What comes after Montenegro?

Theresa May is “deeply disturbed” about the failed coup in Montenegro staged by the Russians, and with good reason. Putin’s kleptofascist junta, mostly made up of KGB officers, is challenging the West all over the globe.

The methods used so far are more KGB than Red Army: using hybrid forces to annex the Crimea and other parts of the Ukraine, a coup to prevent Montenegro’s joining Nato, blackmail, recruitment of agents and ‘useful idiots’, electronic hacking aimed at disrupting Western politics and paralysing the will to resist, disinformatsia and so forth.

The West, specifically Nato, even more specifically the US, faces a vital challenge, and the world’s shape, indeed survival, may well depend on how successfully this challenge is met.

Putin’s immediate goal is to undo what he calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”, the breakup of the USSR. To do that he must first neutralise Nato, of which three former Soviet republics are members.

What with the US financing 75 per cent of Nato’s budget, the position of the American administration is critical. Hence it’s hard not to be concerned about the frankly pro-Putin position adopted by Trump and his people.

Some of them have been compromised by their intimate links with the Russians; some lied about the contacts and had to be sacked. One wonders about Trump’s motives in surrounding himself with people like Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Rex Tillerson, who’ve all made such vast fortunes in Russia that it’s hard to expect them to stay impartial.

The first two, along with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, have been sacked. Considering that Trump himself has made billions out of Russia, one may well doubt his own objectivity. In fact, by way of a parting shot, Carter Page admitted that Trump himself had authorised the contacts in question.

Lately, the president has had to keep much of his affection for Putin to himself, what with many in his own party, to say nothing of the Democrats, being opposed to any unilateral rapprochement with the Russians. However, for all his meandering, Trump hasn’t really changed his initial pro-Putin course.

But it’s not a course he himself charted. Here one must mention a rather sinister influential figure: Dimitri Simes, president of the think tank The Centre for the National Interest and publisher of the journal The National Interest. That Simes serves national interests is indisputable, the question is whose.

He and I got out of Russia at about the same time, and the mauvaises langues among the émigrés insisted then that Simes was a KGB plant to begin with. I have no idea whether that’s true, but one fails to see how he’d be covering Russia differently if he were indeed Putin’s man.

Back in December he published A Blueprint for Donald Trump to Fix Relations with Russia, a lengthy tutorial for Trump in the art of appeasement and giving Putin a free hand in gluing the Soviet empire back together.

Simes wrote exactly what Putin’s propagandists are screaming off TV screens and newspaper pages, except he couched his rhetoric in the jargon of American political punditry. The hope must have been that such subterfuge would make the propaganda more digestible, but it still causes dyspepsia.

First Simes wrote: “In selecting individuals for key positions dealing with Russia, it will be important to appoint those both willing and able to implement your policy.” Trump has followed that advice faithfully, as Messrs Page, Manafort, Flynn and Tillerson could testify.

Moving right along, Simes reiterated Putin’s nuclear blackmail that has become Russian television’s stock in trade: “First and foremost, Russia remains the only nation that can erase the United States from the map in thirty minutes.”

I doubt that this is technically feasible, but it’s the thought that counts, and it comes right out of Putin’s head. The inevitable conclusion is that, if the USA wants to stay on the map for a while longer, it should get out of Putin’s way.

From nuclear blackmail on to the terrorist kind. Without Putin, claims Simes, the West wouldn’t be able to control international terrorism. He didn’t go so far as to suggest that some of this terrorism is inspired and expedited by Russia herself, but Russian dignitaries routinely drop broad hints to that effect.

Putin’s prime minister Medvedev’s hint was the broadest of all: “terrorist acts in the EU and the rest of the world happen because Western countries pursue the policy of isolating Russia”.

An influential Russian MP has added that he “isn’t sure that one terrorist act in Paris would suffice to initiate [the West’s] talks with Putin.”

The hints shouldn’t be taken as blustery braggadocio: Russia does have some influence with jihadists. Many Isis chieftains are former Iraqi officers trained by Moscow; weapons and training mainly come from Russia; Russia’s Muslim outskirts, especially Chechnya, provide a steady stream of Isis rank-and-file and also of terrorists.

Specifically, one wishes the FBI were more upfront about the obvious links between Russia and brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsranayev, two Chechens who in 2013 launched a murderous attack on the Boston Marathon. The former probably and the latter definitely were trained in Russia, which is kept relatively hush-hush.

Putin’s propaganda, of which Simes is an adept mouthpiece, is bearing fruit, and not just among Trump’s immediate circle. Here’s, for example, what former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said about Putin’s possible aggression against Estonia:

 “The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine… I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St Petersburg.”

At its closest point, Estonia, a country roughly the size of Denmark, is 85 miles from Petersburg. Finland is the same distance away, which proximity was used by Putin’s typological predecessor Stalin as a pretext for attacking Finland in 1939.

Gingrich’s statement sounds suspiciously like advice to Putin: do some more hybrid stuff, Vladimir. Pretend it’s Estonians themselves attacking their own country, with the help of Russian paramilitary volunteers over whom Putin has no control.

Simes’s ‘blueprint’ does the same job, though with greater subtlety: “We should put an end to the illusion that… the U.S. commitment to defend even the newest and smallest NATO members must remain unconditional… The goal must be to prevent incidents that could provide a temptation – or excuse – for Russian intervention. There should be no illusions that America accepts responsibility for allies who provoke conflict and then request assistance and reassurance to deal with the consequences.”

Get it? America shouldn’t defend a Nato member that ‘provokes’ conflict. Of course manufacturing such a provocation, or anything construed as such, is a doddle for the Russian KGB junta: there’s plenty of experience, specifically in that region.

The aforementioned attack on Finland started with the Russians shelling their own border village Mainila and claiming that the fire had come from Finland. This was used as a casus belli, even though the evidence of the true origin of the shelling was incontrovertible (shell fragments disperse in the direction of the shell’s trajectory, which in that case came from the south, not north).

Knocking off a dozen Russians living in Estonia and subsequently coming to the defence of the consanguine minority could also do nicely – that sort of thing worked famously for Hitler in 1938 and 1939. Estonia’s brutal insistence that the resident Russians learn the country’s language could also be interpreted as sufficient cause.

Simes co-opts to his cause the nonagenarian Henry Kissinger, who in his dotage has become even more of an appeaser than he was back in the Nixon days: “Kissinger’s alternative – with which we strongly agree – is to seek to integrate Russia into an international order that takes into account Moscow’s minimum essential interests.”

Moscow’s ‘minimum essential interests’ are to divide the world into spheres of interest, with Russia directly controlling half of Europe and ‘Finlandising’ the rest. Incidentally, both the Finns and the Swedes are alert to that threat.

Throughout the Cold War Sweden remained neutral and Finland for all intents and purposes a Soviet satellite (hence ‘Finlandisation’). However, in the face of non-stop Soviet overflights violating their airspace, the two countries are drawing closer to Nato. Both are hastily rearming, and Sweden is reintroducing conscription.

Simes doesn’t mention that, but he keeps stressing that Russia is in the forefront of armament technology. As proof of the Russians’ technological attainment he offers “the cofounder of the most advanced digital company in the world, Google, is Russian-born Sergey Brin.”

Now Brin’s parents emigrated from Russia when he was six. Sergei grew up as an American and has little to do with Russia. One wonders how he’d feel if he knew his name is being used for the purposes of pro-Putin propaganda.

So far Trump hasn’t deviated from Simes’s ‘blueprint’ one iota. One hopes there are enough checks and balances in US politics to keep the president from acting on some of the more cataclysmic veiled recommendations.

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