On Eve of Russia Trip, Pompeo Squelches Criticism of Moscow
State Department quietly takes down a statement blaming Russia for coup attempt in Montenegro.
Nearly three years after foiling an audacious coup attempt, authorities in Montenegro on Thursday convicted 14 people—including two alleged Russian military intelligence agents in absentia—of participating in a plot to overthrow the government.
News of their jail sentences was widely lauded by Western governments, including a statement released Thursday from the U.S. State Department extolling the move as a “clear victory for the rule of law, laying bare Russia’s brazen attempt to undermine” Montenegro’s sovereignty.
But that U.S. statement went out by mistake, Foreign Policy has learned. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposed it, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with internal deliberations, who suggested it was because the secretary wanted to soften combative tones with Moscow ahead of his forthcoming visit to Russia.
“Since the thwarted Russian-backed coup attempt on Montenegro’s parliamentary election day in October 2016, Montenegro has taken important steps toward integrating with the Transatlantic family, most notably joining NATO in June 2017,” the statement said.
The statement was accidentally released on Thursday afternoon. Pompeo’s office directed the department to quash it, but the bureaucratic machinations were already set in motion. Shortly after it was released, it was quickly recalled and quietly taken down from the State Department website.
The minor blunder offers a glimpse into the precarious diplomatic line Pompeo must walk as he prepares to visit Russia next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. After the release last month of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections to tip the scales in now-President Donald Trump’s favor, both Trump and Pompeo have signaled they’re ready to kickstart a new phase in U.S.-Russia relations.
“We hope we can find places where we can have overlap in our interests,” Pompeo told ABC’s This Week in an interview on May 5. “I think it makes perfect sense that any place we can find where we have overlapping interests, we work along with the Russians.”
The State Department did not respond to request for comment.
Trump has worked to adopt a chummy personal rapport with Putin, despite the Russia-related scandals swirling over his White House. At the same time, his administration and Congress have adopted hard-line stances against Russia: tightening sanctions, boosting U.S. defense spending in Europe, shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine as it battles Russian-backed separatists in the east of its country, and supporting Montenegro’s NATO membership.
Pompeo has dismissed criticisms that the administration is not being tough enough on Russia amid showdowns with the former Cold War rival in Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela. He sharply condemned Russia’s involvement in propping up Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime after the United States and more than 50 countries recognized opposition figure Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president.
Trump had an hourlong call with Putin on May 3. The two broached the subject of the Mueller investigation and discussed Venezuela, Trump said afterward. “He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela,” he said of Putin, striking a conciliatory tone toward the Russian leader. Pompeo’s push not to rebuke Russia over its alleged role in the Montenegro coup plot falls in line with that tone.
Pompeo will have to strike a careful balance between the two faces of U.S.-Russia policy ahead of his visit on May 12 to 14, which includes stops in Moscow and Sochi. The State Department announced the trip in a statement released on Friday, saying Pompeo would meet Putin and Lavrov in Sochi “to discuss the full range of bilateral and multilateral challenges.” The agenda includes arms control, North Korea, Ukraine, Syria, and Iran, according to senior State Department officials who briefed reporters by phone on Friday. Pompeo and Lavrov met earlier this month along the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Finland.
Montenegro, the tiny Southeastern European nation that gained independence from Serbia in 2006, defied heavy-handed Russian pressure in order to join NATO in 2017. The move struck a symbolic and political blow to Moscow’s wider efforts to wield influence over the Balkans.
A Montenegrin court on Thursday convicted 14 people, including two pro-Russian politicians and the two suspected Russian military intelligence operatives, on charges of attempted terrorism and creating criminal organizations in their aims to overthrow the government in 2016 and unravel the country’s bid to join NATO. The court said they plotted to take over the Montenegrin parliamentary building and kidnap Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s then-prime minister and current president, ahead of parliamentary elections in October 2016.
The two suspected Russian agents, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, were convicted in absentia. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer