Ex-Trump Spy Chief Grenell Celebrates Pro-Moscow Serb Strongman
Are Trump acolytes cultivating European autocrats and extremists for a White House return as head of a transatlantic Axis of Evil?
While all eyes were on Tucker Carlson’s televised swoon for Hungary’s anti-democratic, pro-Russian strongman Viktor Orban earlier this month, another prominent Donald Trump acolyte was elsewhere in Eastern Europe celebrating yet another would-be dictator who’s fallen into Moscow’s orbit, Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić.
Richard Grenell, Trump’s erstwhile ambassador to Germany, and, for a brief time, acting director of National Intelligence, has long taken the Serbian president’s side in his resistance to a peace plan that would have him recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. Grenell’s partisanship was so blatant that, in 2020, when he was Trump's special envoy to the Balkans, Kosovo's acting prime minister Albin Kurti accused him of "direct involvement" in the downfall of his government. Grenell, he said, “put pressure” on the junior partner in his government to quit his coalition after he balked at signing a peace agreement that favored Serbia in a land-swaps deal.
"I wasn’t overthrown for anything else but simply because Ambassador Grenell is in a rush to sign a deal with Serbia...to score political points ahead of the U.S. presidential election,” Kurti charged. A Balkans scholar, Edward P. Joseph, says that Grenell“skewed the negotiating dynamics in favor of the intransigent side, Belgrade.”
Grenell took to Twitter to deny Kurti’s charge, saying, “There has been absolutely no talk of land swaps from me—and it’s never been discussed by anyone else in my presence. We have said this many times."
Eight months out of office now, Grenell, 55, remains close to Serbian officials—which raises the question of what he and Carlson are really up to: Are they courting Serbia and Hungary, along with other far-right European nationalists, in a bid to fashion a transatlantic alliance of extremists that would help return Trump to the White House as the titular head of a new authoritarian world order? There are tens of thousands of Serbian American voters in US swing states.
Grenell’s embrace of the Serbs is blatant. Earlier this month, only weeks after President Biden announced sanctions on “persons contributing to the destabilization of the Western Balkans”—read: Serbs—Grenell was videotaped in Belgrade partying with a top official in the regime of Vučić, a Serb hardliner who has increasingly distanced himself from the U.S. and allied himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Except for the four years of the Trump administration, Vučić has long been in bad odor in Washington. In 2015, five members of Congress protested his impending visit to Washington, singling out the prime minister’s brother and his friends for suspected corrupt dealings with a Putin envoy and denouncing their takeovers of Serbia’s independent media.
“It is rich that Grenell is sucking up to a pro-Moscow and anti-U.S. figure like Vučić,” says retired senior CIA operations official John Sipher, a former chief of station in Serbia. “We always knew that Grenell never really cared about principles or U.S. interests, but instead would say or do most anything to support himself or Donald Trump.”
Grenell did not respond to SpyTalk’s requests for comment by email and phone.
Grenell is also connected to Hungary’s budding dictator Orban, it turns out. Last year the libertarian-leaning Responsible Statecraft think tank revealed that in 2016, Grennel’s Washington. D.C. public relations firm, Capitol Media Partners, had taken over $100,000 from a foundation funded and directed by the Hungarian government. Grenell did not register as a foreign agent as required by U.S. law, and the connection remained secret while he was the acting director of National Intelligence. In addition, the Propublica investigative news organization reported last year that Grenell had also had done undisclosed consulting work on behalf of Vladimir Plahotniuc, a Moldovan oligarch “who is now a fugitive and was recently barred from entering the U.S. under anti-corruption sanctions imposed last month by the State Department.” In 2016, Grenell wrote several articles in right-leaning newspapers defending Plahotniuc. A lawyer for Grenell told Propublica he hadn’t had to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act “because he was not working at the direction of a foreign power.”
Grenell could not be reached for comment on any of this or his recent Belgrade visit. There were no particular Serbian national holidays being celebrated there at the time, but Grenell participated in a nationalistic flag-waving event seeming to commemorate Serbian partisans, who famously battled the Nazi invaders for four long, bloody years. In a video closeup, Grenell can be seen joyously singing along with a large crowd in a boisterous rendering of Bella Ciao (“Goodbye Beautiful”) a 19th-century Italian folk song that was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem during the war, but later became a worldwide leftist “hymn for freedom,” according to one expert.
The most effective wartime guerrilla leader, Josip Bros Tito, was a communist who would go on to unite the Balkans in 1945 and rule over Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. But 1989 saw the rise of rightwing Serbian hardliner Slobodan Milošević, who spurred a revival of the Chetniks, World War Two guerrillas who had initially battled the Nazis but ended up collaborating with them. Led by Milošević, the Serbs ignited centuries-old ethnic rivalries and grudges, unleashed “ethnic cleansing” campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, and plunged the Balkans into a decade-long war that ended only after a 78-day U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign. Milošević and two of his aides were later convicted of war crimes at the Hague, but a seed of their movement has sprouted inVučić, who wasMilošević’s propaganda minister during the bombing.
Evidently, that’s what Trump and company like about him.
Serbs For Trump
The 2020 Trump campaign, and Grenell in particular, courted the right-wing Serbian American vote, which is not inconsequential, and appears to be wooing it again for the next round of elections. Some 750,000 Serbian-Americans reside in a number of key battleground states, including Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania. Last year the Serbs for Trump organization, which had feted Grenell and rogue ex-general Michael Flynn, announced its transition into a political action committee.
“Grenell was actively involved in Serbs for Trump,” said a former Balkans diplomat who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from Vučić’s agents. “He held speeches and came to events and fundraisers and managed to organize a significant number of Serbian Americans to vote for Trump in the last election.”
Not that Serbian Americans needed persuading. Many have a particular animus for Biden.
“Serbs have not forgotten Mr. Biden’s enthusiastic support for the bombing campaign” against the Serbs in 1999, an article in the Wall Street International magazine, a Dow Jones publication, said last year.
There was “intense enthusiasm” for Trump in Vučić’s circle, says Balkans expert Edward P. Joseph, a former U.S. official who spent over a dozen years there, including during the NATO-Serbia conflict. “I don't have more insight on Grenell's latest visit, but the affinity between Vučić and his colleagues with Trump/Grenell, and vice-versa, was clearly in evidence” during their time in office,” Joseph told SpyTalk by email. Vučić “nearly broke down” on camera when it finally became clear that Trump had lost.
After Twitter suspended several Serbian news sites last week for pretending to be independent but were actually under the government’s control, Vučić exploded. “I can’t wait for them (Twitter) to close my account so I become another Trump in the world!” he wailed. (Trump was expelled by Twitter in January for inciting violence.)
Grenell rallied for Vučić, blasting Twitter for its “hypocrisy” in blocking the Serbian sites.
Outside of the Trump orbit, Vučić’s strong tilt to Russia and China worries Washington, which tried valiantly to woo Serbia away from Moscow during the Obama administration. But Vučić hasn’t been subtle about his leanings. Following the arrest of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny earlier this year, all the Balkan states except Serbia joined in Europe’s sanctions against Russia.
Worse, he’s suspected of aiding a 2016 Russian coup attempt in neighboring Montenegro. After the plot fell apart, authorities there picked up one of the conspirators, who “spilled his guts” about two Russian agents who plotted “to seize Montenegro’s Parliament building last month, kill the prime minister and install a new government hostile to NATO,” the New York Times reported.
Vučić is still trying to bend the Montenegrin president to his will via a smear campaign by Serbian tabloids and political pressure from the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Democratic Front—”an instrument in Vučić’s attempted hostile takeover of the government in Montenegro,” the independent BalkanInsight reported.
Vučić not only denied any involvement in the coup, he claimed to have thwarted it by rounding up several plot suspects, whom he declined to name, “We could not find evidence of involvement by Serbian or Montenegrin politicians,” he added.
The Kremlin’s intelligence services, meanwhile, have also found a welcome home in Serbia, according to the former Balkans diplomat. “Hundreds if not thousands” of Russian agents are working with Serbia’s VBA Military Security Agency, a counterpart to Russia’s GRU, as well as the BIA, Belgrade’s foreign intelligence-gathering and covert action agency, he said. “The Russian defense ministry has opened a permanent office in the Serbian ministry of defense,” he told SpyTalk.
A spokesperson for the Serbian Foreign Ministry did not respond to repeated emails asking for comment.
Vučić has been on a weapons binge in Moscow, buying MiG fighter jets, tanks and Pantir-S surface-to-air missiles. He’s also “in talks to buy S-400s,” Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft system (capable of downing F-16s), the former Balkan diplomat said. “With that comes advisers, technicians and so forth,” says Stephen Blank, a prolific author of books and articles on Russian foreign, energy, and military policies. Air Serbia, meanwhile, may soon be the first European airline to fly Russia’s Sukhoi Superjet 100 passenger plane, if talks that opened in June succeed.
All of which raises questions about Vučić’s ultimate loyalties. Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Eurasia Program, calls Vučić “the best politician in the region,” who has to contend with “an enormous pro-Russia lobby at home” and is just “playing all sides against the middle.” Others close observers scoff at that, saying Vučićhas has fallen into the orbit of Putin, whose overriding goal is to prevent the finalité, as Bland puts it, of the European Union and advance of NATO.
Balkans expert Joseph calls Vučić “a shill for the West’s adversaries Russia and China [who] practices and promotes the illiberal democracy of its main E.U. ally, Hungary”—and their extremist allies across Europe. Between 2017 and 2019, “key political figures in Serbia, including President Vucic, his brother and the chief of police,” exchanged over 1,000 calls “with the leader of a violent far-right movement co-founded by a notorious British nationalist, The Times of London reported.
Serbia has also moved closer to China since Vučić became president in 2017.
“Since Vučić took office, ties with China have strengthened, through sizable investments in coal power plants and heavy industries such as copper mining and smelting, and the reinvigoration of a decrepit steelworks,” The Diplomat magazine reported in April. “The investments were accompanied by massive Chinese lending, high-level political meetings, and the procurement of Chinese arms. In 2019, Serbia even invited Chinese security forces to participate in joint exercises.”
Anything that advances China’s global Belt and Road Initiative, but especially in Europe, stirs unease in Washington.
Illegal Arms Proliferator
Vučić has also pursued murky arms and commercial deals with UAE’s monarch Mohamed bin Zayed, prompting allegations of corruption. Serbia and various Arab states have long had an “opaque” relationship, according to The New Arab web site.
“Vučić is very close to MBZ,” as Zayed is known, the former Balkans diplomat told SpyTalk. Serbia was “selling weapons to [Saudi Arabia] that ended up in Yemen.” And elsewhere: In June, authorities of Libya’s U.N.-backed government discovered a boobytrap disguised as a Teddy Bear left by retreating rebels. The device had bomb parts manufactured in Serbia strapped to it—“evidence that Serbia continues to flout a U.N. embargo on arms exports to Libya,” BalkanInsight reported.
All of which makes Aleksandar Vučić a strange bedfellow for a former American diplomat, not to mention one who recently occupied the top job in U.S. intelligence—unless, of course, that person is the confidant of a former American president who demonstrated a marked preference for the world’s autocrats over the leaders of its democracies. And given the hero-worship Tucker Carlson and Grenell have showered on two authoritarians with pro-Moscow sympathies, it’s fair to wonder whether Team Trump is cultivating an alliance melding the power and money of U.S. and European far right autocrats and nationalists, pro-Russia Ukrainians and Gulf state monarchies into a new kind of axis of evil, this one anchored in the White House.
“I truly hope that the Biden Administration is keeping an eye on Grenell's Balkan adventures,” says Sipher, the former CIA station chief in Serbia. He wishes someone in the Biden administration would review all of Grenell’s dealings while he was director of National Intelligence. But in the meantime, he says, “I'm just happy he is no longer in a position of authority.”