NATO Admitting Montenegro As Full Member For Some Reason

NATO is extending full membership to the tiny nation of Montenegro, and there doesn't seem to be a good reason why they're doing it.


While the rest of the world’s attention is focused largely on the Middle East and the fight against ISIS, at its meeting last week NATO took the steps to begin the final process of adding the tiny nation of Montenegro to the alliance, a move that is both raising some questions in the West and causing consternation in Moscow:

LONDON — For the first time in six years, NATO on Wednesday invited a new member to join the military alliance, prompting a heated response from Russia and further underscoring escalating tensions between the Cold War adversaries.

The invitation, to tiny Montenegro, came nine years after the Balkan nation began the process of accession. But the timing of the offer came at a particularly delicate moment as the West is trying to persuade Russia to link forces to help defeat the Islamic State and end the civil war in Syria.

In Moscow, the offer to Montenegro — which has a population of about 600,000 and little military capacity — prompted fury and threats. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that a NATO expansion would be met with unspecified retaliatory measures from Russia.

“The continuing expansion of NATO and NATO’s military infrastructure to the East, of course, cannot but lead to response actions from the East, namely the Russian side,” Mr. Peskov said.


After years in which Russia and NATO coexisted with relatively little overt rancor, diplomatic, economic and military strains have been building steadily. Russia and NATO have been at odds over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and military involvement in eastern Ukraine, and over Russian fighter jets entering NATO airspace, especially in the Balkans and most recently over Turkey, a NATO member. Last week, the Turks shot down a Russian fighter entering Turkish airspace to bomb Turkmen tribesmen in Syria, raising questions about whether NATO could be drawn directly into a military conflict with Moscow in defense of Turkey.

NATO no longer regards Russia as a “strategic partner” but as a country seeking to undermine the post-Cold War order and restore its sway over the old Soviet empire, prompting a degree of confrontation that is reminiscent of the Cold War in tone.

Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, chairman of the Duma’s defense committee, said, “They are ready to admit even the North Pole to NATO just for the sake of encircling Russia.” The invitation to Montenegro, he said, means that NATO “was and remains an adversary of Russia.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, who was present when the invitation was made by the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, denied any such intentions, saying that the alliance “is not focused on Russia per se or anyone else.” He added that inviting Montenegro, which was eager to join, was “another step toward the full integration of Europe and toward the common defense.”

The quandary for Washington and Europe is that any solution in Syria requires Russian participation and influence with Mr. Assad and the government in Damascus. But Washington, NATO and the European Union are not prepared to link progress on Syria to other issues, in particular any easing of sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea.

Russia wants to bolster its position in the Middle East and has much less interest in attacking the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Turkey is most concerned with blunting Kurdish aspirations toward independence, while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Persian Gulf countries are most interested in defeating Mr. Assad and his Shiite allies, rather than attacking the Sunni Islamic State.

On the surface, the decision to bring a nation like Montenegro into the NATO alliance doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense in that it’s hard to see exactly what the nation brings to the table. It is, for example, among the smallest of the nations that make up what used to be Yugoslavia, does not boast a particularly large military, so it’s unclear exactly what it can or would be able to contribute to NATO operations in Europe or elsewhere in the world should the need arise. During the long period of war in the Balkans that led to the eventual breakup of Yugoslavia, it was seen as a largely loyal ally of Serbia, which Russia continues to maintain an interest in protecting, until it broke away in 2006. The most that one could be said, I suppose, is that it continues a pattern of bringing other parts of what used to be Yugoslavia into the alliance that began with Slovenia joining the alliance in 2004 and Croatia joining in 2009. Two other former components of Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia remain in the process of being considered for membership, but there are complicating factors in both cases that continue to delay the process as noted above. In Bosnia’s case this is includes issues regarding the status of military bases and the presence of Serbia enclaves in the nation. In Macedonia’s case, the primary barrier to entry apparently continues to be Greece’s seemingly silly objection to the name of the country, which is the same as that of a province in northern Greece. To that extent, I suppose this is just a continuation of a trend that has been going on since the end of the Cold War that has seen NATO expand into formerly hostile territory. Beyond that, though, it’s unclear what the logic is here, and whether it’s the kind of move that will do more to harm long-term goals elsewhere than accomplish anything useful for the alliance, or American interests.

On the positive side, Daniel Kochis at The Daily Signal cites the positive reasons in favor of membership for Montenegro:

NATO’s open door policy for qualified countries has contributed greatly to trans-Atlantic security since the first round of NATO enlargement in 1952. While small in absolute terms, Montenegro has proven its commitment to the alliance, at one time spending more than 10 percent of its defense budget to support its contribution to ISAF. The offer of NATO membership rewards Montenegro for its steadfastness and will ultimately help further solidify trans-Atlantic security by providing an anchor of stability in a historically volatile region of Europe.

As Heritage’s Luke Coffey has noted, ”Montenegro would be a welcome addition to the NATO alliance, and its accession to full membership would contribute to continued regional stability.” Montenegro’s invitation also shows that Russia does not have a veto over NATO enlargement and is a blow to Russia. Last year Montenegro turned down a Russian request to host a Russian naval base.

While Russia has described any further NATO enlargement as a “provocation,” no third party should have a veto over the decision of the NATO member-states.

Kori Schake at Foreign Polic also seems to revel in the idea that admitting Montenegro is good almost solely because it is a thumb in the eye of Vladimir Putin:

While Moscow might not be quivering with fear, NATO’s offer is a clear rebuke — proof that our decadent, disorganized, argumentative, and hesitant West can actually take a stand in defense of its values and security. It shows the importance of international institutions in creating norms and facilitating cooperation.


The Russian establishment ought to ask itself why Montenegro so desperately wants to join NATO. The NATO alliance fought Montenegro as recently as 1999, when it came to the defense of Kosovo. Moscow has long tried to paint that war as NATO aggression, but the very governments the alliance was fighting against understand it differently. Montenegro has chosen to align itself with the values of the West, the governmental practices of the West, and the defense arrangements of the West.

Not that we should expect Moscow to be happy about all of this. Russia has tried to forestall any NATO expansion, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovsaying in September it would be “a mistake, even a provocation.” And Putin’s spokesman announced there would be “retaliatory actions.” The Russian government announced the cessation of cooperative security programs as a first measure. The thing is, Russia will before much longer run out of countries to cut itself off from. Which, sadly, may be Putin’s actual objective: the complete isolation of Russia from democratizing influences.

Daniel Larison, on the other hand is skeptical:

If adding Montenegro to the alliance is “taking a stand” in defense of our values and security, it is a remarkably small and unimportant one. Montenegro isn’t being threatened by anything, nor is it likely to be anytime soon, so as far as “stands” go bringing them into the alliance must be among the most low-risk and uneventful ever taken. The alliance gains nothing from this move, and none of its members is more secure because of it.

As I said yesterday, the decision to expand NATO again is a bad one. It adds one more dependent to a long list of allies that add nothing to the alliance. It’s a good example of treating a defensive military alliance as little more than a political club that new democracies join to demonstrate that they are part of the West. Adding a new member is likely to make the alliance a little more disorganized and argumentative without making it any stronger or more capable.

And Brad Stephenson warns about the use of expansion in a way that ends up becoming needlessly provocative:

Proponents of NATO expansion argue against permitting Russia to exercise a veto over alliance decisions.  They are absolutely correct that NATO has the right to extend membership to whichever independent states it chooses.  But exercising that right in defiance of Russia’s insecurities is foolhardy.  NATO expansion should be based upon careful examination of both costs and benefits.

As Stephenson goes on to note, the potential costs of “thumb in the eye” approaches include the prospect of making it more difficult to get Russia to back down from the policies it has adopted over the past several years, and to cooperate in areas where its cooperation would be helpful. In Ukraine, for example, the ongoing war in the east and the issues that still surround the status of Crimea are not going to be resolved without Russian cooperation. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that the ongoing situation in Syria and the war against ISIS would seem to clearly require that Russia and the West work together in some way, even if it is begrudgingly. If actions like this make it less likely that this will happen, then that’s a heavy cost to pay. On the other hand, it’s hard to see the benefits of Montenegrin membership in NATO actually brings to the alliance actually brings to the alliance and its members. I tend to agree with Larison’s comments in his initial reaction to the expansion that Russia’s objections to adding Montenegro are largely just words and not that we shouldn’t really expect the kind of reaction from Moscow that we would see if steps were taken to bring either Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance. Given the seemingly non-existent benefit the alliance will get from the expansion, though, I’m not sure exactly what benefit this is going to bring.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Pch101 says:

    It could be part of a decoy negotiation strategy: Pretend to want something that your opponent opposes, then horse trade it away so that it appears that you’ve compromised with your opponent when you get something that you want in exchange for giving up something else that you never wanted it in the first place.

    If played correctly, this could be a smart move. Otherwise, it may be unnecessary provocation.

  2. Slugger says:

    The original purpose of NATO was to keep the Russians out, keep the Americans in, and keep the Germans down. These goals have been achieved with spectacular success. I favor a cold-eyed dispassionate look at the security needs of the USA and reassessment of NATO’s role in this. Perhaps, a repeat Congress of Vienna with the Russians in attendance as full partners is in order. It might actually be better to have Putin in the tent spitting out than on the outside spitting in.
    In general, shouldn’t pacts and treaties come with expiration dates? Things do change.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    If you think that poking a stick in the Russians’ collective eye is in our best interests, that’s all the reason you need.

  4. stonetools says:

    We have to secure the southern flank against the Muslim menace!

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Perhaps Montenegro can’t really contribute anything but what really is the rest of Europe contributing. Germany hasn’t contributed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Britain has reduced it’s military to a shell of it’s original self. France was always an iffy partner. Any actions NATO takes primarily consist of US blood and treasure. .

  6. DrDaveT says:

    In Macedonia’s case, the primary barrier to entry apparently continues to be Greece’s seemingly silly objection to the name of the country, which is the same as that of a province in northern Greece.

    Seriously? That’s your nuanced and informed understanding of the Greeks’ objection?

    Imagine, for a moment, that the northern half of Syria were to become an independent nation, and that they were to call themselves “Kurdistan”. How happy do you think that would make the Turkish government? That’s pretty much what’s going on with Greece and Macedonia.

    The nation of Macedonia contains about half of the ethnic Macedonians in the world. The other half mostly live within the borders of the nation of Greece, and are a majority in several areas. Once you admit that Macedonian is a national identity as well as an ethnicity, which nation does that part of Greece naturally belong to?

  7. Hans Lindauer says:

    Montenegro has an enormous deep-water port that is protected on all sides by tall mountains.

  8. walt moffett says:

    the big advantage is it makes it less likely we (NATO, US) will have to play referee in the nth former Yugoslavian property line dispute.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Hans Lindauer: Thank you. Your comment makes the most sense out of why this is happening: naval access.

  10. PJ says:

    For some reason?

    Look at a map of Europe.

    If Montenegro joins NATO, the entire coastline from Kaliningrad (which is an exclave seperated from Russia proper by NATO members) to Syria will be controlled by NATO.