To hear Prime Minister Dusko Markovic tell it, it was “only a harmless incident,” had nothing to do with him personally and did not even merit an apology. Oh, and did he mention it was “completely harmless”?
Still, the leader of Montenegro acknowledges in an exclusive new interview for The Global Politico, when President Donald Trump pushed him out of the way at the recent NATO meeting in Brussels, steamrollering past him and then proudly adjusting his jacket with nary a thought for the guy he’d just barreled past, it was not merely another Trumpian viral-video moment.
Because the president of the United States had in fact blundered into the most symbolic target possible: the leader of a tiny Balkan country that had chosen, at significant risk to itself, to join the NATO alliance—even as Trump became the first American leader since World War II to publicly question the alliance’s mission, future relevance and even its core principle of collective defense. Trump may not have meant it, but with one push he inadvertently highlighted not only his own ambivalence about the alliance but the tribulations of many countries in Eastern Europe that, like Montenegro, believe they are increasingly in the crosshairs of Russia.
At least, Markovic told me when we met in Washington the other day, Trump’s boorish action now means the rest of the planet is suddenly familiar with Montenegro, and the unlikely position it now occupies as a Balkan flashpoint between the wavering West it has been so eager to join and a resurgent Russia to its east, angered by the “hostile” course it accuses Montenegro of taking.
“I have to say that I’m very grateful that this incident, so to say, took place. Because this is what made us so famous,” Markovic says. “This is what made Montenegro so famous.”
Call it the Shove Heard Round the World.
Last October, when America was consumed by accusations of Russian meddling on behalf of Trump in our presidential election and the fallout from a leaked audiotape of the then-Republican nominee bragging about sexually forcing himself on women, the government of Montenegro announced that it had foiled at the last minute an attempted assassination and coup. This was staged, prosecutors claimed in an extraordinary indictment handed down this spring, by two Russian-backed opposition leaders and two members of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, and the goal was to topple the government – and prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.
In previous years, enlarging NATO had been a major matter back in Washington, a top-of-the-agenda political issue in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton and Co. first decided to grow the alliance eastward toward the former satellite states of the Soviet Union, and later under President George W. Bush, when Montenegro first started the process along with Georgia and Ukraine, two countries hard on Russia’s border whose interest in NATO has since produced not membership in the Western alliance but Kremlin fury followed by Russian invasion.
But not this time.
Back in the fall, Washington was distracted by the election and then the transition from the Obama administration to President Trump, who had not only called NATO “obsolete” during the campaign but also questioned the basic principles of the alliance, viewing it mainly as a sort of defense piggybank whose European members had cheated the U.S. by not putting in their required 2 percent of GDP. NATO was busy taking steps designed to deter aggression after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine—including deploying new troops near to Russia’s western borders in Poland and the Baltic States—but Trump came to office publicly supporting a reset of relations with Russia and privately asking officials to look into possibly lifting post-Ukraine sanctions on Russia.
Montenegro, still reeling from the coup attempt, looked like an orphan cause, a country of barely 600,000 people on the Adriatic whose accession to NATO had never been a particular American goal to begin with.
“We saw a case study play out in Montenegro of what happens when America is ambivalent, and how nefarious forces—in this case, the Russians—looked at how they could take advantage of that,” argues Damon Wilson, a former Bush National Security Council aide who has closely worked on Balkan issues ever since and is now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. “Just imagine if they could stop or disrupt the process of NATO enlargement, with a small country that not a lot of Americans are paying attention to. The geostrategic ramifications would have been profound—our alliance is faltering, American leadership is in question… The Russians could put an end to that story by tripping up the small little country in the Balkans. They smelled an opening.”
Wilson and a pickup basketball team of other former officials and congressional aides stepped in, running a shadow Washington lobbying campaign he recounts in an interview for The Global Politico. The goal was to get the Senate to approve Montenegro’s NATO membership by convincing members it was an easy way to send a signal to Moscow: Never mind what Trump said on the campaign trail, NATO’s still in business.
But there were skeptics; Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky “threw up a red flag,” as Wilson recalls, wondering whether Montenegro really should join NATO, questions that had been raised throughout the country’s long accession process, including inside the Obama administration, which worried about everything from internal corruption and governance issues to the longstanding Russian influence inside the tiny, politically fractured country.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was a key convert, and he put the required treaty revision through, as Wilson recounts, even in the midst of approving Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. McConnell, says Wilson, “was very receptive to the fact that this wasn’t just a vote on a small country in the Balkans; because it was stalled, because almost every NATO ally had acted by then, and because the Russians smelled a little bit of blood in the water, Senator McConnell, I think, recognized that this actually was becoming a Senate vote on American leadership of its alliance, and on whether we would push back and not leave a vacuum.”
The vote, in the end, was 97 to 2, with Lee and Paul as the only two holdouts. Paul’s refusal to go along with it drew an infuriated response from Sen. John McCain on the Senate floor, who accused him of “working for Vladimir Putin” in going against Montenegro’s NATO bid. “He has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians.”
Somewhat more diplomatically, Wilson agrees in our conversation that playing the Russia card was key—especially amid the Trump-inspired doubts. “The reason we ended up with a vote in the Senate of 97 to 2,” he explains, “is because folks began, belatedly, to realize that this was an expression of whether the United States, at a time of uncertainty here in Washington, would be able to lead our alliance, and whether or not we would leave vacuums for the bad guys to fill.”
That was in March, setting the stage for the NATO leaders meeting in May, when Trump would make a NATO visit part of his inaugural foreign trip and Montenegro would debut as the alliance’s 29th member – its first new one in a decade. Elaborate pomp and ceremony were planned, including a tour and ribbon-cutting of the alliance’s fancy new Brussels headquarters.
It was during the tour, however, when Trump and Markovic had their encounter, the jostling shove that would quickly make Montenegro’s little-known prime minister a social-media sensation.
And soon after that, Trump delivered his official speech. Now, the news was not just that he had shoved the Montenegrin out of the way – but more substantively, had failed to reaffirm the alliance’s key Article 5 principle of mutual defense, the one-for-one, one-for-all provision that the small countries near to Russia like Montenegro see as the central reason for their membership in NATO. I reported last week that Trump had been meant to explicitly mention Article 5 in the speech and that the draft of his remarks had him saying so up to that morning—but it was deleted at the last minute, blindsiding even the top officials of his national security team, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
In Montenegro, where Markovic had proclaimed NATO membership their country’s “guarantee of independence,” the combo of the Trump shove and the speech that followed spelled political uproar.
Opponents of the move inside the country pounced, arguing, as Markovic put it in our interview, that the shoving incident with Trump was a sign of how unwelcome the country was in its new alliance. “It is their belief, actually, that this harmless event took place in Brussels will slow down Montenegro and it would harm Montenegro as a NATO member state,” Markovic told me, before dismissing it as “nonsensical.”
By last week, when Markovic flew to a Washington eager to make amends, he was being greeted at the White House by Vice President Mike Pence, signing the official NATO documents at the State Department, and celebrating at a gala dinner at Wilson’s Atlantic Council. But as soon as the membership became official last Monday, Russia issued a threatening statement, complaining of Montenegro’s “hostile course,” blaming “anti-Russia hysteria” inside the country and warning of unspecified “retaliatory measures.”
Was he worried, I asked the prime minister?
“This sort of behavior from Russia is not something that is democratic,” he responded. “This is not something that is in line with civilizational standards, with political standards. They are not supposed to hamper us on our path. We are supposed to be able to choose our own destiny.”
But, I asked, could he really count on NATO and President Trump to defend him if the Russians took action on their threats?
“The United States hasn’t changed its position in terms of NATO,” Markovic said.
The guarantor he cited was not the president, but the vice president.
And indeed, it took until Friday, two weeks and a day after his visit to Brussels, for President Trump to agree.
Appearing in the Rose Garden alongside the president of Romania, Trump belatedly offered up the Article 5 endorsement he had refused to deliver in Brussels. “I am committing the United States to Article 5,” the president said. “Yes, absolutely I’d be committed to Article 5. Certainly we are there to protect."