Trump, Russia, and NATO: Why Tiny Montenegro’s Not Tiny Now

Donald Trump has just approved Montenegro’s accession into NATO. Montenegro is a tiny nation, and its inclusion doesn’t significantly change the abilities of NATO, but it’s inclusion is huge, and its meaning is significant and clear to Russia.

As the curtain rose on the Donald Trump presidency, the script promised an administration that would warm to Russia and cool to NATO.

The first few scenes did not consistently unfold that way, though. Despite the opening months being crammed with allegations of Russian communications, conspiracies, and cooperations, as recent American actions in Syria have highlighted, the early steps of the new government were, often, hostile to Russia and encouraging to NATO.

Immediately upon assuming the role of Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis called NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to assure him of America’s commitment to "the fundamental and enduring value of NATO for the security of both Europe and North America." While they were talking, NATO was building up its forces along Russia’s borders as German and Belgian troops moved into Lithuania supposedly to act as a deterrent against Russian incursions. In mid-February, 500 U.S. troops deployed to Romania and another 120 were deployed to Bulgaria as part of the NATO operation known as Atlantic Resolve. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexi Meshkov, revealed Russia’s interpretation of the NATO buildup when he said, "This deployment is of course a threat for us."

At the same time, 300 US marines were arriving in Norway 900 miles from the Russian border. Russia criticized the move as having no military benefit beyond antagonizing Russia. When Norway joined NATO as a founding member, they made the commitment not to host any foreign forces because of Russian concerns that Norway could serve as a launching ground for an attack on Russia.

At the end of January, US tanks and armored vehicles that were part of a 3,500 troop contingent fired salvos into the air in Poland. General Ben Hodges, the commander of the US Army in Europe, said, "this is not just a training exercise. It’s to demonstrate a strategic message that you cannot violate the sovereignty of members of NATO … Moscow will get the message — I’m confident of it.”

Days later, with her first words in the Security Council, Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley issued a "clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions," saying, "I consider it unfortunate that the occasion of my first appearance is one in which I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia." She then added that, "The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine."

By mid-February, that message had moved up to the White House. Now it was White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivering the message on behalf of the president: “President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea". The next day, Trump took to his official organ of policy announcement and Tweeted that Crimea was "TAKEN by Russia."

In a recent correspondence, Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics at Kent University and the author of the upcoming book Russia against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order, said that "The renewed confrontation between Russia and the West is not a replay of the Cold War, although many of its . . . features . . . have been revived. Competition between the Atlantic community and Russia has become entrenched as the ‘new normal’. . . . Profound shifts in global politics are taking place, reshaping the international system". He stressed that, since, "International relations today are more perilous than at any time since 1989, . . . we need to understand the dynamics of relations between Russia and the US since 1989.

And the most crucial current case study for the dynamics of those relations is the invitation for Montenegro to join NATO. Montenegro is a small Balkan state that was part of the former Yugoslavia and is, therefore, part of what Russia considers to be its sphere of influence. While every NATO member needs to ratify Montenegro’s inclusion in NATO, the people of Montenegro themselves are split, 39.5% in favor of joining and 39.7% opposing.

Since 1989, Russian-U.S. relations have teetered on competing interpretations of the deal that agreed to let Germany join NATO. The Russians say NATO promised to move not one more inch to the east; the Americans say there is no written proof that such a promise was made. As Montenegro waits at NATO’s threshold, Trump’s interpretation of that controversy will be the first real test of his promise to warm relations with Russia.

With the rabidly anti-Russia congress and the reputedly pro-Russia Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, both cheerleading for the admission of Montenegro, Trump’s decision to admit Montenegro signals the continuity of NATO encroachment on Russia’s borders, its rejection of Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence and continued US hostility to Russia where Russia is most concerned.

Trump’s decision to welcome the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro into NATO is a continuation of a quarter of a century of Western hostility to Russia because the record strongly suggests that the Russians did receive a promise and that the West has betrayed them.

In 1999, NATO engulfed Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The encroachment toward Russia’s borders continued in 2004 with the absorption of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. In 2009, the Russian sphere of influence was further penetrated with the NATO incursion into Albania and Croatia. And now, in 2017, the acceptance by Trump of Montenegro signals the new administration’s continuation of hostility toward Russia, despite Trump’s promise to thaw Russian-American relations.

At a February 9, 1990 meeting at the Kremlin, George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, promised Gorbachev that if NATO got Germany and Russia pulled its troops out of East Germany "there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction one inch to the east." But, according to Sakwa, this promise specifically meant only that NATO would not spill over from West Germany into East Germany. The promise of not "one inch to the east," meant only that NATO wouldn’t militarize East Germany.

But the logic of the specific assurance implies the larger assurance. Russia wouldn’t have it as a security concern that East Germany not be home to NATO forces if there were NATO forces in all the Soviet Republics between East Germany and the western border of the Soviet Union. The value of the promise not to militarize East Germany is contingent upon the understanding that NATO won’t militarize east of East Germany.

So, the question of militarizing east of Germany never had to explicitly come up: it was implicitly understood. Sakwa says, "The question of NATO enlargement to the other Soviet bloc countries simply did not enter anyone’s head and was not discussed." Gorbachev says it didn’t come up at the time because it was unthinkable at the time: "Merely the notion that NATO might expand to include the countries in this alliance sounded completely absurd at the time.”

The historical record, however, makes the meaning of the promise clear. The promise was made on two consecutive days: first by the Americans and then by the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. According to West German foreign ministry documents, on February 10, 1990, the day after James Baker’s promise, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, told his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze "‘For us . . . one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.’ And because the conversation revolved mainly around East Germany, Genscher added explicitly: ‘As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.’"

A few days earlier, on January 31, 1990 Genscher had said in a major speech that there would not be “an expansion of NATO territory to the east, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union.” This public announcement, again, made the spirit of the promise clear.

Former CIA analyst and chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch Ray McGovern reports that the US ambassador to the USSR at the time of the promise, Jack Matlock – who was present at the talks – told him that “The language used was absolute, and the entire negotiation was in the framework of a general agreement that there would be no use of force by the Soviets and no ‘taking advantage’ by the US … I don’t see how anybody could view the subsequent expansion of NATO as anything but ‘taking advantage. . . ."

Matlock is referring to the words of President George H.W. Bush who clearly stated that the US would not derive any "unilateral advantage" from the end of the cold war, or, as Genscher phrased it, there would be "no shift in the balance of power" between the East and the West. As Matlock said, it is very hard to see how the absorption of the former nations of the Soviet Union is not an "advantage" or a "shift in the balance of power."

Mikhail Gorbachev thinks there was a promise made. He says the promise was made not to expand NATO "as much as a thumb’s width further to the east." Putin also says the promise was made. In 2007, Putin said, "And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them."

Putin then went on to remind his audience of the assurances by pointing out that the existence of the NATO promise is not just the perception of him and Gorbachev. It was also the view of the NATO General Secretary at the time: "But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.’ Where are those guarantees?"

McGovern says that when he asked Viktor Borisovich Kuvaldin, a Gorbachev adviser from 1989-1991, why there was no written agreement, Kuvaldin replied painfully, "We trusted you."

Trump’s acceptance of Montenegro’s accession into NATO is the latest failing of that trust and the most important indication of Trump’s stance on NATO and American-Russian relations, which need to be understood, as Sakwa said, in the context of the dynamics of relations between Russia and the US since 1989.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.