The Meaning of Montenegro's NATO Membership

View of Bay of Kotor old town from Lovcen mountain. Montenegro. Kotor is part of the unesco world
View of Bay of Kotor old town from Lovcen mountain. Montenegro. Kotor is part of the unesco world

NATO's invitation to Montenegro to become the alliance's twenty-ninth member has significance far beyond the Connecticut-size Balkan country. First, despite current European crises, and in the face of Russian opposition, the alliance members held fast to a core element of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, NATO enlargement, thereby signaling other potential candidates like Sweden and Finland that the door remains open for them. Second, Moscow's aggressive reaction demonstrated the counter-productive clumsiness that has characterized Russia's European policy under President Vladimir Putin.

Leaders of European NATO states, especially France's President François Hollande after the Paris massacre, did not succumb to the temptation to "reward" Russia for its stated cooperation against the Islamic State by vetoing Montenegro. Hollande and others recognized that Moscow is acting out of self-interest, since its violence wracked North Caucasus is every bit as threatened by returning jihadists as is the West.

Little Montenegro has a proud military tradition, having repeatedly fought the Ottoman Empire, then Austro-Hungary in World War I, and Nazi Germany in World War II. Its 2,000-man armed forces, however, hardly qualify as a threat to Russia, whose border lies hundreds of miles away with three countries in between. The closest Russian property is the string of vacation villas of newly prosperous Russians that dot Montenegro's sparkling Adriatic coast. They would be just as safe in a NATO Montenegro as are the London mansions of Russian oligarchs.

One can perhaps understand Russian pique with the little country. Majority Slavic and Orthodox, Montenegro has a history of close relations with Russia, including two daughters of Montenegrin King Nikola I who married into the Romanov royal family in the final years of the empire. But that was then; this is now. Two years ago as it saw Montenegro edging ever closer to NATO, Moscow requested permission to build a military base in the port of Bar. Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanović turned the Russians down flat.

In the run-up to NATO's invitation, Moscow used bribery, fomented unruly demonstrations in Montenegro, and warned that membership would constitute a provocation. Its reaction to Montenegro's invitation was churlish, Putin's spokesman announcing that there would be "retaliatory actions." Expect more demonstrations and other dirty tricks.

Putin knows that NATO, a defensive alliance, has never had an offensive battle plan, much less designs against Russia. Yet NATO enlargement has become the Kremlin's principal bogey-man as Putin struggles to preserve his kleptocratic and increasingly authoritarian regime in the face of post-Crimea economic sanctions and the sinking price of oil. Unable to halt the slide in Russia's standard of living, Putin has become increasingly aggressive abroad in an effort to distract the populace by stoking fear of foreign aggressors.

In opposing NATO enlargement, Russia is in clear violation of an international declaration that it signed only five years ago. In December 2010 at the most recent summit meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Astana, Kazakhstan, all member countries issued a Commemorative Declaration, which included the unambiguous statement: "We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance."

In intra-European relations Putin has reduced his diplomatic toolkit to one word: intimidation. Earlier this year Russia threatened to target Denmark with nuclear missiles if it joined the alliance's anti-ballistic missile defense system and warned nonaligned Sweden and Finland of military consequences if either should enter NATO. Physically provocative actions have included sending fighters to play games of "chicken" with commercial aircraft, simulating an attack on the Danish island of Bornholm, buzzing commercial aircraft in flight by military jets with their transponders turned off, shooting flares at Swedish Air Force planes, and ordering submarine incursions into Swedish and Finnish territorial waters.

Moreover, Moscow has increased the frequency and size of snap military exercises, keeping them secret or announcing them only just before they commenced, a tactic it used in the invasion of Crimea in March 2014. One such exercise in March 2015 took place from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea and involved 80,000 troops, the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet, and hundreds of tanks and aircraft.

Led by the U.S., NATO has responded by establishing a rotation of alliance troops to Poland and the Baltic states, pre-positioning materiel, increasing the frequency and scope of maneuvers, and substantially enhancing the NATO Response Force (NRF).

It would obviously be better for the peace of Europe, especially for the long-suffering Russian people, if Putin would reverse his domestic repression, end the diversionary war-hysteria, abandon his zero-sum mentality and genuinely cooperate with the West against shared threats. Until then, Russia's belligerent behavior provides the clearest possible rationale for NATO enlargement, as exemplified by the invitation to Montenegro.

Michael Haltzel, former foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS.