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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.
Second, Russia has—or at least had—deep economic ties in the beautiful resort country. By 2013, Russia had become the largest investor in Montenegro’s real estate and heavy industry. But business relations have deteriorated sharply. Russian aluminum oligarch Oleg Deripaska is now suing the Montenegrin government for hundreds of millions of euros for an investment in the country that went sour. Similarly, the Russian obsession with Montenegrin real estate has started to wane. In short, Moscow sees Montenegro as both strategically valuable and an impudent upstart that has thumbed its nose at the Russian bear while genuflecting before NATO and Washington.
For years, Russia had largely ceded the Balkans to the West, making a fuss over Kosovo but otherwise accepting that the entire region, Serbia and Montenegro included, was headed for EU membership. The conflict over Ukraine changed all that. Latent Russian interest turned intensely active, particularly in countries with fellow Orthodox Christian populations such as Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. Indeed, Americans fuming over Russia’s involvement in U.S. elections should think about how Montenegro’s longtime, Western-oriented leader, Milo Djukanovic, feels; there is strong and widely accepted evidence that pro-Russian nationalists mounted an assassination attempt against him in the wake of last October’s elections.
Their plan was to use a scheduled protest against Djukanovic as a cover for pro-Russian Serb nationalists, dressed and armed as fake Montenegrin police, to shoot at the crowd. In the ensuing confusion, pro-Russian putschists would seize control of the Parliament and arrest or kill Djukanovic. According to the Montenegrin special state prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, the main goal of this plot was to “stop Montenegro on its Euro-Atlantic path, specifically to prevent it from becoming a NATO member. This was their first mission.”
Putin has a constellation of proxies in the Balkans and a growing ability to use them to frustrate the region’s integration into the West.
Just as in the charge of meddling in the U.S. election, the Kremlin has strongly denied any involvement in the Montenegro events. And, as in Ukraine, Moscow relies on local proxies, such as the recently established “Cossack Army” and the infamous “Night Wolves,” who offer plausible deniability. In mid-September, one of the ringleaders of the plot was arrested. In return for protected witness status, he told prosecutors of his several visits to Moscow and revealed contacts with Russian nationalists who gave him money and high-end equipment to recruit pro-Russian Serbian nationalists for the coup. His story corroborated earlier reports that in the aftermath of the failed plot, two Russian spies were expelled from Serbia, prompting a sudden visit to Belgrade by Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council.
Serbia, the region’s largest country, is itself torn between those who want to implement Western-prescribed reforms and join the European Union, including the country’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, and those who revere Russia, including the country’s president, Tomislav Nikolic. Although Vucic remains committed to the EU agenda, and his government remains popular, a reckoning may eventually come. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of the population favored strong relations with Russia over better ties with the West.
Along with the traditional links and pressure points through Russian and Serbian Orthodox Churches, Russia has established the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Nis, which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has acknowledged is, in the eyes of the EU, simply “a spies’ nest and a security threat.” Serbian media, which is under severe financial pressure, has become reliant on the news from omnipresent Russian propagandistic media outlets such as Sputnik and RT. Consequently, the Serbian public gets a daily dose of news denigrating democratic values; depicting the imminent collapse of the EU, United States, and NATO; and glorifying the rise of Russia, China, and other contenders.
Macedonia, another Orthodox-majority country, has also increasingly fallen prey to Russian influence. Ignored for years, Macedonia is now a frequent topic of public commentary among senior Russian leadership, including Lavrov. The country has suffered through two years of political crisis over wiretaps revealing outrageous conduct by an increasingly autocratic government. Although the United States and Europe have pressured the country’s leader, Nikola Gruevski, who officially stepped down in January 2016 but has held on to the reins of power, to redress opposition concerns and hold new elections, Russia has played the apologist for Gruevski and his cohorts. The country’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, a member of Gruevski’s party, has followed the growing parade of Balkan politicians who have made high-profile visits to Moscow. Recent elections have granted Gruevski the narrowest of victories, making him all the more eager for Russian support.
Neighboring Bulgaria, although not a former Yugoslav country, has deep, complicated ties with Macedonia, as well as a traditionally close relationship with Russia. And once again, Russia has a close ally in Russophile President-elect Rumen Radev, who has pledged to improve ties with Moscow. On its east, Bulgaria borders Turkey, a country ruled by the increasingly dictatorial Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s relations with Russia, complicated by the war in Syria and the recent assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, may be converging in the Balkans. Like Russia, Turkey has strong interests in the Balkans, albeit in the countries and areas where Islam is prevalent, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and the region of Sandzak, which connects Montenegro and Serbia. And like Putin, Erdogan has become increasingly dubious of the region’s once inexorable advance toward NATO and EU membership—a radical shift from Turkey’s former role as champion of the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Balkans. What was once a region of sharp competition between Ankara and Moscow may be moving to mutual accommodation over relative “spheres of influence.”
Finally, Bosnia’s Serb strongman Milorad Dodik—once thought to be a moderate reformer by the West—has rapidly become a wholly owned Putin subsidiary. All told, Putin has a constellation of proxies in the Balkans and a growing ability and incentive to use them to frustrate the region’s integration into the West.
Even since Europe’s moral and political collapse in the Balkans during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, it is Washington that has supplied the spine—and at crucial times, the fist—in bringing conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia to an end. Under the Obama administration and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, the United States has steadily diminished its posture in favor of European leadership. But Washington has never abandoned the region entirely to Brussels or any European capitals, and none of them, not even Berlin, have anything like the credibility that Washington enjoys with all of the region's leaders. The election of a pro-Putin U.S. president has shaken all those in the region who embrace Western values and has emboldened the autocrats and their supporters who have an affinity with Russia.
So next month, all eyes in the region will be on the U.S. Senate to see if Montenegro’s NATO accession goes through. Putin, in particular, will be watching closely.