Base for Russian influence
In early 2023, the Balkans as a potential region for mercenaries came back into the spotlight after the pro-Kremlin TV channel RT (under international sanctions due to propaganda and disinformation) published a “seductive offer” from Wagner PMC on its Balkan media project RT Balkan. It was reported that payments in Wagner amounted to 240 thousand rubles a month (now it is about 3140 euros), and those who especially distinguished themselves are waiting for awards, up to a million rubles (13 thousand euros). In the event of death, the family receives five million rubles (about 65.7 thousand euros), and the company bears all the costs of burying and transporting the body. For the Balkans, with their high unemployment, this is a lot of money.
For participation in foreign conflicts, Serbian citizens risk up to 10 years in prison, which is well known to RT Balkan employees. However, they considered it necessary to familiarize their audience in detail with the terms of cooperation with an organization with an unclear legal status, which is also under US and EU sanctions. In addition to the site, which launched in November, RT Balkan is available on Telegram, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube. Taking into account the language factor, this project can count on an audience not only in Serbia, but also in Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in any countries where the ex-Yugoslav diaspora lives. The scandalous advertising message was significantly adjusted after a few hours, but immediately became widespread. Detailed quotes are still available today in many media in the region and in social networks.
During the year of the Ukrainian conflict, Serbia has strengthened the image of a base for the spread of Russian influence and pro-Kremlin sympathies in the region. Serbia is one of the few countries where, after the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, rallies were held in support of the Kremlin’s policies and where graffiti with the image of Vladimir Putin and the Z and V symbols periodically appear.
During the year of the Ukrainian conflict, Serbia has strengthened the image of a base for the spread of Russian influence
Usually, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic does not interfere with pro-Russian activities and disinformation in the Serbian pro-government media, actively disseminating key Kremlin theses about the causes and course of the SVO, primitive anti-Western propaganda and quotes from programs like Solovyov Live. After the start of the war, tabloids close to the Serbian authorities published a message that “Ukraine attacked Russia,” and this fake is still available to readers. However, when the scandal over the recruitment of PMC Wagner in Serbia broke out (the US had already expressed concern about this), Vučić was quick to put an end to it, publicly condemning the paramilitary group’s advertising and reminding potential mercenaries of criminal liability.
"What are you doing? Why are you calling someone from Serbia when you know that it is contrary to our laws?” the Serbian leader was indignant on the air of one of the controlled TV channels.
The failure of Prigozhin
Recently, new photos of "Serbian fighters" have appeared on the Internet. But it is not possible to establish the reliability of such images. Their faces, as a rule, are covered, and the Russian media do not often indulge readers with details of the exploits of the “Slavic brothers”. Belgrade analysts interviewed by TheInsider are very modest about Wagner's chances of recruiting new mercenaries in the Balkans. Someone talks about several dozen possible fighters, someone about hundreds. In any case, they note, this cannot significantly affect the combat capability of the units.
Former volunteers are in no hurry to predict the scale of the influx of new Serbian fighters in the Donbass. “I would not speculate about specific figures. The point is not whether it will be hundreds or thousands of people, but that the conflict in Ukraine has already reached the scale of World War II operations and threatens to burn the entire planet,” Radomir Pociuca, a former spokesman for the anti-terrorism unit, shares his opinion with The Insider The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Serbia, who received a suspended sentence in his homeland for participating in hostilities in the East of Ukraine. The interlocutor doubts that Wagner has any presence in Serbia:
“It's a combat unit and it doesn't have complex logistics. Serbia has turned into an intelligence platform for various services due to its geopolitical specifics. Of course, representatives of Russian structures also work here, but I don’t think that there are “Wagnerites” either.
Pochucha, who lost a friend in the ranks of Wagner in Syria, did not hear that one of his acquaintances in the Donbass joined Prigozhin's formations in eastern Ukraine.
Russian propaganda often uses the image of "Serbian brothers" and Serbia as a historical ally of Russia, drawing analogies between the Balkan disputes and conflicts with the situation around Ukraine. This is also noticeable in the work of pro-Wagner Serbian-language telegram channels and other Internet sites. Thus, “Slovenski Medved”, which has more than five thousand members, regularly and in detail informs about the military successes of PMCs in Ukraine and periodically publishes propaganda messages such as “the future of Kosovo depends on the victory of Russia” or “Montenegro is Serbia, Ukraine is It's Russia".
The small radical organizations "People's Patrol" and "Serbian Rights" are also engaged in promoting the positive image of "Wagner" in the Balkans. Both groups gained attention due to graffiti in Belgrade in support of Wagner. Thus, the creation of one of the murals by radical artists from the Serbian Rights was inspired by a photograph from the Heroes of the Fatherland Day in the Kremlin, in which Vladimir Putin is standing together with the “Wagnerites” Utkin, Troshev, Bogatov and Kuznetsov.
The leader of the Serbian Right, Misha Vacic, regularly finds himself at the center of scandals. So, at a meeting of the Italian right in 2021, he greeted those gathered with a gesture reminiscent of a fascist salute. And a year ago, he came to the Serbian Central Election Commission to hand over signatures for his presidential nomination in a car with Russian license plates, Serbian and Russian flags and the Z symbol. According to the voting results, he received the worst result - 0.9%, but this does not prevent him from looking useful in the eyes of the Kremlin. He was invited as an international observer to the September independence referenda in several occupied Ukrainian regions.
Vatsich watched the voting in the Volgograd refugee camp, which he had probably never heard of before, since he called Volvograd twice. Recall that the Serbian authorities themselves did not recognize either the results of these referendums or the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and also condemned the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
W-graffiti is also drawn by the "People's Patrol" by Damyan Knezevic, who is known for nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-NATO rhetoric. In December, Knezevic, together with the head of the Russian-Serbian organization "Orly" Alexander Lysov and the representative of the "Orlov" in Serbia, Zoran Lekic, visited the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. As a gift, he brought the Serbian flag, which had previously been used during actions in support of the SVO in Belgrade. Lysov, who calls himself a resident of the Wagner Center, claims that between him and Knezhevich, "close cooperation has been developing for several years."
Performance "Sava and Danube"
To speed up the influx of mercenaries to the fronts of Novorossia and create the appearance of a Slavic brotherhood, recent video clips involving two “volunteers without combat experience” with the simple call signs “Sava” and “Danube” are also called upon. We also cannot see the faces of men in military uniform with weapons - they are in balaclavas (one of them cannot even see his eyes). Through a non-Serbian interpreter nicknamed “Viking,” they briefly report that they are satisfied with the conditions of service in the “international” Sudoplatov battalion, which was formed in the autumn in the Zaporozhye region. According to them, they came from the heart, and believe that if there were no threat of criminal prosecution in Serbia, many more volunteers would come.
"Sava" and "Danube" are extremely stingy with their statements and it is difficult to understand whether they actually pronounce these words or whether this is a montage. The interviews are mostly not given by them, but by Viking, who presented the Serbs as "shooters" who used to "serve in the Serbian military police". Viking agreed that the liberation of all European countries and the future of the (Albanian-populated) region of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, depend on the war in Ukraine. Pro-Wagner channels like “Slovenski Medved” also replicate this idea with reference to “Sava” and “Danube”, although they themselves did not say this.
In another story "Sava" and "Danube" are more verbose and their voices sound different. They repeat hackneyed clichés like “NATO is fighting instead of Ukraine”, that “all the problems were created by the West and its political establishment in Kyiv”. Their thoughts are again largely recounted by Viking. According to him, hundreds of foreigners can take part in the SVO, and “about 15 Serbs, five or six Macedonians and several people from other Slavic countries want to come to their battalion.
Viking, whose real name is Andrey Rodionov, leads the Russian-Slavic Unification and Revival movement, which, according to its website, opposes "Western globalism, materialism and multiculturalism." Among the declared goals are the unification and revival of the indigenous state-forming Russian people, the revival of the historical Great Russia and the creation of the Union Slavic State in the forefront of Great Russia.
The ambitious organization is registered at the address: Sevastopol, st. Gorpischenko. 51 sq. 31. Rodionov himself, before he realized himself as a fighter for the great Slavic state, was engaged in retail trade in antiques.
Muddy sniper journalist
The most famous Serbian mercenary of the first wave, sniper Dejan Beric, also has ambitious plans. He maintains his own YouTube channel with 100,000 subscribers. Recently, Beric has been campaigning for Serbs to go to war and promoting a positive image of Wagner. Before the 2014 Winter Olympics, he worked in Sochi on the construction of the Olympic Village, and then he left for the Crimea and the Donbass. Beric often talks about his military merits and wounds, but there is no reliable information about this. So, he claims that he fought in Slavyansk under the leadership of Strelkov (Girkin) and was at the Donetsk airport. Strelkov denies Beric's service under his command. He is increasingly throwing mud at Strelkov, accusing him of personally ordering him to kill DPR commanders and trying to “poison the water with mercury.”
Beric is in conflict with many Serbian first-wave volunteers and Donbass commanders. So, Igor Bezler calls him "p ... bol" and "a stuffed animal, inflated propaganda ... by us of various types." Former mercenaries who know him say that he always exposes himself as a significant character, but in reality he is a money-hungry liar, begging either for weapons or for medicines. By the way, he collects money on paypal.me/DekiZN.
The scandalous image did not prevent the sniper Beric in 2019 from accrediting to the Foreign Ministry and entering into a 7-minute dialogue with press secretary Maria Zakharova as a correspondent for Politrussia.com . Behind this patriotic site is Ruslan Ostashko, who is connected with the presidential administration and, judging by the investigation of Alexei Navalny, received government contracts for 100 million rubles. As a connoisseur of Donbas realities, Berich is also attracted by RIA FAN, who is associated with the creator of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In one of his latest videos , Beric tells the Serbian audience that Wagner has its own artillery and aircraft, and that the PMC allegedly receives everything it needs from the Ministry of Defense. Beric calls to go to the Donbass, first of all, artillerymen with experience in serving in the Serbian army or the JNA, which ceased to exist 30 years ago with the collapse of the SFRY.
“If you are an artilleryman and an officer, come. Now you are needed most. We don't close our doors to anyone. But if you have chronic diseases, do not come. Otherwise, you will be thrown out,” he explains. Decic encourages potential mercenaries to write to him personally:
“You will be met and taken to the place where the contracts are signed!” He claims that in three months the money for the tickets will be returned, and in 6 months it will be possible to obtain Russian citizenship. “While you are at the training ground, the salary is 110 thousand rubles, and if you are in the war zone, then 220 thousand. All payments are documented. Get the money and do what you want with it!
What do the Serbian authorities hope for?
According to Ukrainian data, up to several hundred Serbian mercenaries could have been in the Donbas since 2014. In turn, the Serbian authorities have never made the relevant data public. In recent years, more than 30 Serbian citizens have been put on trial for their participation in the Ukrainian conflict, but only a few people received real terms. Usually mercenaries are sentenced to short prison terms.
A Belgrade expert who wished not to be named in the context of mercenarism tells The Insider that Wagner has been taking mercenaries from the Balkans since Syria:
“These were serious people with combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, Congo, Liberia, etc. Those who traveled to the Donbass in 2014-2022, and there were no more than 100-150 of them over all these years, are simply ridiculous. I don't expect the region to become a breeding ground for mercenaries. The Serbian authorities cannot forbid them to travel to Russia. They hope that they will simply perish in Ukraine or not return. Those who still traveled outside the country as mercenaries either died or remained somewhere, most of those who returned were convicted. Wagner does not have a physical presence in Serbia, but all the main work is done through several far-right groups. There are few potential mercenaries, and it is very likely that the Vučić government will treat them harshly now as Belgrade moves further and further away from Russia.”