Russian meddling in Western democracies is often portrayed as malicious but soft-boiled, centered on cyberattacks, propaganda operations and financial help for pro-Moscow politicians. So it’s worth calling attention to a couple of recent episodes in Eastern Europe that were of an entirely different character. In NATO member Hungary, Russian agents have been fingered for training with a neo-Nazi militia; in the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro, which is on the verge of joining the transatlantic alliance, Moscow is accused of plotting a violent coup.
The evidence in both cases is incomplete but compelling. In Hungary, the story began with a gunfight in late October between police and the leader of the National Front movement, an extremist group that identifies with Hungarian fascists of the 1930s. Police subsequently raided a number of properties connected to the group and discovered large stockpiles of weapons, according to a report in the Financial Times. Hungary’s national security committee reported that Russian diplomats and men dressed in Russian military intelligence uniforms had openly engaged in paramilitary training exercises with members of the group.
The neo-Nazi arrested after the firefight, Istvan Gyorkos, was already known for having founded a website that spreads pro-Kremlin propaganda about the war in Ukraine. Hungarian media have published emails in which the group’s leaders discuss obtaining funds from Moscow. In short, the regime of Vladimir Putin appears to have been intimately involved with an armed movement dedicated to restoring fascism in Hungary.
The revelations have embarrassed Hungary’s right-wing government,which is among the most pro-Russian in Europe. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has struck lucrative energy deals with the Putin regime and resisted European Union sanctions on Russia. Rather than reward that cooperation, Putin’s intelligence services appear to have boldly nurtured an extremist alternative.
An even more audacious operation was underway in Montenegro, if authorities there and in neighboring Serbia are right. They say Russian agents attempted to foment a coup on Oct. 16, when parliamentary elections were being held. The idea was that armed men would seize the parliament building and assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who has led his country’s bid for NATO membership. Some 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested for participating in the plot. One, a notorious Serbian mercenary, has told authorities of visiting Moscow to discuss the coup and receiving $200,000 to carry it out, according to a report in the New York Times.
Montenegrin authorities have not publicly accused the Russian government of sponsoring the plot. But they have identified two Russian nationals who traveled to the country as its organizers, and the Times quoted sources close to the investigation as saying they were intelligence officers. The men have since returned to Moscow and disappeared.
Russian intelligence services have been known for meddling in foreign countries since the time of the czars. But veteran analysts say such bold attempts to sow chaos in countries linked to NATO are virtually unprecedented. They reflect a regime that has given free rein to its covert operatives, on the calculation that there will be little or no pushback from a weak and divided West. Until that theory is proved wrong, expect more trouble from Moscow’s agents.