InformNapalm volunteer intelligence community has a new CYBINT investigation based on data from the correspondence between Russian politicians and their assistants, exposing sensitive facts about international economic relations between Russia and Serbia, as well as other aspects of international politics, corruption and energy (in)security. The materials were obtained by InformNapalm from the Ukrainian hacktivists of the Cyber Resistance group, the findings were verified and supplemented with video evidence presented in this publication.
Who is who? Foreword.
Evgeny Zobnin is not a public person. There is not much information about him on the web. Cyber Resistance activists first noticed his name while researching the mail dumps for #BabakovLeaks from the hacked email of Alexander Babakov, vice-speaker of the Russian State Duma. Then it became clear that Zobnin, officially a mere volunteer assistant to a member of parliament, performs highly sensitive tasks for Babakov requiring a great degree of trust. For example, helping his boss to evade taxes or accompanying him on visits abroad. Cyber Resistance suspected that Zobnin may be the vice-speaker’s fixer, and therefore a keeper of important information about the affairs of Putin’s special representative for interaction with the Russian organizations abroad (one of Babakov’s long-standing positions). This prompted the team to take the next step and gain access to Zobnin’s mailbox (an e-mail dump email@example.com).
In this dispatch, we will look into the scale of Russian penetration into the energy industry and politics of Serbia; watch the double games played by the adviser to the President of Serbia Dragutin Matanovic, refresh the story about Russian $300 million used to influence politics in a number of states, and demonstrate how this worked using one scenario as an example. We will wrap up by showing to which use a former Hollywood star could be put in the Russian political circus.
The Belgrade Insider
Russian gas supplies to Europe after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine slumped, but did not dry up altogether. In addition to the flow of the Russian liquefied gas, two pipeline gas supply routes to Europe through Ukraine and Turkey are still operating. Both lines stretch to the center and south of Europe. Namely, to Hungary, Austria and Serbia, Gazprom’s most loyal clients still remaining on the continent.
Russia’s ability to use gas as a weapon is shrinking, but the case of Serbia demonstrates how dangerous and pervasive Russian penetration into the energy sector can still be. Part of the correspondence in Zobnin’s mailbox gives us the inside view the scope and details of the Russian influence operations in the European energy sector. It’s time to meet another character.
Dragutin Matanovic. Photo by: Profimedia
This is Dragutin Matanovic. In Serbian media, he is most often referred to as an adviser to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. However, Matanovic is not on the official list of advisers on the Serbian president’s website. This does not prevent him from using the badge of Vučić’s adviser and making comments about certain current events to the media, including Russian outlets. Since 2019, Matanovic has been officially sitting on the Board of Directors of NIS (Naftna Industrija Srbije), chairing the appointments commission.
NIS, once state-owned oil company of Serbia, today is engaged in crude oil production, energy generation and fuel retail through its own chain of gas stations. NIS has recently expanded in the markets of neighboring countries – Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia. Since 2012, its majority shareholder is the Russian Gazprom, with a stake of more than 50%. The Serbian government continues to own about 30% of the shares.
As for Matanovic, his political trademark is emotional diatribes, often bordering on rudeness, about the Serbian opposition or any opponents of the current government in Belgrade.
Matanovic is also a fierce opinion journalist, writing emotionally and expansively. His letters, with comments on certain aspects of NIS activities or Serbian-Russian relations in general, occupy a significant part of Zobnin’s mail dump, at least from mid-2014 to mid-2023 (this is the period that Cyber Resistance hacktivists managed to gain access to).
Some of these letters are simply copied press reports with statements from the Serbian authorities about certain events affecting the interests of the Russian Federation. For example, the screencast below contains a message with the reactions of the Serbian press to the speech of the Russian UN envoy Vasily Nebenzya regarding the crisis in Kosovo at the end of 2022.
And here is a translation of President Vučić’s comments regarding Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow in the summer of 2023.
In principle, the very fact that an adviser to the president of an independent European nation (albeit unofficial) monitors media for the assistant to the vice-speaker of the Russian parliament is very telling. However, this is trivial in comparison to other findings made upon a more careful look into the correspondence between Matanovic and Zobnin.
In mid-2022, the key topic of Russian-Serbian relations was the new gas supply contract, which was supposed to substitute for previous contract concluded 10 years before. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic is preparing a letter to Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller on the appointment of a negotiating group, which should be headed by Ivica Kojić, Chief of Staff to the President of Serbia. But before this letter is sent through official channels, its draft pops up in Zobnin’s mailbox on April 14, literally on the day the Serbian government is scheduled to meet to make the official decision on the negotiating group.
Once again: the adviser to the president of a European nation e-mails a draft letter signed by the prime minister of that state to a Russian parliamentarian assistant, accompanied with an instruction to show it to a certain “AM” so that he could “supplement or amend” the text.
The mysterious “AM”, who is supposed to edit for Brnabic, is Babakov, whose first name and patronymic are “Alexander Mikhailovich.” Matanovic often uses such abbreviations in his correspondence.
A little more than a month passes since then, and the Kremlin media report about a telephone conversation between Vučić and Putin on May 29, 2022. Based on the results of the conversation, Russia would continue to supply gas to Serbia. However, the Kremlin is informed in advance of the call of what the head of Serbia would insist on during the conversation with Putin, because Matanovic had leaked the negotiating position of his own president in a letter “for AM” back on May 24.
In short, in the above letter, Matanovic says that “AV” (Vučić) in negotiations with “VVP” (Putin) will insist on applying the “Moldovan formula” for gas pricing for his country (i.e. 70% based on the price of oil and 30% on the market price of gas), and on fixed volumes.
Matanovic’s e-mails are not always directly related to politics. They often discuss business projects of interest to Russia. But even in those, Matanovic acts, as a Russian insider in the administration of the Serbian president. For example, the screencast below from 2020 describes “A’s” (Vučić’s) dissatisfaction with the implementation of the high-speed railway project in Serbia. It’s a usual story: Russians take on a project promising something, and then it turns out that they do not have the necessary technology. The Chinese can help, but it is not clear whether their technology meets European standards. Other persons mentioned in the text include one Mr Pavlov (most likely Sergey Pavlov, deputy director of Russian Railways) and “the idiot Zorana.” Obviously, the latter is how Matanovic refers to the current Deputy Prime Minister and concurrently Minister of Energy and Mining Industry of Serbia Zorana Mihajlović. At the time of writing, she also held the position of the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure.
Short and vindictive
The real pearl in Matanovic’s epistolary output is the polemical letter dated April 8, 2021 about the inner workings of the NIS oil company. As is often the case with great literary works, its title is mysterious and laconic: “АМ 08.04.2021”. We are publishing here the uncut original.
This reading merits a few comments. The addressee of the “AM” letter is Babakov again. And here is some background regarding other persons mentioned in the text: Kirill Tyurdenev is the current CEO of NIS and the son of a high-ranking Russian diplomat. The other Kirill, Kravchenko, is the former CEO of NIS, removed from his position in 2017. In essence, Matanovic is talking about the multimillion-dollar corruption and eyewashing, customary for Russian top managers; about actual national chauvinism and segregation, as Russians receive disproportionately higher salaries in comparison to Serbian personnel; about the mass dismissals of Serbs from the once Serbian state company. At the end, there is also a mention of “irreparable environmental damage in Vojvodina” as a result of the company’s economic activities. In short, the Russian managers brought with them the “Russian world.”
The text also mentions “Alexandar” and “short and vindictive Alexey.” The second page of the letter clearly indicates that there’s no love lost between Aleksandar Vučić and Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller. According to Matanovic, this is because Vučić had the imprudence to draw Miller’s attention to the corruption among Russians. Matanovic has no other explanation for the fact that Russia offered lower gas prices to Serbia during the tenure of Boris Tadic (Vučić’s predecessor).
Aleksandr Vorobev is another man of mystery from Matanovic’s letter who deserves a special clarification.
Media influence campaigns in the EU
In September 2022, the world’s media was full of reports about Russia spending $300 million since 2014 to influence politics and government officials in more than two dozen countries. The US State Department’s press release was sent to the editors of leading publications, but details were scarce. From the few available details, journalists were able to establish that it concerned the countries of the Balkans, Africa and South America. In the context of this story, two people were mentioned above all: Evgeny Prigozhin and Alexander Babakov.
Back in April 2022, the United States Indicted Babakov with essentially attempting to interfere in American politics. The official wording of the US Department of Justice, in addition to Babakov, mentions two more people and one organization.
“As alleged in the indictment, Babakov, a member of the Russian legislature, Vorobev, his Chief of Staff, and Plisyuk, another member of Babakov’s staff, used a nonprofit organization based in Russia, the Institute for International Integration Studies, as a front for this global foreign influence campaign to advance Russia’s foreign policy objectives. Through these operations aimed at influencing the course of international affairs, the defendants worked to weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions and promote Russia’s illicit actions designed to destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine,” the text says.
Vorobev mentioned here is the same Vorobev on Matanovic’s letter. From Babakov’s dump, we still have his diplomatic passport.
It is not surprising that Vorobev is one of Zobnin’s “pen pals”. A person with the name “Alexander Vorobev” both writes and receives mail using several email addresses, but let’s focus on one of them: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The domain @ininins.com leads to the website of the Institute for International Integration Studies, the same institution mentioned in the US Department of Justice indictment against Babakov. On its website, the institute openly states that it is engaged in lobbying activities, helping businesses to expand their activities in certain countries.
The correspondence between Vorobev and Zobnin shows that behind any such business there is solely the interest of the Kremlin. And lobbying activities mean the buy-up of experts, journalists and politicians in the target country in order to sway its public opinion in favor of the Russian interests. As an example, we are publishing a document detailing a media campaign plan in the EU to promote Russian pipeline gas. This document gives us a visual on how the mentioned $300 million were spent on Russian soft power abroad.
The plan provides a typical list of the Kremlin’s talking points for discussing gas issues: intimidation, manipulations about the transit through Ukraine issue, threats of shortages. And these talking points are to be voiced not by Russian officials, but by Russian agents of influence in the EU. Among them are “a member of the European Parliament, a member of parliament of a European country, a market expert, and a specialized journalist.” The participation of “executive branch representatives” at the level of ministers or deputy ministers of energy is also expected.
Seagal relief fund
Cyber Resistance hacktivists found many scanned documents in Zobnin’s mail. The presence of most of them is easy to explain, e.g., the passports of Zobnin himself and his family members or the passports of his boss, Babakov.
We have already published passports, driver’s licenses, and State Duma IDs in our investigation into Babakov. However, in that article we only shortly mentioned Babakov’s congratulatory telegrams addressed to Steven Seagal, a faded Hollywood star, and now a fan of Putin. Back then, we only noted that Babakov approached Alexey Miller with a request to provide the Steven Seagal Cinema Support Fund with 1 billion rubles.
However, Zobnin’s mail revealed new details of their relationship.
In fact, Seagal plays the role of a figurehead in a number of Babakov’s money laundromats. For example, Seagal is the owner of a 26% stake in Gorki Holding Company LLC, proxy-owned by Babakov. It is known from the Russian press that this company is engaged in development of the luxury Rublyovka neighborhood near Moscow.
And the following document clearly shows that Zobnin gave an interest-free loan to the Seagal fund. Remember the letter to Gazprom? It is dated December 2021. That is, at the time of the funding request to Gazprom, the fund had a debt to Zobnin. It looks like a scheme for the withdrawal and laundering of Gazprom’s assets. This was probably the way to pay Babkov for his services.
If you have at your disposal, albeit a faded, but still a Hollywood star, then it would be a sin to use him exclusively off-record. Obviously, Babakov thought so too, and decided to use Seagal during public events.
In 2020, the election campaign to the State Duma was just starting in Russia. Babakov sets up his own pet party For Truth and recruits a considerable number of Russian stars to popularize it. The frontmen were the writer and militant Zakhar Prilepin, the actor and propagandist Ivan Okhlobystin and a number of other well-known jingoist characters in Russia. The party subsequently entered the Duma in alliance with another “political party” – A Just Russia.
There was also a place for Seagal. Zobnin’s mail dump contains many materials relating to the activities of the party. In particular, even scenarios for party events. According to one of them, Seagal was supposed to go on stage and talk “about the fight for peace (2 minutes).”
InformNapalm found a video of that speech. Apparently, Steven lacks imagination and preparation to last for two minutes. Or maybe they just took away his passport, and are making him work for food…
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