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The Russian Orthodox Church has long been an instrument for the Kremlin’s foreign meddling. Its influence in the Balkans now is reaching new heights, possibly with disastrous consequences for European security. As Russian President Vladimir Putin takes aim at Montenegro through the Orthodox Church, NATO must watch carefully for Kremlin-backed destabilization in the heart of its second-newest member-state. A compromised Montenegro could disrupt the Balkans and expose NATO’s southern flank.

Kremlin-pliant Orthodox churches have long constituted serious security threats to their host countries. Russia has already honed its tactics of employing the church in Russian campaigns during its hybrid war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, or UOC-MP – the Russian Orthodox Church’s subordinate branch in Ukraine – supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin is probably also leveraging the UOC-MP to further develop Russia’s irregular proxy networks in Ukraine. For example, the UOC-MP seeks to create the kind of parallel security structures in Ukraine that have historically functioned as irregular warfare elements in that country. The Russian Orthodox Church also supported Russia’s election interference efforts in Ukraine’s October 2020 local elections, with UOC-MP clergy openly campaigning for the pro-Russian opposition. A UOC-MP priest who openly advocated for separatism in Ukraine even ran for office as a member of Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition party. 

Moscow understands that religion in the Balkans has always been an instrument for galvanizing conflicts. In the early 1990s civil war exploded as tensions grew among different religious and ethnic groups. In Montenegro, the Kremlin is similarly using the Orthodox Church as a destabilization agent. This tactic enables the Kremlin to pursue a variety of goals while obscuring Moscow’s hand by using the church as a proxy.

For Russia, Balkan states like Montenegro represent NATO’s soft, vulnerable underbelly as Putin seeks to project influence into the Adriatic Sea. Consequently, Russia seeks to exploit Montenegro’s recent accession into NATO as a uniquely vulnerable member of the alliance, and in so doing also undermine the state’s bid to join the European Union.

To this end, Russia recently liaised through the Russian Orthodox Church to manipulate the pliant Serbian Orthodox Church to sow ethnic discord among Montenegro’s ethnic Serb population and promote pro-Russian policies. Following the Kremlin’s lead, the Serbian Orthodox Church also leverages its influence in Montenegro through active participation in political processes. It heavily influenced the selection of Montenegro’s current pro-Russian Prime Minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, and organized mass protests in all major Montenegrin cities in early 2020. 

Unsurprisingly, the Serbian Interior Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, who has supported Russia for years, recently adopted one more trick from Putin’s playbook. This year he called for the creation of the “Serbian World” – a Balkan parallel to Putin’s “Russian World” where all Serbs would live and be united under a common cultural framework.

In Montenegro and Ukraine, Putin is using the same template. Both the Serbian Orthodox Church’s and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate’s activities aim to undermine pro-NATO and pro-Western initiatives and bolster the Kremlin’s influence at the expense of Montenegrin and Ukrainian sovereignty. Both churches dismiss the existence of distinct Montenegrin and Ukrainian national identities by claiming that Montenegrins are Serbs and that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, respectively. Both churches deny the legitimacy of indigenous Orthodox Churches.

The Kremlin’s influence through the Orthodox Church goes beyond soft power influence and can support more devastating state-backed efforts, as evidenced in the UOC-MP’s role in supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine. Should Montenegro go the way of Ukraine, the consequences will be just as costly to roll back, and it may portend further disintegration into the ethnic turmoil that rocked the Balkans in the 1990s.

NATO must increase its counterintelligence activities in Montenegro to counter the Kremlin’s malign influence, especially given that the Montenegrin government has already expanded Russia’s access to sensitive NATO information. NATO should also send its counter-hybrid warfare team back to Montenegro, as it did in 2020. Western powers must make clear to Moscow that they will not tolerate malign state-backed influence campaigns in the Balkans veiled by religious proxies. The Kremlin must be put on notice that stoking ethnic division carries clear and immediate consequences.

George Barros is a Researcher at  Russia Team at the Institute For the Study of War, Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting fellow at AEI and Milan Jovanovic is a Researcher at the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.