My latest piece for the Telegraph (££) opines on the startling news that Russian intelligence agents have been found to be implicated in a plot to kill former Montenegro Prime Minister Milo Djukanović last year:
The Kremlin has strongly denied any involvement, and the Montenegrin special prosecutor has publically stopped short of alleging Moscow’s involvement in a plot it has blamed on “Russian nationalists”. The country’s pro-Russian opposition bloc says the alleged coup was “fake”.
But British and American intelligence agencies called in to help the Montenegrin authorities unravel the conspiracy are understood to have gathered evidence of high-level Russian complicity.
Encrypted phone calls, email traffic and testimony from plotters-turned-informants are now part of the criminal investigation of 21 conspirators accused of terrorism and “preparing acts against the constitutional order of Montenegro”.
Predrag Bosković, Montenegrin defence minister, told the Telegraph there is “not any doubt” that the plot was financed and organised by Russian intelligence officers alongside local radicals.
Why might this bizarre scheme be concocted, in Moscow or anywhere else?
Back in 2003 or thereabouts Vladimir Putin was asked to define his foreign policy. He said something to the effect of “I aim to keep what’s ours.”
This simple, open-ended but profound idea offers many possibilities for what Russia might include in its category of ‘ours’. Thus:
- anywhere conquered by the Tsars or Stalin (including the three small Baltic states, and large areas of Poland and Finland)
- any Slav-language populations
- anywhere (eg Latvia or Ukraine or Kazakhstan) where non-trivial numbers of Russian-speakers or Russian citizens live outside Russia’s current borders. Russia busily issues its passports to Russian-speakers or others showing fealty to Moscow in Georgia/Abkhazia and Ukraine
- anywhere featuring the Cyrillic language or a branch of the Orthodox Church
- anywhere where Russian influence ‘naturally’ belongs.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its military interventions elsewhere in Ukraine show this approach in its most radical form. The point, of course, is never to define precisely what Russia sees as ‘its’. That would limit Moscow’s freedom of action.
Fine. But what about Montenegro?
Tiny Montenegro with its 600,000 people has its own complicated relationship with Moscow. Down the centuries Montenegro’s leaders had good relations with the Tsars. When Montenegro became independent in 2006 it was a favourite holiday destination for wealthy Russians. The Montenegro coastline has many smart Russian villas: former top KGB man and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov himself enjoyed staying there.
Montenegro’s decision to apply to join not only the European Union but also NATO therefore has been unwelcome if not insulting to Moscow. Another Slavic community and many Russian investments will come under the strongest Western defence commitments when Montenegro finally joins NATO. It should come as no surprise if some hard men in Moscow acted to stop this happening and ‘punish’ key Montenegro leaders behind this policy.
The bigger picture?
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov now calls for a “post-West world order … based on pragmatic relations and mutual respect” where each country “strives to find a balance between its own national interests and the national interests of partners, with respect for cultural, historical and civilisation identity of each country”.
This cunning formulation is just another way of saying that any country that Russia might identify as part of its own ‘civilisational identity’ needs to know its place, and accept Russia’s psychological hegemony.
Moscow knows that all the other countries that have emerged from the collapse of communism are determined to keep their independence, and that Russia’s new strident nationalism is deeply unappealing as a model for others. These revelations about Russian Montenegro machinations as well as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine show the Kremlin’s idea of how a ‘post-West world order’ should work:
“These places are really ours! But if we can’t have them, we’ll make sure you can’t either”.
Ah. Now it’s clear.
Where if anywhere might the Trump Administration start with all this?
Talking frankly to Russia about a New Deal for European Security always makes sense. But if Russia insists that part of any such deal means accepting that Russia now and then expresses its ‘civilisational identity’ by making crass violent interventions in European countries with a view to destabilising them, what is there really to talk about?