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US Spying and Stealth Diplomacy Blocked Russian Meddling in Macedonia

News Brief

The U.S. government intervened to stall a Russian disinformation campaign this summer that was aimed at preventing the Balkan state of Macedonia from joining NATO, according to a report in The New York Times.

It comes amid signs of a more aggressive Western pushback against Moscow’s espionage and influence operations, following the coordinated naming and shaming of operatives from Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency last week.

The U.S. intervention in the Balkans came after it intercepted communications showing that a Greek-Russian billionaire was acting as Moscow’s agent in an attempt to scupper a resolution of a 30-year-old dispute over Macedonia’s name with neighboring Greece — an agreement that would clear the way for Macedonia to join the Western alliance.

It was part of a long-running Russian campaign to thwart Macedonia’s bid for NATO membership, using what the Kremlin calls “active measures.”

The billionaire, Ivan Savvidis, also a former member of the Russian parliament, was reportedly giving money to Macedonian nationalist politicians, and even soccer hooligans, to provoke protests ahead of a referendum vote on renaming Macedonia.

But instead of keeping the information to themselves, U.S. officials turned over the intercepts to the left-leaning Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. And in a rare break with Moscow, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats, and barred the entry of two more. It was seen as a rare victory against Russian information operations, according to the newspaper.

“We’re pushing back and showing that we can play hardball too,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former United States ambassador to Macedonia.

Though the referendum result was inconclusive, the decision remains in the balance, with the Macedonian parliament due to decide soon on whether to ratify the deal with Greece. That would see the country change its name to “North Macedonia.” Greece has long seen the simple name “Macedonia” as implying territorial aspirations over its region of the same name.

For analysts though, the question remains as to whether this and other recent U.S. moves against Russia represent a substantive change of policy, or just one-off responses — while President Trump, in public at least, continues to treat Russia as a friend.