Sky News has obtained covert surveillance photographs that appear to be further proof Russian intelligence was behind last year’s attempt to assassinate a European Prime Minister.
The images were taken as part of an undercover operation in the days following the unsuccessful coup in Montenegro.
The photos, taken in neighbouring Serbia by an unnamed European security service, show two Russians accused of plotting the coup – Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov. Both men are said to be members of the GRU, Russian military intelligence.
In one, Shishmakov is pictured meeting with a Serb, Alexsandar Sindjelic. Sindjelic was subsequently arrested and he has reportedly confessed his involvement in the attempted coup and admitted working as an agent for the two Russians.
In another photo, Shishmakov and Popov are photographed together on a bench believed to be in a park in central Belgrade.
The photos were taken around the time of the attempted coup.
The coup was planned for the evening of 16 October last year – the day of parliamentary elections.
The plan was to infiltrate a pro-Russian rally outside the Parliament building in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.
Plotters, dressed as policemen, would break into Parliament and turn their fire on the protesters, thus making it look like the Montenegrin state security had shot its own people.
Separately, the pro-European Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic would be assassinated in the hope of a pro-Russian politician seizing power.
The plot was foiled with hours to spare.
Security sources claim these photographs are further evidence that the Russian state was directly linked with the attempted coup and show blatant aggression in a European country.
Moscow has always denied any involvement – the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the connection as “absurd”.
Politically, Russia has long been opposed to Montenegro’s ambitions to join NATO and the country was formally admitted into the military alliance in recent months. The Balkan country sits in Moscow’s sphere of interest and large numbers of Russian tourists visit each summer.
Montenegro is politically split. Much of the population is in favour of closer ties with Europe but a sizeable and significant proportion would rather stay close to Moscow.
The coup attempt went largely unnoticed at the time – partly because of the US presidential elections – but has attracted increased interest across Europe as further details have come to light.
Earlier this year, Sky News published images of a passport belonging to Eduard Shishmakov.
He is described as an assistant military attache to the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. Security sources say this is a commonly used alias for GRU officers.
Additionally, Polish intelligence provided a statement saying they expelled Shishmakov from Poland for espionage activities and declared him persona non grata.
The two Russians are believed to be back in Russia. They are therefore being tried ‘in absentia’ alongside 13 other defendants, including two Montenegrin opposition MPs and 10 Serbians. They have been charged with a range of offences.
Earlier this year, Montenegrin chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic told state television that they “now have evidence that nationalist structures from Russia are behind the coup attempt, but also that certain state bodies of Russia are involved, on a certain level”.
The trial will be the largest in Montenegrin history and highly political. It is also believed to be the first time serving GRU officers have been charged with terrorism offences and criminal activity in a European country.
It briefly opened last month but was adjourned to give the defence more time. It is expected to resume next Monday.
The Montenegrin prosecutor is expected to produce evidence showing the Russians’ phones were adapted with software to allow covert messaging. He will also allege financial transactions linking the Russians with Sindjelic.
By Alistair Bunkall, Defence Correspondent