NATO's Invitation of Montenegro Betrays Folly and Lack of Strategic Vision

The 66½-year-old, 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization has had its hands full lately over rising Mideast tensions, particularly NATO member Turkey's Nov. 24 downing of a Russian fighter jet and Russian President Vladimir Putin's sabre-rattling in response. But one must wonder about the lack of wisdom and strategy in NATO's decision to invite the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro to join it. Has it bitten off more than it can chew?

Four key points should be considered as the alliance pursues such expansion strategies:

The invitation has already angered Russia to the point the Kremlin issued warning statements of a military nature, including "retaliatory actions from the East." This should come as no surprise to the West. The warning reflects Russia's thinking of how any eastward expansion of NATO is perceived -- as encircling Mother Russia. Could this explain why Putin made a decision to deploy advanced missile systems in Syria? My answer, based on evidence on the ground and shifting geopolitical dynamics, is yes. Russia is sending a message to NATO that it will retaliate in some form.

Despite those in Washington and other Western capitals who think, "Why should we care what the Russians think," Moscow's statements and actions suggest its belief that the United States is showing less sensitivity concerning Russia's security and strategic interests. Yet the argument, at least in the West, is that NATO has never promised Russia not to expand. But in fact just the opposite seemed evident following disintegration of the Soviet Union on Dec. 26, 1991.

I recall former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker's famous speech in the magnificent St. Catherine Hall at the Kremlin where he said that Western leaders contemplated "no extension of NATO's jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east." What's interesting about now-declassified negotiations is that for former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to agree to NATO membership for a newly unified Germany, he made it quite clear that "any extension of the zone of NATO is unacceptable."

NATO -- mainly the United States -- will have to assume major costs associated with Montenegro's joining the alliance. While Montenegro, about the size of Connecticut, will not contribute much to NATO's overall defense capabilities, its membership will nonetheless become a burden for NATO (and thus the United States) during tumultuous times. The size of its military force -- similar to that of a well-staffed big-city police department -- consists of meager Air Force capabilities including five light-utility helicopters. However, its geography does offer some strategic importance. With Montenegro's accession to NATO at the July 2016 Warsaw summit, Russia's access to the Black Sea could be challenged if not choked.

Fourth, security analysts argue that NATO needs to seriously consider cost/benefit analyses. There are no substantial security/economic benefits to Montenegro's membership in NATO. Most of the country's 2,000 active-duty officers are assigned to domestic-security operations. Further, inclusion of Montenegro will force NATO to expand its security umbrella with additional costs associated for a country that will contribute little to the alliance's collective defense and security apparatus.

While nothing in NATO's charter actually prevents it from expanding, antagonizing Russia in unstable times isn't wise policy. More troubling, NATO's foreign ministers considered issuing a statement about the alliance's continuing open-door policy considering countries in line for potential membership: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia. Any invitation to Georgia carries great liabilities and portends unwanted consequences: Two regional states -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- have already broken away from Georgia with Moscow's support.

In light of recent troubles in Ukraine, it behooves Washington and NATO allies to rethink their strategies.

Given all this, Putin himself is taking a major security gamble in the Middle East by moving heavy weapons into Syria. Deployment of these weapons goes far beyond his interests there -- securing access to the Mediterranean and ensuring Bashar al-Assad stays in power. Russia also sends a provocative message to NATO suggesting that if the alliance conducts training exercises at Russia's doorstep, Moscow will mobilize its advanced weapons system.

Russia already has increased its military presence at the Hmeymim Airbase outside Latakia in Syria, which includes 55 fighter jets, including SU-30 fighter jets and SU-24, 2U-25 and SU-34 bombers along with seven Mi-24 and five Mi-8 helicopters. The base is also fortified with Pantsir-S1, Buk-M2, S-200, Pechora-2M and S-400 air-defense batteries. All this clearly suggests Putin's military and strategic calculations go beyond Syria's borders.

My question: If a military conflict between the West and Russia erupts, would China get involved? Such conflict certainly would provide China a historical opportunity to team up with Russia against the United States. While the idea might be unconventional to some degree at this moment, I see the real possibility of such a scenario.

Montenegro's membership in NATO poses little actual threat to Russia. Yet, as a member that wields power with about 67 percent of NATO's budget as of 2013, the United States must be careful not to unnecessarily corner Russia, given how impulsive and unpredictable Putin can be. The invitation to Montenegro only confirms Kremlin paranoia that the West is intent on marginalizing Russia. That could complicate major global challenges that rely on Russia's influence including Syria's future, eradication of Islamic State terrorism and stabilizing Libya.

The United States must listen to its NATO allies, but it also needs to let them stand up for themselves and actually lead in terms of financial and military vigor, especially when it matters. Otherwise, Europe will never establish credibility in its own defense posture.