Far from improving the security environment in Europe, Montenegro’s joining of NATO may actually add to Russian fears of unrestrained NATO expansion eastward.

NATO commanders during a meeting of the North Atlantic Council with Resolute Support Operational Partner Nations in Brussels on May 20, 2016. Photo: AP

On May 19, NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels to sign the long-awaited document for Montenegro’s accession to the organization. It allows Montenegrin representatives to take part in all Alliance meetings as observers until the agreement is ratified by the current 28 NATO members.

At first glance, this event hardly bears any particular importance in the history of NATO’s enlargement, let alone substantially changes the security environment in Europe. With its standing army of 2,000 troops and modest financial means, Montenegro will not be able contribute significantly to the Alliance’s military capabilities. Critics even say that the admission of the new member will only worsen the bureaucratic morass already observable in NATO’s governing institutions.

Yet, despite all these caveats, the membership of Montenegro could be a watershed in the contemporary history of both NATO and the Balkans for two reasons.

First, it is firm evidence of the ultimate success of the decades-long efforts of the Western capitals in conflict resolution, political stabilization, and democratic consolidation in the Balkans.

Second, it serves as a test case for unity of the current NATO members and their commitment to hold to their promises of maintaining the so-called “open door” policy in Eastern Europe despite Russia’s discontent and resentment. By extension, now, after the positive decision was taken by NATO foreign ministers, the admission of Montenegro is celebrated, because it allegedly will bring even more political stability, democracy, and security to Eastern Europe.

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It is indeed hard to disagree that the most recent NATO enlargement marks a turning point. However, contrary to the celebratory claims largely copying rhetoric of NATO officials, the admission of Montenegro will likely create exactly those obstacles, which it aims to overcome.

In the existing political context, Montenegro’s joining the Alliance would be firm proof of NATO’s new Realpolitik policy and, thus, only exacerbate the existing problems with democracy and security in the region, instead of resolving them.

How NATO enlargement impacts democracy in Montenegro

The democratic process in Montenegro clearly shows that there is no consensus on NATO membership. The main opposition parties, the Democratic Front and the Socialist People’s Party, which holds over 40 percent of seats in the nation’s parliament, fiercely protest the decision of the government to join NATO.

The issue already caused an internal political crisis, in the aftermath of which the ruling pro-NATO Democratic Party of Socialists formed a minority government. Numerous polls have shown that not less than 40 percent of the population oppose Montenegro's accession to the Alliance.

Blatantly ignoring these deep divisions in Montenegrin public opinion and political scene, the NATO leadership took the decision to admit the country and even called the accession, in the words of NATO's General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, “a sovereign decision of a sovereign nation.”

Such a move risks ruining the Montenegrin democratic process and impedes political consolidation. It solidifies the position of Milo Djukanovic, the ruling party’s chief and the current Prime Minister, who has been holding power since 1991(!) and numerous times has been suspected of corruption and abuses.

In addition, in a conspicuously nineteenth century way, the NATO foreign ministers’ decision helps to solidify an opposing, anti-Serbian vision of nation-building in a country where the national identity historically has oscillated between pan-Serbian and exclusively Montenegrin.

Does NATO enlargement increase or decrease security in Europe?

To make things even worse, the admission of Montenegro not only undermines democracy in the country, but also poisons the security environment in Eastern Europe by adding to the Russian fears of unrestrained NATO eastward expansion.

As many experts have argued, currently Russia is a power whose influence in strategic and historical terms is decreasing, not rising. Therefore, Russian foreign and defense policy in recent decades has been largely reactive to the moves of NATO, the U.S., and the leading European powers.

The Russian military build-up in Eastern Europe, with rather few theatrical exceptions, and the rearmament of the Russian Navy has had a defensive, not offensive character. Finally, all cases of alleged Russian meddling in the internal affairs of Eastern European and Eurasian countries followed, not preceded, decisions of their governments to hastily turn politically towards the Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Accordingly, the Russian government has not opposed accession to NATO of those countries where public opinion and the political vision were unanimous, namely Albania and Croatia. However, it has tried to save in a “neutrality zone” internally divided states, such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Ukraine, pointing to the necessity of acknowledging the local democratic process and political divisions.

In this context, the unanimous and celebratory admission of Montenegro into NATO not only threatens Russian business interests and seals off any potential access of the Russian Navy to the Adriatic Sea, but also aptly shows that the NATO leadership is determined to perpetuate a zero-sum power game with Russia in all Eastern European countries, regardless of how divided politically they are.

Now it becomes clear that officials in Brussels and Washington might easily change their approach to a country’s accession to NATO. For example, if tomorrow Russia decreases its involvement in Ukraine they will welcome it to the Alliance despite saying yesterday that Ukraine is deeply divided and not yet fully prepared to become a NATO’s member.

Russia’s next move

The answer seems to be as simple as it is disturbing. Since the NATO leaders now do not shy away from a zero-sum political game in Eastern Europe, Russian officials are likely to join it as well – with several negative implications:

First, Russian diplomacy can start meddling in the internal affairs of NATO by influencing its undecided members and, thus, trying to delay the ratification of agreement with Montenegro.

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Second, Moscow will probably offer even more support to pro-Russian parties in Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro as well as other Eastern European countries and will do this in a more conspicuous way, ignoring all criticisms about “unlawful intervention.”

Third, economic sanctions against Montenegro have been already announced in the Russian Parliament, and are likely to follow.

Fourth, even if Montenegro is eventually accepted to NATO, the Russian government will make efforts to influence its position within the organization.

Finally, the peace process in Ukraine can become more difficult, because now the influence of Russia in Donbas will serve as a single guarantee of Ukraine not joining the Alliance.

In short, by admitting Montenegro, the NATO leadership has effectively launched a new policy of Realpolitik in Eastern Europe. As for the Russian government, it seems like it will also easily and even willingly embrace this strategy, viewing it as a potential opening to change its position vis-à-vis Europe.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.