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Montenegro: Key NATO Ally Or Adriatic Afterthought?

Protesters burn a NATO flag while Montenegro's parliament discusses the ratification of a NATO membership agreement in Cetinje in April.
Protesters burn a NATO flag while Montenegro's parliament discusses the ratification of a NATO membership agreement in Cetinje in April.

Nestled in the Adriatic coastline between Croatia and Albania, tiny Montenegro may appear to have little military value. Just don't tell that to NATO or its sworn rival, Russia.

Montenegro, which gained independence from Serbia in 2006, will be welcomed into the security alliance this week in Brussels -- and formally join on June 5 -- despite a bitter campaign by the Kremlin to derail NATO's first expansion in almost a decade.

So why has a country that spent a paltry $69 million on its military last year become the front line in a diplomatic battle that some fear could edge Europe closer to a military conflict?

The government in Podgorica has faced a steady stream of rhetoric against NATO expansion from opponents both domestic and foreign, and an alleged coup attempt in October 2016 was seen by some as yet another attempt to change the political landscape and keep Montenegro away from integrating into the Euro-Atlantic alliance.

"With Montenegro's accession, NATO is telling aspiring members to hang tough, for their time may yet come. By stamping its feet in frustration, Moscow is telling the same NATO aspirants and NATO itself that that's a pipe dream," Leonid Bershidsky, founder of the opinion website and a Bloomberg View contributor, argues.

Why Montenegro?

With a population of just 620,000, Montenegro may seem like an afterthought for an alliance that has about six times that number in active military personnel alone.

Indeed, Montenegro's armed forces, with about 2,000 soldiers, is about one-third of what is needed to run a single aircraft carrier, while its eight armed personnel carriers, half a dozen ships, and dozen or so helicopters hardly add anything to the alliance in terms of hardware.

Meanwhile, it borders NATO members Croatia and Albania, neither of which poses a threat to Montenegro or the alliance, so it won't fundamentally change the country's security situation or markedly fortify NATO operations.

Still, its 293-kilometer coastline does give Montenegro some importance as a strategic parcel of real estate, since it's the penultimate piece in the Adriatic puzzle.

With Montenegro as a member, NATO will control the entire coast of the Adriatic, from the heel of Italy's boot to the rugged shores of Greece, save for a 20-kilometer stretch of land held by Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Moreover, Montenegro hosts the Bar and Kotor naval bases, once key facilities for the defunct Yugoslav armed forces that analysts say may be part of the alliance's future plans.

"It is difficult to say now whether any NATO combat facilities will be deployed in Montenegro. But militarily, I can say that the base in Kotor was one the chief ones among the former Yugoslav armed forces. It was well-equipped and there were ships which controlled major part of the Adriatic," Colonel Boris Podoprigora, president of the St. Petersburg Conflict Resolution Club says.

"As far as I know, there are no serious bases on the opposite side, in Italy. They are all on the opposite side of Italy, mainly near Naples. However, I can confirm that Montenegro is an important strategic point of the region. It is quite an important geographical unit in the NATO conglomerate."

Russian Opposition

The rewards of joining NATO may be tempered by the price Montenegro could pay at the hands of Russia.

A longtime ally that shares historic, linguistic, and cultural ties, Russia has not sat idly by as NATO wooed Montenegro.

Moscow is said to have asked Montenegro several years ago to use Bar as a naval logistics base for ships heading toward Syria. Amid reported pressure from NATO, the government declined, ruffling Kremlin feathers.

Since then, Russia has used the stick more than the carrot to try and edge its way into the Balkan conversation.

The Kremlin imposed sanctions against Montenegro's largest winery and one of the country's best-known exports. Officials claimed products from the Plantaze winery near the coastline do not meet proper standards, even though the company says it has had several independent tests performed on its wine to refute that accusation.

Mindful that Russian investors have poured millions of dollars into the country, mainly through real-estate deals to accommodate the thousands of Russians who flock annually to Montenegro's sun-splashed coastline, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned in April of a "surge of anti-Russian hysteria" in Montenegro.

And then there's the matter of last year's purported coup plot.

Officials in Podgorica have accused Russia of involvement, allegedly aimed at impeding Montenegro's further Western integration.

Moscow rejects the allegation, but a Montenegrin court began indictment proceedings on May 24 against 14 people, including two Russians and two pro-Russia opposition leaders, who are charged with plotting to overthrow the government last year.

"If the Kremlin has influence in the American political process, you can imagine how much greater ambitions it has to exert influence on the countries of the Balkans, which is seen as a 'soft belly of Europe,'" Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, says.

Step Toward EU

Ultimately, accepting Montenegro as a NATO member may be as much, or more, about the European Union than the alliance itself.

Montenegro applied to join the 28-nation EU in 2009 and has been in membership talks since 2012.

It has already opened 26 chapters in its EU accession negotiations out of a total 35, and in its last progress report, in late 2016, the European Commission said Montenegro continued to make progress on political and economic criteria and had improved its ability to take on the obligations of EU membership.

Former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic once even hailed NATO accession as "one more important step toward Montenegro's full membership in the European Union."

"The Balkans for centuries has been the scene of a struggle between the West and the East," current Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said recently.

"NATO and the EU have always been and remain a guarantee of stability and security and cooperation and the main basis for peace in Europe. It is about what kind of future we choose for us and generations to come."

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