EDITOR’S NOTE: Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Over the course of the presidential campaign, John McCain has repeatedly emphasized his willingness to stand up to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as proof that only he possesses the fortitude and judgment to become the next leader of the free world. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, McCain lashed out at Putin and the Russian oligarchs, who, “rich with oil wealth and corrupt with power…[are] reassembling the old Russian Empire.” McCain rushed to publicly support the Georgian republic during its recent conflict with Russia and amplified his threat to expel Moscow from the G-8 club of major powers. His running mate, Sarah Palin, suggested in her first major interview that the United States might have to go to war with Russia one day in order to protect Georgia—the kind of apocalyptic scenario the United States avoided during the cold war.
Yet despite McCain’s tough talk, behind the scenes his top advisers have cultivated deep ties with Russia’s oligarchy—indeed, they have promoted the Kremlin’s geopolitical and economic interests, as well as some of its most unsavory business figures, through greedy cynicism and geopolitical stupor. The most notable example is the tale of how McCain and his campaign manager, Rick Davis, advanced what became a key victory for the Kremlin: gaining control over the small but strategically important country of Montenegro.
According to two former senior US diplomats who served in the Balkans, Davis and his lobbying firm, Davis Manafort, received several million dollars to help run Montenegro’s independence referendum campaign of 2006. The terms of the agreement were never disclosed to the public, but top Montenegrin officials told the US diplomats that Davis’s work was underwritten by powerful Russian business interests connected to the Kremlin and operating in Montenegro. Neither Davis nor the McCain campaign responded to repeated requests for comment. (Davis’s extensive lobbying work, especially on behalf of collapsed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has already attracted critical media scrutiny.)
At the time, Putin wanted to establish a Russian outpost in the Mediterranean, and Montenegro–a coastal republic across the Adriatic from Italy—was seen as his best hope. McCain also lobbied for Montenegro’s independence from Serbia, calling it “the greatest European democracy project since the end of the cold war.” For McCain, the simplistic notion of “independence” from a country America had gone to war with in the late 1990s was all that mattered. What Montenegro looked like after independence seemed not to interest him. This suited Putin just fine. Russia had generally sided with Serbia against the West during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but for the Kremlin, cutting Montenegro free from Serbia meant dealing with a Montenegro that could be more easily controlled. Indeed, today, after its “independence,” Montenegro is nicknamed “Moscow by the Mediterranean.” Russian oligarchs control huge chunks of the country’s industry and prized coastline—and Russians exert a powerful influence over the country’s political culture. “Montenegro is almost a new Russian colony, as rubles flow in to buy property and business in the tiny state,” Denis MacShane, Tony Blair’s former Europe minister, wrote in Newsweek in June. The takeover of Montenegro has been a Russian geostrategic victory–quietly accomplished, paradoxically enough, with the help of McCain and his top aides.