By MARK MACKINNON
Saturday, July 21, 2018
When U.S. President Donald Trump suggested this week that tiny Montenegro's membership in NATO could drag the United States into a third world war, it sounded to many like one of Mr. Trump's trademark remarks from out of the blue.
But those who study Russian government statements noticed something else.
Mr. Trump's comments about Montenegro, which came 48 hours after his now-infamous private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, were remarkably in sync with what Mr. Putin himself thinks about the expansion of NATO, and particularly the alliance's move into the turbulent Balkans.
"They're very strong people, they're very aggressive people," Mr. Trump said of Montenegrins in a midweek interview with Fox News. Then he mused about whether it made sense for the United States to have to defend Montenegro from attack, as all members would be required to do under the alliance's mutual-defence clause. "They may get aggressive and, congratulations, you're in World War Three."
Montenegro, a country of just 600,000 people and a minuscule military, is the newest member of the 29-member alliance, having joined NATO only last year.
The Kremlin - which sees itself as the patron of other Slavic and Orthodox Christian countries, and which lost a friendly Adriatic Sea port for its naval vessels when Montenegro joined NATO - fought hard to stop that accession, allegedly backing a failed 2016 plot to assassinate Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic and overthrow his proNATO government.
Russia has always denied involvement in the scheme, but Mr. Putin and his government have been blunt in criticizing NATO's latest enlargement, framing their objection in similar, although less overtly apocalyptic, terms to Mr. Trump's. Admitting Montenegro to the Western alliance "does nothing to enhance the security of NATO," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last year. "This policy leads into a dead end.
It will bring about nothing good."
Mr. Trump's adoption, unwitting or otherwise, of long-time Kremlin talking points is one of Russia's key gains from this week's summit in the Finnish capital of Helsinki.
ASTUTE PLAY FOR MOSCOW
The question many world leaders - particularly those who share a border with Russia - are asking this week is how Mr. Putin might use his triumph in Helsinki, as well as an anticipated follow-up visit to the White House this fall.
Some fear an emboldened Kremlin will reach once more into its "hybrid warfare" toolbox and continue the sort of meddling in Western democracies that many believe helped bring Mr. Trump to office in the United States and played a role in Britain's vote to leave the European Union.
Others fear Moscow may believe it has a green light to carry on using its military to intimidate Ukraine and other neighbours.
(Latvia, where Canada has 450 troops stationed as part of a NATO mission meant to deter Russian aggression, was particularly outraged by Mr. Trump's questioning of whether it made sense to go to war to defend a small alliance member.)
But the astute play may be for Moscow to do nothing at all. "At the moment, they're happy to sit back and watch the West devour itself," said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security issues at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
Mr. Galeotti says it's likely no coincidence the two leaders emerged from their two hour-and-10-minute private meeting, with only their translators present, speaking the same language. Mr. Putin, the exKGB agent who has ruled Russia for 20 years, was always going to have an advantage over Mr. Trump, the loose-talking businessman-turned-politician with a lax attachment to the facts.
"I imagine that if I was prepping Putin [ahead of the Helsinki summit], I'd be saying, 'Look, you want to do two things. One is you want to subtly flatter [Mr. Trump], to continue his strange, kind of romantic fascination with Putin, but secondly you want to basically be feeding a whole bunch of talking points that might actually condition [Mr. Trump's approach]," Mr. Galeotti said.
It's not just on Montenegro where the leaders seem to agree. Mr. Trump rattled his allies ahead of the Helsinki meeting by calling into question his country's longterm commitment to NATO, and by saying it was U.S. "foolishness" - rather than the Kremlin's military action in Ukraine and Syria and its attempts to subvert multiple Western elections - that was to blame for bad relations between Moscow and the West.
In doing so, Mr. Trump was embracing another narrative Mr. Putin holds dear.
The Russian leader bitterly blames NATO's eastward expansion, as well as the U.S.-led wars over Kosovo and Iraq, for the mistrust between his country and the West.
"Of course, it's positive to hear this [from Mr. Trump]. I would say that it's common sense that the U.S. is absolutely guilty in damaging relations with Russia and ignoring Russian national interests," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst.
So what does Mr. Putin do now that he has a U.S. leader who seems willing to accept and propagate the Kremlin's world view?
AGREEMENTS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
In the short term, the answer is likely to take a strategic pause. Since relations plunged in 2014 over Russia's seizure and annexation of the Crimean peninsula away from Ukraine, the Kremlin's shortterm goal has been to crack the Western unity that saw Canada, the United States and the European Union impose punitive economic sanctions in response. Another, longer-term, objective is to break up the NATO alliance the Kremlin sees as antiRussian in its nature and intent.
Mr. Trump's disruptive European tour is now moving Russia closer to achieving both those aims. All Mr. Putin - who has already been invited to the White House for a follow-up meeting - has to do, for now, is watch.
"There will be cautious calibrated steps [so as] not to upset the Trump administration too much and help Trump consolidate his 'diplomatic triumph' in Helsinki," said Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based political analyst. "We want him invested in 'getting along with Russia' so as to make it personally humiliating for him to revert back to confrontation."
It will likely take months, or longer, to understand the full implications of what happened in Helsinki. While the summit ended without a joint U.S.-Russian statement, the Kremlin, at least, seems to believe some important agreements were reached behind closed doors.
One example of that came from Russian media reports that the Kremlin wanted American officials to allow the questioning of a dozen U.S. and British nationals - including Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and Bill Browder, the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act sanctions adopted by Canada, the United States and Britain - over a convoluted alleged plot to undermine the Russian state.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump appear to have discussed a swap that would see Russian police allowed to question Mr. McFaul and Mr. Browder in exchange for special counsel Robert Mueller getting access to 12 Russian agents suspected of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
The Russian military also said this week it was ready to start implementing an unspecified deal over Syria. No one but Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump knows what that deal might be, although both suggested during their news conference that they wanted to ensure the security of Israel, which is worried about Iranian-backed forces taking advantage of Syria's civil war to build up positions near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin have both also hinted at progress toward a nuclear nonproliferation agreement, with the Russian leader suggesting the two men may sign a deal to extend the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is due to expire in 2021.
UKRAINE CENTRAL TO NEXT PLAY
No one knows what else the two men might have agreed to. Has the Kremlin been promised a reward in Ukraine - or the Balkans - in return for the Russian military's help protecting Israel from Iran?
Even Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, conceded this week he had not been briefed about what was said privately between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin.
The secrecy has only added to the furor.
On Thursday, Mr. Putin told a meeting of Russian ambassadors he was concerned the understandings he had reached with Mr. Trump would unravel amidst the political firestorm that has erupted in the United States over Mr. Trump's perceived deference to Mr. Putin in Helsinki.
"We can see forces in the United States, which would easily sacrifice the RussianAmerican relationship for the sake of their ambitions in the domestic political struggle in America," Mr. Putin said in remarks Russian media said were not part of his prepared speech. These same forces, he added, "would sacrifice the interests of their allies in Europe and in the Middle East, including the State of Israel. ... They would sacrifice their own security."
In what sounded very much like a warning, the Russian leader then returned to his prepared text to warn there was a "serious risk of escalation" in the southeastern Donbass region of Ukraine.
Ukraine is almost certainly central to whatever comes next.
Beyond capitalizing on Helsinki, Mr. Putin's overall foreign policy has two main, related aims. The first is to "make Russia great again" by ensuring Moscow's point of view once again matters on the international stage and to ensure it won't be ignored as it was over Iraq and Kosovo. Any debate over whether Mr. Putin has achieved as much was put to rest by the spectacle in Helsinki.
Secondly, a great power, in Mr. Putin's world view, has a sphere of influence, and this is something Russia still lacks. Mr. Putin, who has long mourned the passing of the Soviet Union, has spent much of his two decades at the pinnacle of Russian politics trying to rebuild something of a "USSR-lite," with neighbouring states again deferring to Moscow as they did in Soviet times.
That effort took a serious blow when Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev in 2014 to protest against their government's pro-Russian policies. Mr. Putin and his entourage see the revolution that followed - bringing the pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko to power - as a CIA-backed coup. That conviction led him to send masked Russian troops into Crimea, ahead of its annexation to Moscow, and to inflame a separatist uprising in Donbass.
Four years later, Ukraine remains the elusive piece Mr. Putin needs to complete his neo-imperial ambition for Russia. It's also at the core of the dispute between Russia and the West.
Mr. Markov, the Kremlin-connected analyst, said he expected Mr. Putin would have used his time alone with Mr. Trump to try to convince the U.S. leader that the Ukrainian government is controlled by "neo-Nazis" - something there is scant evidence of and, thus, unworthy of U.S. support.
"Donald Trump cannot get this information from U.S. media and he cannot get this information from U.S. intelligence services, so probably Vladimir Putin informed Donald Trump about this and maybe helped Donald Trump avoid a very politically difficult situation," Mr. Markov said.
THE GRAND BARGAIN
If Mr. Putin can persuade Mr. Trump to stand aside while Moscow pulls Ukraine back into its orbit - perhaps by helping a pro-Moscow candidate defeat Mr. Poroshenko in an election scheduled for next year - then Mr. Putin's mini-USSR is restored. If a new Ukrainian government is willing to make a deal over Crimea and Donbass, then the West, too, can consider ending the sanctions war that began in 2014.
"The major goal is to resettle the relationships with the West, get out of the isolation and to abolish some of the sanctions that are really painful for Russia domestically without making too many concessions," said Maria Snegovaya, adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
(While Russia has tried to build up domestic industries in response to the Western sanctions targeting its energy, defence and banking sectors, it has had only limited success. The Kremlin's growing financial problems were revealed last month, when it took advantage of the distraction provided by the World Cup to unveil reforms that would raise the pension age to 63 for women and 65 for men - the latter number is above the average life expectancy for men in many regions of the country.)
In the longer run, Mr. Putin is thought to seek a grand bargain with the West, akin to the one Joseph Stalin struck with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill when they met in the Crimean resort of Yalta near the end of the Second World War.
Many believe Mr. Putin would like to see the planet divided once more into Western, Russian and perhaps Chinese, zones of control. Ukraine, naturally would fall on Russia's side of any new Iron Curtain.
"Ukraine matters in a way that none of the other [issues] do. ... If tomorrow the Americans said, 'I'll tell you what, we will recognize Crimea in return for you giving up Syria,' basically Bashar al-Assad would be bundled up into the trunk of a Lada and driven to the war crimes tribunal before the day was out," said Mr. Galeotti, the Russian security expert. "All these things are negotiable, in a way that Ukraine is not, and cannot be, from Putin's point of view."
But analysts in both Russia and the West say Mr. Trump is too erratic, and the international situation too complicated, to strike such a complex deal now.
"I think there is a sense that a new Yalta with someone as unpredictable and irrational like Trump is impossible," Mr. Frolov said. "So why not enjoy the chaos he is bringing - while striking deals with Europe, China, Japan, India and South Korea to put some limits or breaks on this ongoing train wreck of U.S. foreign policy?" Follow me on Twitter @markmackinnon
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki on Monday. Mr. Trump's adoption of long-time Kremlin talking points is one of Moscow's key gains from this week's summit.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Montenegro is a country of just 600,000 people and a minuscule military. At top, members of Montenegro army special forces line up for debriefing after a military drill in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, in June, 2017. The Kremlin lost a friendly Adriatic Sea port for its naval vessels when Montenegro joined NATO in 2017. Above, protesters burn the Western alliance's flag in Cetinje, Montenegro, in April, 2017, during a rally against the country's accession to NATO.
ABOVE: SAVO PRELEVIC/AFP/GETTY IMAGES; TOP: STEVO VASILJEVIC/REUTERS
MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL