The coup was planned for election day. Wearing fake police uniforms and armed with assault rifles, more than a dozen Kremlin-linked plotters were allegedly preparing to storm the parliament of the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro and assassinate its Prime Minister. Their goal, according to the government’s investigators, was to stop the country of 620,000 from joining NATO, which would give the U.S.-led alliance control of nearly every northern Mediterranean port from Gibraltar to the Bosporus. On a tip from an informant, real Montenegrin police rounded up the plotters as polls opened for the vote in October. Two ringleaders, both suspected agents of the Russian intelligence services, are now back in Russia.
The aborted coup was a reminder that a new battle for Europe has begun. From the Baltics to the Balkans and the Black Sea to Great Britain, Vladimir Putin is seeking to rebuild Russia’s empire more than 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. From Jan. 29 to Feb. 3, Russian-backed forces launched thousands of strikes in renewed attacks on pro-European government positions deep inside Ukraine. Using propaganda, agents provocateurs and overt military threats in Estonia, Serbia, Moldova and other East European countries, Putin is attempting to undermine the democratic governments of former communist countries, threatening the security of millions of people. Farther west, he is pursuing alliances with nationalist, anti-E.U. forces in France, Germany, Hungary and other major democracies.
Perhaps the most important front in this new conflict has been unfolding in the West Wing. Over the course of the past three months, according to senior Trump Administration officials and others who have participated, quiet but consequential talks have taken place there over whether the U.S. should resist Putin in his new campaign or cede to Russia a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. In return for the latter, the theory goes, Russia would join the U.S. in an alliance against ISIS, work to reduce nuclear-weapon stockpiles and help constrain China.
Donald Trump has publicly annunciated parts of such a grand bargain, as have top advisers Steve Bannon and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign on Feb. 13 for his back-channel conversations with a Russian diplomat. The White House officials who have advocated such a deal in whole or part see nationalism as the basis for all-important fights against Islamic extremism and China’s rise.
Opposing a Russia deal are such Cabinet secretaries as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, backed by virtually the entire Washington foreign policy establishment, view multilateral alliances as crucial to maintaining hard-won stability in Europe and beyond.
Flynn’s ouster makes it politically more difficult for those who would like to advance a pro-Moscow strategy. They were further set back on Feb. 14, when the New York Times reported that Trump’s aides had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the U.S. presidential election. As multiple law-enforcement, intelligence and congressional investigations advance, the room for rapprochement with Russia is shrinking, but within the White House, that has not quelled the appetite for a deal.
Those who have spoken with Trump about a grand bargain with Russia say it appeals to the businessman in him. “The President really desires to do deals, and he wants to be seen as someone who’s able to change the way the U.S. approaches the world,” says Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who argued against big deals with Russia in detailed conversations with Trump on Nov. 29 in New York City, when he was being interviewed for Secretary of State. “But doing deals for deals’ sake without knowing what direction [they take us], that could be hugely harmful to our nation and to the rest of the Western world,” Corker says.
It is unclear if the grand bargain was originally an American notion or one floated by Moscow. Critics wonder what benefit such a trade could have for Washington. Russia, they argue, is weak. Its economy has been in recession for two years and is smaller than that of Italy. Moscow’s only aircraft carrier, a Soviet-era diesel clunker, barely coughed its way back and forth to Syria over the past six months, losing two planes to accidents along the way. Russia has been begging the U.S. to form an anti-ISIS alliance, no strings attached, and Putin has already expressed a desire, in his first post-Inauguration phone call with Trump, to pursue renewed arms-control measures. Ceding Eastern Europe to Moscow–something that has been close to heretical in Western diplomacy since Yalta–in exchange for freebies “would be both stupid and immoral and would reverse every fundamental tenet of American foreign policy since World War II,” says Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, one of America’s foremost conservative foreign policy experts.
No decisions on a deal with Russia are imminent, but lingering uncertainty over U.S. commitment to East European democracies is helping to redraw the lines in the meantime. Leaders in Bulgaria and Moldova are listing back toward Moscow. And anti-E.U. candidates in France and Germany are finding common cause with Moscow ahead of elections later this year, sowing concern among traditional U.S. allies. “The liberal international order that the United States and its European allies have upheld since the end of World War II is in danger of unraveling,” a recent Carnegie Endowment report on the breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations warns, “and there is mounting concern that the United States may abandon its commitment to preserving this order.”
Montenegro, a nation with fewer inhabitants than San Francisco and a military of only about 2,000 members, has been conquered by one great power after another for most of its history, from ancient Rome to the Third Reich. After 10 years of talks and trial runs, the country is now on the cusp of joining the world’s most powerful military alliance‚ this time voluntarily. Its leaders signed accession documents with NATO in May, and 24 of the alliance’s 28 members have already ratified its membership. Only Spain, Canada, the Netherlands and the U.S. are left. Trump has Montenegrins worrying whether they’ll make it. “If Putin asks Trump not to admit Montenegro and really gives him something in return, we don’t know what will happen,” says Nebojsa Medojevic, a Montenegrin lawmaker who backs NATO membership. Trump has yet to say whether he supports the country’s accession to the alliance.
It is Montenegro’s warm, deep-water port in the Mediterranean that makes it especially valuable to Putin, and he is known to push hard when he thinks his strategic interests are at stake. With its assault against Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin undertook the first territorial land grab by a major power in Europe since World War II. Russian special forces disguised as local self-defense units took control of the Crimean parliament in the course of one day that year. They installed a loyal Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, who set the stage for Russia to annex the peninsula outright.
Some of those same commandos, who became known as the “little green men,” then appeared in Ukraine’s eastern regions. As the West moved to isolate Russia with sanctions harsher than those imposed against the Soviets during the Cold War, the Russian gunmen continued seizing government buildings around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and installing warlords to rule them. The result has been a separatist conflict that has so far killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. Dozens died during the latest flare-up in fighting, which began after Putin and Trump had their first post-Inauguration phone call on Jan. 28.
Putin has tested the West before, in Estonia, one of the five NATO members that directly border Russia. In September 2014, a group of Russian troops allegedly stormed across that border with the help of smoke grenades and radio jammers, kidnapped an Estonian security officer and took him back to Moscow to stand trial for espionage. The raid, which came two days after President Obama visited the country, was intended to show that “Russia does what it wants in this part of the world,” Urmas Reinsalu, an Estonian lawmaker and former Minister of Defense, told the newspaper Postimees at the time.
Such provocations, along with persistent Russian cyberattacks and violations of NATO airspace, have forced the alliance to confront its own weakness in dealing with Moscow’s new approach to warfare. Under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, all of its members are obliged to defend one another in case of an attack. But what constitutes an attack is not so clearly defined. Could a cyberattack require a NATO response? And what if the attackers were disguised to look like local paramilitaries?
The U.S. has been pushing back with more traditional measures. A week before Trump’s Inauguration, a rotation of some 4,000 U.S. troops arrived in Poland. But Putin hasn’t limited his efforts to Central and Eastern Europe. The project of European integration is fraying, with Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. and the rise of anti-E.U. parties. Right on cue, Putin has stepped up to offer an alternative: a muscular brand of nationalism that defines itself in opposition to the liberal values of the West. He’s found plenty of admirers. During his first official trip to Europe since Trump took office, Putin chose to visit his friend Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, who has pledged to turn his country into an “illiberal democracy” modeled largely on Putin’s Russia. “It’s in the air,” Orban said after a meeting with Putin in Budapest on Feb. 2. “The world is in the process of a substantial realignment.”
Within a week of Trump’s victory, elections in two of Moscow’s former satellite states brought pro-Russian leaders to power. In Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the E.U., a retired air force commander and political novice named Rumen Radev was elected President on a promise to balance out his country’s alliances with the West. Speaking to reporters on election day, Nov. 13, he said he took comfort in Trump’s pledge to “work for a better dialogue” with Russia. “That gives us hope, a big hope,” Radev said. Much the same message came that day from the newly elected President of Moldova, Igor Dodon, whose campaign urged the country to tear up its integration deal with the E.U. “We gained nothing from this agreement,” Dodon told a smiling Putin when they appeared in the Kremlin on Jan. 17.
Western Europe hasn’t been immune to the trend. In France, the leaders of the National Front, a party that wants to see the E.U. break apart, received a €11 million loan from a Kremlin-linked bank in 2014. The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, pledged in early February that she would pull France out of NATO if she wins the presidential election this spring. She is leading in the polls.
Next door in Germany, the intelligence agencies in Berlin have accused Moscow of orchestrating a “propaganda and disinformation” campaign ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September. Its aim, says Stephan Mayer of the intelligence committee in the German Parliament, is to weaken Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chances of re-election to a fourth term while funneling support to Alternative for Germany, a party of right-wing populists who have called for Berlin to lift its sanctions against Russia. “If you want to have freedom in the Western world, if you want to have freedom and peace in Europe, then you can do it only with Russia,” says Georg Pazderski, the party’s leader in Berlin.
The question is whether Trump will join that parade. At first, all indications pointed in that direction. In July, he suggested that Putin’s annexation of Crimea could have been legitimate and that he would consider lifting sanctions “if Russia would help us get rid of ISIS.” He has said the two sides might work together on nuclear issues. After the election, in January, Trump kept up the talk. The U.S. and Russia “will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the World!” he tweeted.
Upon taking office, Trump initially continued his soft rhetorical line. In his hour-long phone call with Putin on Jan. 28, they discussed possible areas of cooperation, including the fight against ISIS and other Islamic terrorist organizations, nuclear proliferation and potential economic and energy deals, according to a senior White House official who listened in on the call. Similarly, the White House readout of calls between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg referred to fighting along Ukraine’s border; in fact, Russian-backed forces operate deep within Ukraine, and to the eyes of some experts on Russia in the Administration, the language raised flags that the U.S. might accept Russia’s territorial grab.
Trump is open to wide-ranging concessions to Russia in exchange for cooperation in some of these areas, the senior White House official says. Trump is not about to walk away from NATO, the official says, but believes the amounts that countries pay to support the alliance, which are based on decades-old economic percentages, may be outdated. “Let’s renegotiate the deal,” Trump has suggested, the senior official says. Trump has also told advisers he thinks that “maybe NATO should have a different mission and should focus on radical Islam,” the official says. That alone would be a huge win for Moscow.
Normally, a President might request and receive a full-blown national-security briefing on a question as important as the future of Eastern Europe or a reset with Russia. Several National Security Council meetings on the topic might be needed, and a top-secret intelligence assessment might be produced. But multiple sources tell TIME there is hardly an interagency process in the improvisational Trump White House. And what does exist is disconnected from the power structure around Trump. Bannon is running his own strategic-initiatives group, unconnected to the traditional national-security structures, according to two sources familiar with it, which will generate its own assessment of Russia-policy options. In the meantime, Trump’s thinking remains notional, the senior official says. But others in the Administration and outside analysts say concessions to Russia could include reducing or removing the U.S. anti-ballistic-missile footprint in Central and Eastern Europe, easing sanctions imposed for election meddling or the invasion of Ukraine, or softening language on the Crimean annexation. Trump has not yet considered the specifics of any deal with Russia, the senior official says.
Trump’s inclination to do a big deal with Russia has been informed by Bannon, who has said the biggest strategic threat facing the U.S. and Europe is radical Islamic terrorism. Bannon’s views are not monolithic. He criticized Putin in a widely read 2014 speech but praised his embrace of traditionalism. “Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy that are really an imperialist power that want to expand,” Bannon said then. “We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes–particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism. Strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.” A Bannon national-security aide, Sebastian Gorka, has been less subtle in his rejection of Putin. “His nature is nothing more than a bully,” Gorka said of Putin in a 2015 speech, and “he should be dealt with as bullies are dealt, and his nose should be smacked quickly and in a harsh fashion, that puts him back in his place.”
Opposing a Russia rapprochement, say sources familiar with the debate, are Trump’s newly appointed Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State and virtually the entire Republican and Democratic foreign policy establishment on Capitol Hill, in Washington and across Europe. “Tillerson and Mattis embrace the traditional view that we have had toward Russia,” Corker says, but “there are other spheres within the White House that may look at things in a very different way.”
Trump faces his biggest opposition on Capitol Hill. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have led a vocal and robust challenge to any rapprochement with Putin that would ease sanctions and instead want to impose even tougher penalties for Russia’s election meddling in the U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell says he opposes lifting sanctions against Putin.
The split among Trump, his Cabinet and much of his party has led to confusion about where the U.S. stands, even within his Administration. After pro-Putin forces in Ukraine launched their attacks in late January and early February, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, gave a toughly worded statement. “Crimea is a part of Ukraine,” Haley said at the U.N. on Feb. 2, and “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.” White House spokesman Sean Spicer reiterated those views in a briefing days later. But several senior Administration officials say that they don’t believe Haley was speaking for the President and that Flynn was unhappy with the statement.
Trump’s willful effort to ignore Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election, or anywhere else for that matter, only muddies matters further. The senior White House official says Trump’s opinion of Putin and the possibility of doing a deal with him are not affected by the fact that the Russian leader interfered in the core exercise of American democracy. “People could say we have meddled with other people’s elections too,” the official says. Trump is not aware of Putin’s other efforts to subvert democracy in much of Europe, the official says.
For the millions of Europeans facing the brunt of Putin’s efforts that is more than unsettling–it’s terrifying. “It would be absolutely naive to underestimate the attempts of Vladimir Putin and of the Russian government to try to destabilize Western democracies,” says Mayer, the German parliamentarian. “That is a clear agenda of the Russian government.”
For Montenegrins, their future hangs in the balance. A vote on the country’s accession is stalled in the Senate. The White House has no plans to endorse Montenegro’s membership in NATO at this time, a senior NSC official says.
–With reporting by ZEKE J. MILLER and PHILIP ELLIOTT/WASHINGTON
This appears in the February 27, 2017 issue of TIME.