Whatever Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to accomplish with his attack on the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump, he did not get a honeymoon.
Vice President Mike Pence is set to return Wednesday from a trip to the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where he traveled from north to south reassuring leaders that they can look over their frontiers knowing that Washington is at their back.
“The president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump, sent me here with a simple message for you and for the people of Georgia: We are with you,” Pence said in Tbilisi. “We stand with you. We are proud of our friendship and strategic partnership with the nation and the people of Georgia.”
Georgia is not a NATO member, but the United States continues to support it becoming one, Pence said. (European powers are less enthusiastic.)
Estonia and Montenegro, which he also visited, are NATO members. In fact, the tiny Adriatic coast nation of Montenegro is the newest one, following a long campaign of support eventually endorsed by the other 28 members.
NATO’s eastward expansion, from its onetime Cold War boundaries into the nations that once were part of the Soviet Union, is a huge frustration for Russia.
For Putin and many other Russians, the growth of the alliance was a betrayal — after promises they thought guaranteed that NATO would stand fast — and a power grab by the United States in their own front yard.
For members and would-be members in the east, the promise of NATO’s Article 5 — which is intended to bring military help from all members if any one member is attacked — is a safeguard against bullying by Russia, their enormous neighbor. That appeals quite strongly to Georgia, where Russian troops continue to occupy districts seized in 2008.
“Georgia faces endless provocations daily,” said Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who appeared with Pence.
Continued Kvirikashvili: “On the occupation line, we are facing challenges of borderization, capturing, kidnapping of ethnic Georgians — violating basic human rights of ethnic Georgians residing on the occupied territories. But the response to that is only even more resolve and consistency and dedication to the goals we set for ourselves.”
That’s why Georgia will exercise “strategic patience,” Kvirikashvili said, and stick with the application for NATO membership as long as it takes. And it’s why Montenegrin leaders told Pence on Tuesday they were so grateful to be in the club. He said the alliance was glad to have its newest joinee, albeit one with fewer people than San Jose, Calif.
“I am here as a testament to the fact that America has no small allies— only strong allies — and I hope my presence here today affirms that,” Pence said. “Your courage, particularly in the face of Russian pressure, inspires the world, and I commend you for it.”
Russia waged a heavy-handed influence campaign inside Montenegro against NATO membership, using operatives both inside the country and over the border in neighboring Serbia.
Then in October 2016, authorities arrested 20 Montenegrins and Serbians and charged them with an attempted coup against the government. They were allegedly plotting to attack Montenegro’s parliament and assassinate the prime minister — all with Russian support, former ambassador Vesko Garcevic told the Senate Intelligence Committee in late June of this year.
“The coup plot is just a tip of the iceberg,” Garcevic said, “the culmination of more than 18 months long synchronized actions, which includes an aggressive media campaign coupled with the open political and financial support to pro-Russian political parties in Montenegro with an obvious aim — to reverse a pro-western course of the state and prevent it from joining NATO.”
That Russian scheme, however, did not work. Nor did warnings by Moscow about the new round of sanctions on Russia that have been passed by Congress and which President Trump is expected to sign.
So Russia’s government is retaliating.
It’s ejecting some 755 Americans who are posted in diplomatic positions throughout the country.
It’s deploying a huge force of troops inside its border for military exercises that respond to U.S. and NATO maneuvers.
And its ships and aircraft continue to operate aggressively near Western military units, including in an encounter on Tuesday in which Spanish and Finnish fighters intercepted three Russian warplanes near Estonian airspace.
All the more reason, Pence said in Tallinn, for the U.S. and its allies to continue strengthening an alliance that Trump once called obsolete, and which he has lambasted over many of its members’ military spending. Only five NATO members — the U.S., U.K., Greece, Poland and Estonia — spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, as the alliance calls for.
All the alliance members have made general commitments to step up their defense spending, but observers don’t expect most of them to do so. All the same, the Trump administration has found that in response to tensions with Russia, it makes more sense to champion NATO than continue tearing it down.
“A strong and united NATO is needed more today than at any point since the collapse of communism a quarter-century ago,” Pence said in Estonia. “The adversaries we face are more numerous and sophisticated and asymmetrical than ever before.”