BELGRADE -- In the months following Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year, hundreds of Russian diplomats were expelled or blacklisted by European Union member states, several of which cited alleged espionage by the banished emissaries.
At least three of these diplomats have now resurfaced as accredited Russian diplomats in Serbia, including two with links to Russian intelligence, a monthslong investigation by RFE/RL has found.
A fourth diplomat currently at the Russian Embassy in Belgrade left his post at Moscow's embassy in Helsinki two months after Finland announced it was expelling Russian diplomats in response to the Ukraine invasion.
Russia has boosted its diplomatic presence in Serbia since the wave of expulsions by EU countries last year, with a total of 62 accredited diplomats compared to 54 in March 2022, an analysis of diplomatic rosters maintained by the Serbian Foreign Ministry shows.
Unlike most European countries, Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Moscow after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war against Ukraine that entered its second year last month.
While Serbia aspires to join the European Union, the government of President Aleksandar Vucic has sought to maintain its traditionally strong ties with Russia, which shares its Orthodox Christian heritage and has backed Belgrade in multiple disputes with the West.
Russia is among the countries that does not recognize Kosovo's independence and has supported Serbia's efforts to block Kosovo's membership in international institutions.
Now, at least one expelled Russian diplomat linked to a Federal Security Service (FSB) unit accused of cyberattacks targeting the U.S. energy sector has been posted to Belgrade, as has a second linked to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, RFE/RL has found.
From Hackers To Diplomats
On April 11, 2022, Croatia announced it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats and six support staff from the Russian Embassy in Zagreb, citing its “strongest condemnation of the brutal aggression against Ukraine.”
Among the diplomats expelled by Croatia was Aleksei Ivanenko, who served as the Russian Embassy’s second secretary, according to a list of the expelled officials that RFE/RL obtained from a source in European diplomatic circles.
By the time he was kicked out, Ivanenko had already served more than two years with the Russian diplomatic mission in Zagreb, according to records maintained by the Croatian Foreign Ministry.
Within six months, Ivanenko, 38, had already received his new posting in Belgrade, just a four-hour drive from Zagreb, according to Serbian Foreign Ministry records.
His move to Serbia, together with his wife, Yekaterina, came with a promotion to first secretary at the Belgrade embassy.
Around a decade prior to his expulsion from Croatia, Ivanenko was working in another sector of the Russian state, according to a leaked database of Russian government records reviewed by RFE/RL.
The leaked database shows that Ivanenko worked as an “engineer” for Military Unit 71330, another name for the Russian FSB’s Center 16. The affiliation of Military Unit 71330 with the FSB is confirmed by open sources that include Russian court records.
Around two weeks before Croatia announced the expulsion of the 18 Russian diplomats in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. authorities unsealed indictments of three Russian intelligence officers working for Center 16 accused of hacking U.S. nuclear companies and others for nearly six years.
Four months after Ivanenko and other Russian diplomats were expelled by Zagreb, U.S. Cyber Command sent employees to Croatia “to hunt for malicious cyber activity on partner networks.”
Ivanenko’s wife, Yekaterina, has been a professional viola player with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
In 2015, a friend of Yekaterina Ivanenko posted a photo of her, a young girl, and a man embracing them at a Russian cultural center in New Delhi. Facial-recognition software shows that the man in that photo is, with high probability, the same man photographed in January 2023 at an Orthodox religious celebration in Serbia together with a diplomat from the Russian Embassy.
The Croatian Foreign Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment. RFE/RL sent a request for comment via Facebook message to Yekaterina Ivanenko, who did not respond and blocked the reporter who sent it.
House Of Spies
In March 2022, Poland announced it would expel 45 alleged Russian intelligence officers posing as diplomats that Warsaw deemed "a threat to the interests and security of our country" and accused of working to "undermine the stability of Poland and its allies."
Poland did not publicly identify any of the targeted officials. But among the diplomats whose names disappeared from the website of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw shortly after the Polish announcement was Mikhail Generalov.
On the day of the Polish announcement, Generalov, 39, was still listed as a counselor at the Warsaw embassy. Poland gave the expelled Russian diplomats five days to leave town, and by April 1, Generalov's name had already been removed along with those of 43 other Russian diplomats stationed in Warsaw, an archived version of the embassy's website shows.
A Polish official familiar with the matter but who was not authorized to speak on the record confirmed to RFE/RL that Generalov had been expelled from Poland following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Generalov quickly found a new posting, however. Six months later, he had already joined the Russian Embassy in Belgrade as a counselor.
The rosters of diplomatic missions maintained by the Serbian Foreign Ministry show that Generalov assumed that position as early as September 2022 and remained in that post as recently as February 2023, according to the latest available list.
RFE/RL was able to independently link Generalov to Russia's intelligence apparatus. Leaked databases of Moscow real-estate records list Generalov's residence as an apartment in a complex located on Vilnius Street in southwestern Moscow.
That complex was built specifically for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) under a 2001 decree by Moscow's mayor at the time, Yury Luzkhov. In 2011, links between the residence and Russian intelligence surfaced in news reports after an SVR colonel fell to his death from the window of his apartment there.
The website of the Russian Embassy school in Warsaw noted a February 2017 visit by Generalov, whom it described as the embassy's second secretary.
The Polish Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the personal details of the Russian diplomats expelled from the country. The Serbian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
RFE/RL reached out for comment to Generalov via his account on the Russian social-networking site VK, which indicated the message had been read, but received no response.
Helsinki And The Hague
At least one other diplomat currently serving at the Russian Embassy in Belgrade was blacklisted by the Netherlands along with other Russian diplomats that the Dutch government called Russian intelligence officers.
The diplomat, Dmitry Barabin, has served as second secretary at the Russian Embassy in Belgrade since at least September.
A month after Russia's invasion, the Dutch government announced in March 2022 that it was expelling 17 Russian intelligence officers "because of the threat to national security posed by this group."
Barabin was not among those expelled from the Netherlands, but rather was barred from entering the country before he could assume his post at the Russian Embassy in The Hague, according to an October 2022 investigation by Dossier Center, an investigative group funded by exiled Kremlin critic and Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in collaboration with De Tijd, NOS.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry declined to comment when contacted by RFE/RL.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said last month ahead of the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine that the Netherlands had decided to limit the number of Russian diplomats, citing Moscow's "continued attempts to place intelligence officers in the Netherlands under diplomatic cover."
While Barabin, 38, and his wife have an active social media presence, open-source information about his diplomatic career is sparse. Reporters were unable to identify any diplomatic position he had occupied prior to his tenure in Belgrade.
RFE/RL contacted Barabin for comment via his VK account, which indicated the inquiry had been read, but did not receive a response. The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on its diplomatic personnel in Belgrade.
Barabin's father previously served as the head of a Russian Defense Ministry institute specializing in cartography.
A fourth Russian diplomat currently stationed in Belgrade left his post in an EU country following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The diplomat, Pyotr Dolgoshein, is listed as a counselor at Moscow's embassy in the Serbian capital. Until the summer of 2022, Dolgoshein had served as second secretary at the Russian Embassy in Helsinki.
The Finnish government announced in April 2022 that it would expel two Russian diplomats and had refused a visa extension for a third in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine "and the security situation in Europe."
It's unclear whether Dolgoshein was among the Russian diplomats referred to in the Finnish government's statement.
He remained among the 61 names of Russian diplomatic personnel listed on the Helsinki embassy's website two months after Finland announced the expulsions, though that page said it had been last updated in October 2021.
By August 2022, the total number of names on that list was reduced by three, and Dolgoshein was missing along with more than 10 other Russian diplomats who were on the list from June of that year. Precisely which ones were expelled and which were simply rotated out of Finland remains unclear.
Dolgoshein's move from Finland to Serbia is reflected in posts on VK, where he maintained at least one pseudonymous account. In February 2021, he posted a selfie of himself in front of the Finnish presidential palace. In December, he published photographs from the Temple of St. Sava in Belgrade.
Both the Finnish Foreign Ministry and the Finnish Embassy in Belgrade declined to comment.
Dolgoshein, whom social media posts show as a wakeboarding enthusiast, was listed as an official representative of the Russian Interior Ministry in Finland. Records also show he served two tours with a Russian peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo.
Dolgoshein did not respond to a request for comment sent to his VK account.
RFE/RL's Balkan Service sought comments on the new Russian diplomats in Belgrade from the Serbian government and the Foreign Ministry, as well as Vucic's office, but did not receive any responses in time for publication.
'Brotherly And Friendly Country'
The Russian Embassy in Belgrade has previously been ensnared in spy kerfuffles. In November 2019, the Serbian government said it had uncovered a Russian spy network linked to the embassy, prompting Vucic to summon the Russian ambassador.
Vucic, however, played down the incident. "We will not change our policy towards Russia, which we see as a brotherly and friendly country...but we will strengthen our own intelligence defenses," he said.
Nikola Lunic, a former Serbian military diplomat who now heads the Belgrade-based Council for Strategic Policies, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Serbia might hamper its own EU aspirations by granting "diplomatic refuge" to expelled Russian diplomats.
"Serbia's move like this could be perceived in the West as diplomatic and possibly intelligence support for overall Russian war efforts [in Ukraine]," Lunic said.
He noted that intelligence services, as a rule, "use diplomatic privileges in order to carry out their intelligence tasks unhindered, with diplomatic immunity."
"It is obvious that at this moment Serbia is the last refuge in Europe for the safe intelligence work of Russian operatives," Lunic said.