At the end of 2021, in order to divert the attention of NATO member states from the threat of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and another escalation of Russian military aggression in the Ukrainian Donbas, the Russian intelligence agencies once again stepped up hybrid efforts to destabilize the situation in the Balkans.
This process was preceded by partly successful attempts of the Kremlin to create a complex migration crisis on the borders of Lithuania and Poland by proxy of the Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The Russian Federation has directed its hybrid migration weapon towards Poland, hoping that this will situationally exacerbate political differences in relations between Warsaw and Brussels. However, this plan failed as the collective West managed to localize the threat, mainly thanks to the resilience of the Polish and Lithuanian border guards. Moscow immediately began to look for new ways of destabilization at the borders of the EU.
Interestingly, Russia periodically reverts to destabilizing the Balkans in order to scout out the political chessboard and try to create new focal points of tension. After the failed coup in Montenegro in 2016, the Russian secret services lied low for a while, in wait for new opportunities. At the same time, Russian “soft power” assets kept on looking for new hybrid opportunities through various foundations, interstate contracts and investments. Gas price discounts, arms deals and other Kremlin’s hybrid influence instruments also contributed to the destabilization effort.
According to the assessment of journalist Vitaly Portnikov, the collapse of Bosnia and Herzegovina has already begun, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who could have stabilized the situation, ended up “in Putin’s pocket.”
However, the signs of the Serbian leadership falling into significant dependence on the Russian Federation are manifested not only by the unprecedented discount on Russian gas. The Kremlin’s “short leash” also passes through the level of interstate military contracts. In early December, Serbia announced plans to purchase a batch of Russian fighters and helicopters, as well as an imminent receipt of a battery of the latest Russian Pantsir-S1M surface-to-air missile and gun systems. On December 10, it was reported that the Serbian government and the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom signed an agreement on the construction of a nuclear technology center. And here we come to other less obvious examples of the Russian influence operations in Europe involving Rosatom.
Archbishop of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Yevstratiy Zorya noted that the recent numerous working trips of the Deputy Head of the External Church Relations Department of the Russian Orhtodox Chirch (ROC), Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, en route Belgrade (Serbia) – Banja Luka (Bosnia and Herzegovina) – Zagreb (Croatia) come by no coincidence amid the latest escalation in the Balkans. He notes that this ROC department has been used by the Kremlin since Soviet times as a cover-up for intelligence efforts abroad.
In addition to the Balkans, the Russians continued to project their “soft power” in Poland. On December 11, 2021, a delegation of the Russian Foundation for the Support of Christian Culture and Heritage (funded by the aforementioned Russian state company Rosatom) visited the Białystok-Gdańsk Diocese of the Polish Orthodox Church. According to informed sources, the Russians handed over a large “donation” of millions of euros to Polish religious figures. Indirectly, the fact of a significant “donation” was confirmed in his comments by the head of this Russian foundation Yegor Skopenko, who headed the delegation. He said he was “involved in such charity projects for other Local Churches.” So far, these data need further verification, as it remains a mystery how the Russians were able to transport such a significant amount of cash and whether diplomatic channels were involved. Let’s try to find additional information in open sources.
Why do we have suspicions about the actions of Russian foundations that are close to the ROC?
Earlier, InformNapalm volunteer intelligence community published a series of investigations titled FrolovLeaks, which exposed the methods of hybrid Russian influence precisely through church institutions, foundations, organizations, church leaders, politicians and persons close to the ROC. Also, based on the data retrieved by the hacktivists of the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance within the FrolovLeaks operation, we managed to uncover facts indicating that some anti-Ukrainian provocations and protests in Poland were ordered by the parties from Russia.
In this feature, we focus on Yegor Skopenko, who has a rather short, but at the same time quite interesting track record. According to his own profile information, since 2014 he has allegedly worked as assistant general director with Alabuga Special Economic Zone company. From February 2018 to September 2020, he headed the ANO Management Company for the Development of the Sarov-Diveyevo Cluster. After that, he became the head of the Foundation for Support of Christian Culture and Heritage. This foundation, established by the state-owned Rosatom Corporation in 2019, has an extensive structure and can be used by the Kremlin to spread its hybrid influence, lobby, and provide a cover-up for Russia’s shady international financial transactions.
The website states that the foundation is implementing projects in 15 countries, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, Finland, the United States, Spain, Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, France, Syria, Poland, Lebanon, Iceland, and Russia.
Skopenko Yegor Igorevich
As for the official head of the foundation who does multiple foreign meetings and trips, Yegor Skopenko has a very uninformative profile on social media.
For example, his Facebook profile contains only a few photos: one high-quality studio portrait from 2020 (archive), a small photo from 2019 (archive) and a photo from 2013 where he is seen sporting a military uniform with sergeant straps (archive).
In turn, a Google photo search indicates that the second photo from his profile was probably taken during a zoom conference where Skopenko was registered under a different name, “Stanislav”, and listed as a Manager, Fleet Technical Operations for Carnival Corporation (a British-American cruise company headquartered in Miami, USA, which provides sea cruise organization and maintenance services). Google still has a managed page with some of his profile information at zoominfo.com.
In general, there is little open information on his Facebook page. It is only indicated that he has been allegedly married since 2016, that he is originally from Moscow, and lives in Nizhny Novgorod (archive). He also indicated that he was “interested in men” (archive).
In general, from January 2014 to December 2021, he uploaded only a few posts on Facebook that are open to the general public. It look like ahead of his working trip to the Balkans, he decided (or was given such advice) to fill his uninformative page a bit. Therefore, on December 3, 2021, within just 28 minutes, he posted several photos with comments on both Facebook and the newly created Instagram profile:
Comment to the first photo:
“My first working trip to Lebanon, the once rich city of Beirut. Now there is an economic crisis, many wait in line for 3 hours at the gas station. Previously, the country was referred to as Eastern Switzerland for the number of wealthy people and banks. Not worse than Sochi, so I recommend everyone to travel here on vacation. The main thing is not to pay by card and carry cash dollars.”
According to the news piece on the website of the Foundation for Support of Christian Culture and Heritage, the meeting took place in Beirut on November 6, 2021 (archive).
Comment to the second photo:
Once again I visited Turkey, Antalya, as part of a business trip. I visited the parish of the Russian Church in Antalya – very sincere people. I will definitely come here again. I recommend that everyone visit the place when you travel on vacation.”
According to a news report posted on the website of the Foundation for Support of Christian Culture and Heritage, the trip to Turkey took place on November 10, 2021 “with the blessing of Patriarch Kirill” (archive).
As of December 2021, as per Russian databases and registers, Yegor Skopenko is officially listed as a head and chief executive director of the Foundation for Support of Christian Culture and Heritage, tax reg. No. 9704008570, legal address: ap. 14, 9 Volkhonka St., Moscow. As of 2020, the foundation’s income amounted to RUB 11.5 million (approximately EUR 138,000) (source, archive).
He was previously listed as the founder of the Ideo, tax reg.No. 1646044660 and Angry Hot Dogs, tax reg. No. 1646039445 (both already liquidated). Both companies had been registered in Elabuga, Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Federation.
Taken together the laid out data suggest that the newly established foundation is a cover-up asset for Russian intelligence agencies operating through religious institutions around the world and lobbying for the Russian interests through large-scale financial injections.
Foundation’s handlers from Rosatom
It is from the second half of 2021 that Rosatom’s pro-active assistance has been observed in various international contacts disguised as religious activity.
Interestingly, the handlers of the mentioned Foundation for Support of Christian Culture and Heritage are Alexei Likhachev (Russian statesman, CEO Rosatom) and Sergei Obozov, Deputy General Director Rosatom, CEO of RosEnergoAtom Concern, Deputy CEO of AtomEnergoProm.
In the photo: First Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation, Sergei Kirienko (since 2020 on the sanction lists drawn by the EU and UK) and Alexei Likhachev / archive photo, TASS
Sergei Obozov receives the Order of St. Seraphim of Sarov II degree / Photo taken on September 18, 2020
Interestingly, it was Alexei Likhachev, Sergei Obozov, and Yegor Skopenko who met with Patriarch Kirill (Vladimir Gundyaev) of Moscow at the Patriarchal and Synodal Residence in the Danilov Stauropegeon Monastery in Moscow on November 30, 2021. During the meeting, the patriarch also decorated Alexei Likhachev with the Order of St. Seraphim of Sarov II degree.
During that meeting, instructions for further “pilgrimage” across the Balkans and promotion of Russian interests also might have been issued.
On December 6, On December 6, the foundation’s representatives came to Belgrade, Serbia, where they met with Serbian Patriarch Porfirije. The meeting was attended by Yegor Skopenko, Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, Deputy Head of the ROC’s External Church Relations Department, as well as Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, Russian Ambassador to Serbia. In fact, it is precisely via diplomatic channels that it is possible for Russians to bring in significant amounts of cash for “donations” with no customs clearance or questions asked.
Also on December 6, they were in a monastery in Vuglevik (Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina).
On December 7, Nikolai Balashov and Yegor Skopenko visited Banja Luka (Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina).
Already on December 8-9, Nikolai Balashov along with the delegation of the Foundation for the Support of Christian Culture and Heritage were in Croatia, visiting the Gornij Karlovac Diocese. According to data from open sources, “the Foundation contributed to the restoration of one of the earthquake-affected shrines of the Gornij Karlovac Diocese – the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Glina.” This is another indirect sign of generous “donations” or investments being funneled by Russians.
On December 10, the foundation’s delegation was received by the head of the Polish Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Sawa, and also visited the Białystok-Gdańsk Diocese. Massive “donations” were also made during the visit to the Polish Orthodox Church.
There are many areas where Russia exerts hybrid influence to destabilize different countries, employing informational, economic, political, military, terrorist means, etc. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church remains one of the Kremlin’s pillars, which provides additional opportunities for their agents of influence to swiftly infiltrate into targeted countries. ROC’s high-ranking officials are often referred to as “saboteurs in robes,” or “priests with insignia,” amid numerous testimonies of the ROC’s close cooperation with the Soviets in the past, and more recently with the secret services of the Russian Federation. State corporations and officials work closely alongside religious institutions to advance the interests of the “Russian world” concept.
The Kremlin is particularly interested in shifting the focus of NATO Allies towards their internal problems, away from Russia’s mounting aggression against Ukraine.
All data presented in this piece was obtained through OSINT methods. The information was collected and presented in the form of assumptions requiring further inquiry and scrupulous attention of law enforcement and security agencies in both the European Union and countries beyond the bloc, also interested in preventing destabilization in the Balkans. Many examples over the recent years have shown that Russia exploits religious institutions, including as a cover-up for its hybrid missions on foreign soil.
At present, we have no solid evidence to cement the assumption that the Russian delegation has appealed to the clergy to assist in the Kremlin’s hybrid operations in the Balkans and Poland in exchange for yet another generous “donation” to foreign churches, but such risks exist. Moscow has repeatedly tried and tested similar hybrid bribery tools in preparation for aggression against Ukraine and other countries. Therefore it is necessary to thoroughly investigate such moves.
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