biker associates and a Krasnogorsk city official with ties to Governor Vorobyov) responsible for finding pro-Russian agents of influence in Belgrade. In this work, Butenko makes no secret of his connection to the “Wolf” squad. For example, while visiting the unit during a trip to occupied Luhansk in October 2023, Butenko called on the men to help determine “Serbia’s future.” Alexander Zaldastanov also says openly that Serbia’s “reunification” with Kosovo is the logical continuation of Russia’s “national liberation war” in Ukraine. “It’s a chance for the restoration of justice,” he declared in March 2022.
Meduza was unable to find additional corroboration of these reported plans, but experts agree that an incident staged at Serbia’s border with Kosovo could provoke a new armed conflict. Even without external interference, Serbia regularly brings its army to combat readiness when regional tensions mount.
During the last escalation in Kosovo in August 2022, the Russian authorities tried to aggravate the situation through a disinformation campaign (presumably to divert attention from Ukraine, observers say). For example, a propaganda film from Russia Today presented a renewed armed conflict as the only practical solution to “the Kosovo issue.”
Moscow has used Serbian nationals for political destabilization elsewhere in the Balkans, too. In 2016, investigative researchers at Bellingcat established that Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate recruited a group of Serbs (including at least one member of the local Night Wolves chapter) to attempt a coup in Montenegro.
The leaders of this “Balkan Ensemble” lobbying Russia’s Defense Ministry to stage an influence operation in Kosovo also have ties to the Military Intelligence Directorate. For example, Davor Savicic fought in Ukraine with the military-controlled Redut mercenary group. Today, Savicic openly admits this connection, though he once threatened to bury a Meduza correspondent “headfirst” at a construction site when asked about his links to the Russian military.
A source in the Russian intelligence community told Meduza that Moscow’s connections in Serbia remain “serious.” Still, it’s doubtful this influence can do more than intimidate antiwar Russian emigres. “If the interests of the Kremlin and [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic cease to align, these [pro-Russian radicals] will side with Vucic, not Russia,” argues Carnegie expert Maxim Samorukov, who points out that Belgrade continues to sell weapons to Kyiv, despite rumors about Moscow’s supposed network of “sleeper agents” in Serbia.
The Order of the Republic maintains that Zaldastanov and the rest of the Balkan Ensemble have not received substantial funding in Russia, claiming that this is probably because the reignited war in the Middle East obviates the need for provocations in Kosovo. The West is now distracted even more than a new Balkan crisis might have achieved. “Things flared up in Israel and Gaza to such an extent that nobody could have dreamed of,” a source in the Order told Meduza.
At the same time, the danger of another armed conflict in Kosovo is real, and Moscow’s concerns and agenda in the region remain. In an internal report circulated in September 2021 about “European aspirations and challenges to democracy” in the Western Balkans, Russian diplomat Valery Levitsky argued that escalation between Kosovo and Serbia was, in fact, “an attempt by local Albanians to seize Serbian-populated areas” and “establish their control there.” Levitsky — the deputy chief of the State Duma’s International Cooperation Department and a man whom journalists at Le Monde and Dossier Center have described as a “professional Russian intelligence officer” and “Military Intelligence Directorate agent” — wrote, “We view these actions as a provocation intended to continue ethnic cleansing and force Serbs out of Kosovo.”
Levitsky and others in Moscow have also raised alarms about Kosovo’s steps toward creating its own army. “There are no guarantees that these so-called armed forces, largely consisting of Kosovo Liberation Army terrorists, will not be used in the future against the Serbian population in the region’s north,” Levitsky warned in his report.
When Kosovo’s parliament voted in 2018 to approve the creation of a professional army by growing the Kosovo Security Force into a military numbering 5,000 soldiers, even NATO criticized the plan, saying it was “very poorly timed.” The Serbian government’s response was less delicate: Senior officials in Belgrade signaled that they would resort to armed force if necessary. Russia (which, like Serbia, doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence) called on NATO’s peacekeeping mission in the region to fulfill its mandate and ensure the immediate disarmament of a Kosovo army if such a force emerges.
For all the schemes of right-wing activists and mercenaries in Russia and Serbia, there is even more substantial coordination between the two nations’ intelligence communities. A source in the Putin administration told Meduza that analytical materials on the Balkans compiled by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service are part of the consultations between Moscow and Belgrade.
The Serbian military has reportedly developed a plan if conditions in the south escalate, and the rhetoric Belgrade uses when discussing its perspective is sometimes disquieting. In the past few months alone, members of Serbia’s Joint Staff have met with officials in Moscow and compared the threat facing Serbs in Kosovo to the disasters witnessed by ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and Palestinians in Gaza.