Marko Djurica / REUTERS Russian paratroopers during a joint Serbian-Russian military exercise near Belgrade, November 2016.

Montenegro's NATO Bid

A Litmus Test for Trump's Russia Policy

The future of U.S.-Russian relations seems to hinge on the answer to one question: Will U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, kowtow to their friend Russian President Vladimir Putin and acquiesce to his so-called sphere of interests, or will they exploit their close relationship with the Russian leader to advance core U.S. goals?

The answer may come soon after Trump’s inauguration. Montenegro, the Balkan country that broke away from Serbia a decade ago, is the unlikely canary in the coal mine of the Trump administration’s Russia policy. Next month, the U.S. Senate is set to ratify Montenegro’s long-standing bid to join NATO. So far, 19 out of 28 NATO allies have approved Montenegro’s accession. After several years of hesitation, the process even gained the strong backing of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

But Moscow is determined to thwart Montenegro’s bid, because any further NATO enlargement, regardless of how small the candidate might be, will be perceived by the Kremlin as a direct threat to Russian security and a negation of Russia's regional and global power status. For now, Moscow has occasionally threatened Montenegro with unspecified punitive measures and frequently promoted a military-neutral status for the country. In turn, it will create an early test case for Trump’s anticipated reset of U.S.-Russian relations: if Trump wants to cater to Putin, he’ll get Senate Republicans to ice Montenegro’s bid; if Trump wants to signal that warming ties does not mean acquiescing in another Yalta, he’ll green-light Senate ratification and Montenegro will join the alliance.

Montenegro, which has fewer residents than Nashville and an army of only 2,000 troops, is an unlikely strategic harbinger of U.S.-Russian relations. But there are several factors in play. First, Russian strategic thinking has always been preoccupied with warm-water ports. Last October, a Russian show of force nearly went sideways after the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was denied the ability to refuel in Spain and Malta; the Russians had to perform emergency refueling at sea. A friendly port in the Adriatic would have been useful, but Montenegrin authorities dismissed the idea as soon as they started considering NATO membership.

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