US President Donald Trump described the people of Montenegro as “very aggressive” in an interview with Fox News on July 18, suggesting that the tiny country could be the cause of a third world war.
Trump made the comment on Nato’s newest member Montenegro shortly after his widely-criticised summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising suspicions that he was simply echoing views voiced by his Russian counterpart at the meeting.
In the interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Trump also called into question Nato’s founding principle, namely Article 5, which is Nato’s common defence clause that states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
“Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked, to which Trump responded “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question.”
“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people ... They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in world war three,” Trump added in the interview.
Montenegro, a small country with population of 630,000, was one of the six republics in former Yugoslavia, which fell apart in early 1990. It has military personal of just 3,400.
The comments drew immediate outrage and ridicule from commentators. “Once again: Trump is parroting Kremlin talking points. Who on earth could have planted this riff in his head about tiny Montenegro possibly starting World War III? #ThisIsNotNormal," wrote Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Programme on Twitter after the interview aired.
Damon Wilson, executive vice president of Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council, meanwhile, stressed the benefits of Nato enlargement to Montenegro and other Western Balkans countries.
“If Nato should stop the promise of further enlargement, it runs the risk of leaving countries in the region susceptible to Moscow’s intimidation tactics. We have seen too many times the dangers of great power competition in the Balkans, and it must not be repeated again,” Wilson wrote on July 18.
“Nato membership brings a guarantee of peace, not just for its new members, but for the entire Western community. … Rather than starting World War III, membership for Nato prevents that exact possibility and moves us closer to the goal of a peaceful European continent."
Other observers were quick to recall the incident at the tour of Nato’s new headquarters in May 2017, when video footage showed Trump shoving Prime Minister Dusko Markovic aside in order to stand close to the alliance’s head Jens Stoltenberg.
After the Helsinki summit on July 16, Trump appalled US politicians by appearing to side with Putin against his own intelligence agencies over allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
So surprising was Trump’s stance that it revived suspicions that he had been installed in the White House thanks to Russian efforts and that the Russian president had incriminating information on Trump. Not only did Trump not confront Putin over the suspected election meddling, he also signally failed to take him to task over other pressing issues such as the war in Syria and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
His suggestion he has grounds to trust Putin that Russia didn't interfere in the 2016 election was slammed by members of his own Republican Party as well as his political opponents.
Even Republicans usually supportive of Trump, such as House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan were forced to spell out that Trump "must appreciate that Russia is not our ally”, while those that are typically critics of the president like Republican Senator John McCain did not hold back.
John McCain called the summit a "disgraceful performance" by Trump, adding that "No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant”.
Indeed, Trump was much friendlier towards Putin than to some of the US’s supposed allies in the days leading up to the Helsinki summit, when he launched into a tirade against Germany, which he claimed had an “inappropriate” relationship with Russia and didn’t contribute enough to Nato defence, before going on to criticise UK Prime Minister Teresa May’s handling of Brexit.
However, in the days after the summit he flip-flopped on various issues, apparently because of pressure at home, saying later that he does accepts the conclusion of the US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and claiming that he had warned Putin over the issue.
Between Russia and the West
Montenegro became Nato’s 29th member in 2017, a move that infuriated Russia, which was adamantly opposed to Montenegro joining the alliance.
Montenegro previously had friendly relations with Russia, with its Adriatic coast being dubbed “Moscow on Sea” because of the large numbers of Russian holidaymakers that flocked there each summer. Its largest industrial enterprise Aluminium Plant Podgorica (KAP) was taken over by Central European Aluminium Company (CEAC), a subsidiary of En+ owned by the now sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
However, the situation later soured as Podgorica prioritised Euro-Atlantic integration over its relations with Moscow, and CEAC and the Montenegrin authorities are embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute over KAP that so far has mostly gone in Podgorica’s favour.
As Montenegro approached Nato accession, Moscow stepped up the pressure on the tiny Balkan country. The opposition Democratic Front, whose supporters clashed repeatedly with police at demonstrations in autumn 2015, was accused by the country’s now President (then prime minister) Milo Djukanovic of taking funds from Russia with the aim of creating an impression of instability in Montenegro.
Things escalated ahead of the 2016 general election, when the authorities reported they had foiled a coup attempt. They claim Russian special services operators planned the coup with the help of Serbian paramilitaries with the aim of installing the Democratic Front in power and assassinating Djukanovic. The trial of those suspected of being involved in the coup is still ongoing.