Why NATO Wants Montenegro (Not for Its Military Might)

(Bloomberg View) -- Late last week, Montenegro's parliament voted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, adding perhaps the most militarily useless member to the alliance. The move served no purpose except to maintain the shaky hopes of Georgia and Ukraine that they might be allowed to join, too -- someday.

Montenegro, with 2,080 military personnel, will have the second-smallest military in the alliance after Luxembourg, with its 900-strong defense force. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump's insistence that NATO members spend the agreed-upon 2 percent of economic output on defense, few people in the U.S. or NATO appear worried about Montenegro's inability to meet that target. This year, in line with previous practice, it's spending about 50 million euros ($54.5 million), or about 1.3 of its gross domestic product. It's the smallest military budget of any NATO member. Albania spends more than twice as much, Luxembourg five times as much.

When Montenegro's admission was first discussed, some analysts made the point that it would complete the NATO "ownership" of the entire coastline of the Adriatic Sea: the rest of it belongs to Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania, NATO members all. But even if Italy were the sole NATO member on the Adriatic, the narrow sea would have been a death trap for any invading force. During World War II, the allies decided against invading in the area, instead providing aid to Marshal Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia. The German navy held out in the Adriatic until the very end of the war.

In addition to Montenegro's utter lack of military importance, it has a population that's less than enthusiastic about NATO membership. Polls are unreliable, and public opinion is split roughly down the middle. This is far short of the nearly universal support NATO enjoyed in new eastern European members such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in the 1990s.

The country's large Serbian population is wary of the alliance and would rather do business with Russia. Pan-Slavic ideas are popular, helped by Russia's economic expansion in the last 10 years. Even after Russian tourism to Europe shrank following the 2014 Crimea invasion, Russians are still responsible for about 22 percent of tourist arrivals in Montenegro. Almost a third of Montenegrin companies and 40 percent of all real estate are owned by Russians, and Russia has provided a third of foreign direct investment in the nation. A lot of the money comes from the "patriotic" elite fostered by Russian President Vladimir Putin: loyalist legislators, state company managers, top law enforcers. Travel to Montenegro is visa-free for Russians; the neighbors are, for the most part, friendly; and owning a villa there is less of a risk than, say, across the Adriatic in Italy.

This Russian connection, Moscow's loud warnings against NATO's further expansion, and Montenegro's manageable size make it an ideal prop for a symbolic move. As Karl-Heinz Kamp of Germany's Federal Academy for Security Policy wrote ahead of Montenegro's invitation into NATO:

This sends above all a political message, not least to Russia, that NATO is sticking to its "open door policy" and that it refuses to accept a Russian veto against the right of free choice to form alliances. Montenegro's contribution to NATO may be limited, but that will make it easier to integrate this small country into the Alliance.

Most likely, Moscow realized back in 2015 that it couldn't do anything about Montenegro's NATO accession. It's a natural move for a country so integrated into the European Union that it uses the euro as its currency despite not being an official euro-zone member. The character of Russian investment in the country doesn't give Moscow any direct political leverage. Montenegrin leaders are grateful for the money, but they don't feel indebted. After all, wealthy Russians choose their country of their own free will, to some extent as a form of protection against problems at home. 

The Montenegrin government insists that Russian nationals took part in an anti-NATO coup attempt last year, but even if that's accurate, the amateurish plot looks as though it was hatched by Moscow pan-Slavists, a group that wants to appear closer to Putin's Kremlin than it actually is. The official line is based on the understanding that Russia can't stop Montenegro from joining NATO. The loud protests regularly heard from the Russian foreign ministry and other quarters close to the Kremlin are a kind of ritual dance. For the Russian regime, as for NATO itself, the real issue is the possibility of NATO's eventual expansion to post-Soviet countries.

In a recent column for state-owned propaganda outlet RIA Novosti, political scientist Gevorg Mirzayan wrote:

Tough opposition needs to be constantly stressed, even in an apparently unimportant case such as Montenegro's inclusion in NATO. If Moscow stays silent, it will be seen as a change in Russia's position on NATO expansion as such. 

In this strange dance, both NATO and Russia know the limits of each other's courage. Russia won't launch a Crimea-style operation in Montenegro, since it wouldn't gain anything geopolitically or militarily, but the fallout might be even more toxic than from meddling in Ukraine. NATO won't ignore the frozen conflicts Russia has organized in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine; these mini-wars essentially prevent the three countries from joining the alliance without unduly endangering its existing members. It's a standoff in which all both sides can do is signal their positions. 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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