Montenegro and Serbia are Russian President Vladimir Putin's "red line" in Europe, judging by year-end headlines in Belgrade's tabloid press.
Drawing on unnamed diplomatic sources, those stories in the Serbian capital claim that Putin has a plan for a new "world order" in which Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- designated "militarily neutral states" -- would serve as buffers between NATO and Russia and its allies. The same sources are quoted as saying, in line with this vision, that Putin had advised U.S. President-elect Donald Trump not to "force through" Montenegro's membership in NATO.
The details of Putin's grand strategic plan may or may not be entirely accurate, but the extent of Moscow's hostility to Montenegrin NATO ambitions has been clear for some time. Podgorica has been under intense pressure from Moscow to drop its EU and NATO membership bids.
Given questions about the future direction of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Russia, there have been expressions of growing concern in Montenegro that its steadfastly pro-Western stance might go unrewarded.
In that context, a prospective visit from a "troika" of U.S. senators was seen as a welcome show of support. John McCain (Republican-Arizona), Lindsay Graham (Republican-South Carolina), and Amy Klobuchar (Democrat-Minnesota) were expected to stop over in Montenegro on January 3 on their way back from a tour of the Baltics, Georgia, and Ukraine. As it turned out, the visit was postponed at the last minute, although McCain thanked Montenegro for its assistance in the global fight against terrorism and reiterated his support for Montenegro's NATO hopes.
For some in Montenegro, NATO membership increasingly looks like a question of political life and death, as that small Balkan state finds itself on the front lines of what could become a new Cold War. Recent reports suggest Russia has applied pressure to derail Montenegro's NATO accession or EU integration.
For years, Russia's "new rich" have been investing in and acquiring property in Montenegro. In popular coastal resort towns like Budva, Russian is a second language, enjoying parity with Montenegrin.
But relations have begun to sour. A case in point is Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, once seen as a potential savior of Montenegro with his investment in local aluminum production, who is now suing the Montenegrin state over purported losses. Many Russians seemingly believed that their investment in Montenegro would be repaid in political influence.
Yet Podgorica remains stubbornly committed to forging ties with the West. This year Montenegro could become the 29th member of NATO, a process that could conclude with a ratifying vote in the Montenegrin parliament in the spring. (So far 19 of 28 NATO members have approved Montenegrin membership, which was endorsed in Warsaw in July, and the U.S. Senate could vote later this month on ratification.)
Moscow has responded by ratcheting up the pressure.
Sergei Zheleznyak, a senior official within Russia's ruling United Russia party, issued a warning to the Montenegrin government on December 26, during his most recent visit to Belgrade. "The Montenegrin authorities are making a mistake in trying to speed up the country's entry into NATO, knowing that the majority of their people are opposed to this. An attempt to force through NATO membership is not in Montenegro's or NATO's best interests, and it can easily lead to instability in the country, in the Balkans, and inside NATO," Zheleznyak said after talks with officials from the Serbian ruling party.
His statement echoed Moscow's official line. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed recently that "frantic attempts are being made to drag Montenegro into NATO" before the handover to the Trump administration in the United States in January. At a recent OSCE meeting in Hamburg, Lavrov said, "We are not interfering in this process, but I think that the unattractiveness of these frantic efforts is clear to everyone."
But reports of a botched coup in Montenegro in October could put a real dent in Lavrov's charge.
Montenegrin authorities last month issued international arrest warrants for Russians and Serbs accused of involvement in that purported plot, which allegedly sought to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister and take over parliament on election day.
Podgorica has said it has no evidence of high-level Russian official involvement in the abortive coup, and the Kremlin has denied involvement. But it could not have been reassuring for Montenegrin officials to see one of the suspects in the coup plot practically rubbing elbows with Russia's Lavrov last month.
Russia's line about a lack of support for NATO membership in Montenegro also might not reflect reality.
"The official invitation to join NATO and signing of the Accession Protocol were the best things that happened to Montenegro in 2016," Darko Sukovic, a prominent Montenegrin journalist, has said.
Former Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic, meanwhile, said he was anxious for the country to find a way to secure NATO membership while preventing the deterioration of relations with Russia. "We're entering a dramatic finale. To use a chess analogy, Montenegro only needs a draw in this historic chess match with Russia," he said. "The main thing is not to lose momentum and to finally seal the deal [NATO membership] while avoiding direct conflict with the Kremlin -- with a little help from our [Western] allies, of course."
Edward P. Joseph of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in an article co-authored with Sinisa Vukovic, argued recently that Montenegro represents "a litmus test for Trump's Russia policy."
And a recent Wall Street Journal editorial*, titled Patriot Games In The Balkans and published last month, accused "pro-Kremlin forces" of trying to sabotage Podgorica's NATO bid, warning: "Western security is best served by supporting democratic governments of any size facing pressure from regional bullies. The alternative is to deliver another country into Moscow's grip, and whet its appetite to take another."
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correctly attribute quoted text to a Wall Street Journal editorial, rather than to Mssrs Joseph and Vukovic. RFE/RL regrets the error.