WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate has given final approval of Montenegro's bid to join NATO, an enlargement of the alliance that is likely to further anger Russia.
Senators voted 97-2 on March 28 to back the Balkan country's accession to the 28-member alliance.
Two more alliance members -- Spain and the Netherlands -- must still vote on the membership bid, but the U.S. vote is by far the most significant.
Long averse to any eastward expansion by NATO, Moscow has signaled deep opposition to Montenegro’s efforts to join the alliance.
As with neighboring Serbia, Montenegro shares linguistic and cultural roots with Russia, and Russians, including Kremlin-connected billionaire Oleg Deripaska, have made substantial investments in the country in recent years.
Even before the Senate vote, Moscow signaled strong opposition to Montenegro’s efforts. An alleged coup attempt last year that some Montenegrin lawmakers blamed on Moscow was seen as a possible effort by Moscow to undermine the NATO push.
U.S. support for the 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.
Even though the Senate has voted to approve the accession, Trump must still sign the final document and do what is called "depositing the instrument of ratification."
However, ahead of the vote, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote 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 Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina), one of the party's leading foreign policy voices.
"With a nearly unanimous vote, the Senate has sent a clear message that it stands firmly with Montenegro and against the Kremlin's bullying," said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Republican Senator Susan Collins said she was "very happy that the Russian campaign to try to dissuade the people of Montenegro from joining NATO, and the disinformation that Russia disseminated, was not successful."
Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Montenegro's membership sent "a strong message of resolve to Russia as it invades its neighbors and seeks to upend the international order."
The only two "no" votes on March 28 came from Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee.
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.
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, to Moscow -- a day before the vote and a week before Belgrade holds a presidential election.
Vucic, who is the favorite in the April 2 vote, has said he wants to bring Serbia closer to the EU but also improve ties with Moscow.