Step on the Gas: Montenegro’s Road to NATO Membership

June 21, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently claimed that Moscow does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.  This is, of course, laughable, but something is about to happen that will help ensure that Russia is at least less free to meddle with and threaten one more European country.

After agreeing in December 2015 to offer Montenegro membership, NATO foreign ministers signed the accession protocol last month. The country has checked off all the boxes required by NATO’s 1995 enlargement study. Any questions about its qualifications seem to have been resolved for all current members. The next step is for all 28 allies to ratify the protocol, after which Montenegro can accede to the North Atlantic Treaty. Montenegro, with its “invitee” status, has already taken its seat as an observer at NATO meetings.

Once Montenegro becomes NATO’s newest member, it will reaffirm the alliance’s “open door” policy, send a message to Moscow that it cannot dictate the international orientations of sovereign European states, and represent another step toward the inclusion of Balkan states in the Euro-Atlantic framework.

The United States has strongly supported Montenegro’s membership, but as over 30 senior defense and foreign policy leaders rightly noted in an open letter published yesterday at War on the Rocks, things are not moving forward as fast as they could. The government of Montenegro is working to make its case on Capitol Hill, where the Senate must give its advice and consent to this amendment to the Washington Treaty. So far, there mainly have been signs of support from Democrats and Republicans.

Montenegro’s journey toward NATO membership has required its government to make key civil and military reforms in line with NATO standards, deal with serious domestic opposition, and, moreover, to resist strong Russian opposition. As Montenegro debated the alliance, the Russian influence machine was in full gear, trying to stimulate domestic Montenegrin opposition to membership. Russian officials strongly condemned the move, threatening political and economic consequences. These warningswere neither idle nor of little consequence for Montenegro, as Russian businessmen reportedly own a third of the shares in foreign businesses in this small Balkan country.

One of the most serious obstacles has been domestic opposition, much of it encouraged by Russian-owned media.  As little as a year ago, public opinion polls showed roughly equal support for and opposition to NATO membership. However, after NATO governments tendered the offer of membership last year public opinion shifted in favor. In January 2016, the pro-Western government in Podgorica announced that a new poll showed 47.3 percent public support for membership and only 37.1 against.  Following the positive turn in public opinion, the government won a vote of confidence in parliament on the NATO membership question. And, on June 18, the Montenegrin parliament, after two days of debate, passed a resolution in favor of NATO membership by a vote of 48-26.

For NATO, Montenegro’s membership will bring neither large gains nor significant costs for the ability of the alliance to fulfill its missions. Montenegro, as a NATO partner, already has contributed to NATO programs and will, as a member, continue to make small-scale but symbolically important contributions, including sending troops and financial support to Afghanistan. The addition is not likely to pose new issues for NATO decision-making, as some long-time members remain much more likely to block consensus than Montenegro. And Montenegro faces no likely threats that could call for invocation of NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision.

This is not a step toward invitations to Ukraine and Georgia. On the contrary, it is more a demonstration of how difficult it will be for those two countries to move toward membership anytime soon.

We must not lose sight of what this means for the Balkans. It is important for NATO to demonstrate that it has an interest in continuing to stabilize this region. Montenegro’s membership in NATO will contribute to that cause, perhaps providing a model for some other Balkan states to follow without threatening the security of any one of them.

All in all, the outcome would seem to be a small but meaningful win for both Montenegro and NATO. The principle of sovereign states being able to choose their international affiliations is being kept alive, despite Russian challenges to the international order, as are the prospects for future stabilizing steps in the Balkans toward integration into the NATO and European Union systems — the institutional core of “the West.”


Stanley R. Sloan is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Defense of the West, NATO the European Union and the Transatlantic Bargain, will be published by the Manchester University Press this fall.

Image: NATO