Russia, an alleged coup, and Montenegro’s bid for NATO membership

Some officials in the United States and Europe see no relevance in getting Montenegro, a small state with a small military, into NATO. Indeed, the U.S. focus on Asia has left the region vulnerable and unguarded since the Clinton administration.

But, in my strong opinion, Moscow sees Montenegro in very different terms. Russia has a vivid interest in the Balkans and views Montenegro as more relevant than one may conclude from its small size.

No place to moor
Why is it so important? Consider the following anecdote:

In September 2013, the Russian Federation made what then-Russian ambassador in Montenegro, Andrey Nesterenko, described as “a request” to “discuss the terms of allowing Russian warships temporary moorage at the ports of Bar and Kotor for refueling, maintenance and other necessities.” Moscow’s request was prompted by the war in Syria and the uncertain future of the Russian naval facility in the Syrian port city of Tartus. Montenegro rejected the request in December of that year.

The importance of such facilities in the Mediterranean was demonstrated in October 2016 when the Russian carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and its battle group were denied refueling in European ports on their way to support the Russian military effort in Syria.

That’s why Moscow looks at Montenegro’s decision to join NATO with displeasure. If Montenegro joins NATO, it would give the alliance control of every northern port in the Mediterranean.

Moscow’s stress has grown as Montenegro became closer to NATO membership. In my view, the coup plot was the culmination of more than 18 months of synchronized actions, which included an aggressive media campaign. To influence the public opinion of Serbs in Montenegro, Russia has opened a number of Serbian-language media outlets – including Sputnik and Russia Today. This media campaign, coupled with open political and financial support for pro-Russian political parties in Montenegro, seems to me an obvious attempt to reverse a pro-Western trajectory of the state and stop it from joining NATO.

Rare loss
Montenegro is one of only a few contests that Moscow has lately lost in its zero-sum style competition with the West. Despite efforts and money, Moscow has made no measurable progress in slowing the pro-Western direction of the country. For example, Montenegro and Albania have joined the EU sanctions on Russia as punishment for annexing Crimea – a decision that made Moscow furious.

Russia’s involvement in Montenegro is a part of Russia’s broader strategy to roll back NATO and EU enlargement while regaining influence in countries that aspire to join those organizations. Russia has proved that it has the capacity to threaten, influence and subvert NATO’s “open door” policy. Such has been the case since 2008 when Russian President Putin successfully derailed Georgia’s bid for membership – a process that has never gotten back on track.

For now, Russia seems to have lost a possibility of having a strategically significant outlet on the Adriatic Sea. But, I believe, any further American retreat – in the form of a deal with Russia or a withdraw into isolationism – may have lasting adverse implications for this region, European security and America’s enduring interests in Europe.

Vesko Garcevic is Professor of the Practice of International Relations, Boston University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).