WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate has voted overwhelmingly to advance the approval of Montenegro's bid to join NATO, paving the way for the Balkan nation to join the military alliance.
Senators on March 27 voted 97-2 in favor of ending debate and allowing a vote later this week on the ratification of its NATO membership, far more than the two-thirds majority needed.
The only two "no" votes came from Senators Rand Paul (Republican-Kentucky) and Mike Lee (Republican-Utah).
A final vote in the Senate is expected later this week.
Once that happens, Spain will be the only remaining nation in the 28-member alliance that must approve Montenegro’s request, before formal membership occurs.
Montenegro’s membership will pull the nation closer toward Europe's political and economic structures, but will also sharply deepen Moscow's distrust of the alliance, whose eastward expansion has long angered Russia.
As with neighboring Serbia, Montenegro shares linguistic and cultural roots with Russia, and Russians, including the Kremlin-connected billionaire Oleg Deripaska, have made substantial investments in the country in recent years.
Even before the Senate vote, Moscow signaled deep opposition to Montenegro’s efforts. A coup attempt last year, which some Montenegrin lawmakers blamed on Moscow, was seen as a possible effort by Moscow to undermine the NATO push.
U.S. support for Montenegro’s bid has been mostly strong, though some observers have speculated that President Donald Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia might result in weaker support for NATO expansion.
However, ahead of the vote, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote to Senate leaders, saying approval should come ahead of a key NATO summit scheduled for May.
"Montenegro is trying to do everything that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin hates, where you actually can vote for your own leaders," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the party's leading foreign-policy voices.
Last week, the top U.S. military commander in Europe, General Curtis Scaparrotti, told a Senate committee that turning away Montenegro's bid would send the wrong signal to other countries interested in joining the alliance.
That would include ex-Soviet republics who have faced Russia's military aggression: either outright invasion, in the case of Georgia, or a separatist insurgency backed by Moscow, in the case of Ukraine.
"If we were to lose this, it would set back many of the other countries and peoples, particularly in Eastern Europe, who are looking forward to, and have their eyes set on the West," Scaparrotti said.
Senator Paul had blocked an earlier attempt to advance approval of Montenegro's ratification despite strong support for the move from Democrats and Republicans. Paul suggested that adding Montenegro could further strain ties with Russia, and possibly even lead to war.
Russia's strongest ally in the Balkans, Serbia, has also moved gradually toward closer integration with the European Union, though not with NATO.
Moscow appeared to send a signal to both Serbia and others that it remained fully engaged in influencing Balkans politics by hosting Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in Moscow on March 27, a week before Belgrade holds presidential elections.
Vucic is the favorite in the April 2 vote to succeed President Tomislav Nikolic, who has decided not to seek a second term. A populist, Vucic has said he wants to accomplish bringing Serbia closer into the EU but also improve ties with Moscow.
Vucic also confirmed that Russia would provide "as a gift" six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia in the coming weeks.