Russian President Vladimir Putin – who continues to lose allies as his invasion of Ukraine drags into a second year – is using an infamous mercenary outfit to foment discord in Serbia as President Aleksandar Vucic has become increasingly aligned with Western nations.
On Wednesday, Moscow's long reach rocked Belgrade as pro-Russian protesters and hardline Serb nationalists protested across the capital.
The protesters said they opposed the Vucic government's efforts to reduced tensions over Kovoso, a disputed territory that remains for nationalists part of Serbia's historic heartland,
Serbia sees Kosovo as a pretext used by Russia and its paramilitary Wagner Group to ramp up influence operations in an effort to undermine Vucic's government.
The Wagner Group appears closely aligned with the People's Patrol, a Serbian nationalist organization which has referred to Vucic and his party as traitors and threatened to overthrow the government.
Putin has reason to be angered by Vucic, who has moved his country closer to the EU and the United States.
Vucic voted to support several UN resolutions condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of eastern territories.
"We, from the very beginning, said that we were not able and we could not support Russia's invasion against Ukraine," Vucic told Bloomberg in January. "For us, Crimea is Ukraine, Donbas is Ukraine, and it'll remain so."
According to press reports, the Wagner Group and its proxies set up operations in Belgrade in December, including efforts to recruit mercenaries to join the Russian war effort.
The Serbian government moved to close down those efforts, but now say they see the group's hand in the current protests.
"Russia's Wagner Group and its proxies in Serbia are trying to destabilize the Serbian government," a senior Serbian security official told Newsmax.
"We need our friends and partners to understand the threats and challenges that Serbia faces from Russia. These are serious threats directed at the Serbian government, especially President Vucic and his personal safety."
Vucic has stated that the Wagner Group has no business maintaining a Serbian presence let along interfering in its politics.
When the People's Patrol was chiefly protesting migrants in 2020, Vucic said he was "disgusted by fascist politics," a slap in the face to the ultra-nationalists.
Wednesday's protests came as Putin called Serbia an "important and reliable partner of Russia" in a letter to Vucic that congratulated Serbia on its statehood day on Wednesday.
But the U.S. government believes the Kremlin is unhappy with Vucic and sees Serbia's pro-Western tilt as a serious threat to its goals in the region.
"The cables show how U.S. officials are tracking the movements and activities of Wagner on the ground in the Central African Republic and Serbia, and the extent to which the group poses threats to local forces and officials," Politico reported last month.
An estimated 200,000 Russians have fled to Serbia since the outbreak of its war with Ukraine, with many said to be young dissenters opposed to the invasion and evading Putin's mobilizations.
Intelligence agencies say the Wagner Group is being used to surveil and threaten Putin's critics living in Serbia.
Reuters reported that protesters held up signs reading "Kosovo-No Surrender" and cheered "Serbia-Russia" when ultranationalist Damjan Knezevic, who has ties to the Wagner Group, called for rioting if Belgrade caves to the Western-backed plan on Kosovo.
"You [government] are fearing riots. I swear to you, we are ready for more than that," he said.
Referring to Vucic, he told the crowd that if "state leadership fails to prevent Kosovo from joining the UN, we are asking the Russian leadership to use its veto and to give us at least a month to remove this traitor."
The threats from the pro-Russian groups come as Vucic has publicly stated that Serbia "must remain on its EU path."
With EU membership on the line, he said, "we would be lost without it, economically and politically. If we were to be alone and isolated, that is not something I would accept as a president."
Marisa Herman ✉
Marisa Herman, a Newsmax senior reporter, focuses on major and investigative stories. A University of Florida graduate, she has more than a decade of experience as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and websites.
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