My latest piece for the Telegraph (££) looks at what if anything President Trump might have meant when he was asked on TV about NATO and Montenegro. Here’s the exchange:

CARLSON: Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member who has been attacked. So let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked: Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?

TRUMP: I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question.

CARLSON: Yeah, I’m not against it — or Albania.

TRUMP: No, by the way, they have very strong people — they have very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. Now I understand that — but that’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year-and-a-half ago. But I took over the conversation three or four days ago and said, “You have to pay.”

Relax, guys! Your son has to invade the rocky shoreline of Montenegro to defend the country ONLY if that’s what the US Administration of the day decides!

Huh? Isn’t the point of NATO that an ‘attack on one is an attack on all’, so that if any one ally is attacked all the others must rush to defend it?

Not quite, as my piece points out:

In June 2017 tiny Montenegro on the Adriatic coast finally joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), becoming the 29th member state in the alliance.

Montenegro thereby came under the core NATO defence commitment reminiscent of the famous Three Musketeers’ ‘all-for-one, one-for-all’ principle, namely Article 5: “An armed attack an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”.

That said, close reading of the full Article shows that in such a situation NATO members are not in fact committed to doing anything specific to support their attacked ally. Instead they each take such action as they ‘deem necessary’ to assist that ally, including the use of armed force.

In other words, if (say) Russia invades Montenegro (or Estonia or Germany or us), the other NATO allies are not legally committed to attacking Russia in response. But they are politically and morally committed to do something that massively raises the cost to Russia of its aggression. That’s the point of a military alliance: failure to respond to an attack on one member risks encouraging more and more aggression.

Hmm. So why did Montenegro want to join NATO anyway?

Montenegro was one of the six republics within Tito’s non-aligned Yugoslavia. It has a sizeable Serb minority and a long history of warm relations with Moscow: it also has a sizeable community of holiday homes for wealthy Russians.

Thus Montenegro’s 2006 vote to break with Serbia to become a fully independent state was culturally and politically sensitive, with deeply divided opinions within Montenegro itself. Montenegro’s moves thereafter to join NATO were as much about consolidating its break with Serbia as anything else. Russia could not resist treating this as a provocation, to the point of joining a bungled assassination attempt in 2016 against Montenegro’s leader Milo Djukanović.

What’s Trump banging on about this time?

He’s been making a big push against what he sees as ‘unfairness’ in the way US partners and allies deal with the USA, both on trade and defence. He thinks that on defence the USA’s NATO allies have not been paying a fair share for collective defence, or even the share they agreed to pay. And on trade the EU game is rigged against US products. So by thumping the table at NATO and bringing in some US tariffs he’s hoping (so he asserts) to lurch things in what for the USA will be a better direction.

Not that Washington’s stern warnings to NATO allies to get out their wallets is anything new:

Nato had degenerated into an alliance “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of Nato membership but don’t want to share the risks and the costs”, Gates said.

Noting that he was 20 years older than President Barack Obama, he said Washington’s security guarantees to Europe, embodied in the Nato alliance, were fading. His peers’ “emotional and historical attachment” to Nato was “ageing out”, he said, adding: “You have a lot of new members of Congress who are roughly old enough to be my children or grandchildren.” Generational change, economic hardship and European refusal to take responsibility for their own security were all feeding Nato’s decline and possible end, he warned.

There is also a ‘deeper’ defence point. Sleepy Montenegro is not the tough case. Should the USA be committing itself to defend (even on that ambiguous Article 5 basis) all sorts of countries where America’s immediate interests are at best modest? The more so if that means (say) defending Latvia’s Russian-speaking citizens from (say) Russia when (perhaps) those Russian-speaking citizens might not want to be defended?

And if THAT one is difficult, what about Ukraine where millions of Russian-speakers live?

Montenegro with its population roughly the size of Glasgow is one thing. Ukraine with over 40 million European people is another. Are Ukrainians free to decide for themselves which economic and security institutions they join, and so free to try finally to disentangle themselves from Moscow’s security apparatus machinations? Or does Russia have a veto?

Even if Russia does not have a veto, is it wise for NATO member states to let Ukraine join the alliance and so commit themselves to helping Ukraine’s millions of Russian speakers defend themselves from an attack by Russia?

Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1991, Western and Russian leaders alike have failed to find good answers to such questions as a new self-sustaining basis for European security that all sides can wholeheartedly accept. Latterly Russia’s brutish diplomacy towards Georgia, Ukraine and Montenegro have prompted drastic Western sanctions costing Russia unfathomable lost economic growth.

In a messy way, since 1991 Washington and EU capitals have come round to seeing Ukraine as less a post-Soviet twilight zone under Russian hegemony and more a normal European country worthy of being accepted into normal European processes. But Russia does not share that idea:

Ukraine’s main problem is that it is the subject of an existential tug-of-war between a Westernising trend in Slavic thinking and a more traditional Moscow/Eastern trend.

Alas for Ukraine, the Russians weigh less but pull harder on their end of the rope than the EU does. 

Some Europeans are more European than others. Too many EU capitals in general (and Paris in particular) are quite happy for that part of Europe to be seen as ‘not quite European enough’, and to stay mainly outside European processes. Why annoy the Russians for the sake of all that empty space and complicated people? 

Some Russians hanker after reabsorbing Ukraine somehow, although the grisly case of Belarus and wider failed attempts at CIS integration show that even under what appear to be optimal conditions it is not possible to put chunks of the Soviet Union back together again. So Moscow contents itself with making sure that if Russia can’t have Ukraine, the West won’t have it either.

Thus President Putin’s sly idea put to President Trump of holding a referendum in eastern Ukraine to let people there decide what they want. What could be fairer than that?

Lots of things. Above all that sort of proposal aimed at slicing and dicing other independent states is designed to ‘frame’ these issues in classic Russian imperialist terms. It’s all about poor Russia and poor Russians being encircled! What about those nations and communities within Russia itself who might feel badly done by, or ‘encircled’? What rights do they have to hold a referendum to decide their future? They aren’t even allowed to talk about it!


President Trump prides himself as a world-class deal-maker. But he can’t resist populist noises that call into question Washington’s strategic commitment to European security since World War Two, and hint at huge moves that Moscow would love. What exactly might he insist that Moscow credibly offer Washington and the rest of us in return?

It’s one thing getting along with V Putin. It’s another thing not to know what you’re talking about – and what he’s talking about.