CGI Asks: Will NATO-Russia Tensions Rise After Montenegro Invitation?

December 9, 2015

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question on the latest developments affecting Russia and Eurasia. This time, we ask whether the NATO alliance’s recent decision to invite Montenegro to begin accession talks risks escalating tensions with Russia.

Sharyl CrossSharyl Cross, Global Policy Fellow, Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The collective decision of the NATO Alliance on Wednesday to extend an invitation to Montenegro to begin accession talks toward NATO membership represents formal recognition of Montenegro’s accomplishments in fulfilling a range of demanding reforms and requirements for membership over the past decade. Montenegro’s membership in the Alliance is not about attempting to provoke Russia or to counter or undermine Russia’s interests. Although the “historic” decision comes at a time of high tension for the NATO-Russia relationship, the invitation results from the culmination of a process that was initiated long before the crisis in Ukraine, tensions over Syria and NATO member Turkey’s downing of the Russian aircraft.

Russia’s security would by no means be diminished as a result of Montenegro’s membership in NATO. However, NATO membership should contribute significantly to security in Montenegro and the wider, historically war-torn Balkan region. Read full response >>

Adam ReichardtAdam Reichardt, Editor-In-Chief, New Eastern Europe


NATO-Russia tensions will rise after inviting Montengro to join the Alliance. However, tensions are already quite high following the Ukraine crisis and especially the illegal annexation of Crimea. We also have to realize that for Russia, NATO is its permanent enemy, especially when it comes to its internal propaganda. So any enlargement by NATO will be seen as a provocation for Russia.

But this does not mean that NATO should adjust its policies to be sensitive to Russia. Russia did not think twice when wanting to establish permanent military bases in Belarus, whose neighbors are in NATO. And Russia uses its territory of Kaliningrad to continue a military buildup on NATO’s borders. In fact, Kaliningrad is now the most militarized region in Europe. Hence, NATO has a right to expand the Alliance as it sees necessary without consulting Russia.

What’s more, due to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Russia-NATO Founding Act is in serious jeopardy with voices such as Poland advocating for its annulment. This will most likely be big topic, among others, for discussion during the 2016 July NATO summit in Warsaw. Nevertheless NATO expansion should not be seen only from the prism of provocation but rather it should be seen as strengthening the deterrent to threats facing the region, which in some cases include Russia.

kevin yrianBG Kevin Ryan, Director of Defense and Intelligence Projects, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center; organizer of the Elbe Group

NATO does not need to worry about the effect of Montenegrin accession on relations with Russia; NATO needs to worry about the effect on relations within the alliance. Montenegro, a largely Slavic state with close ties to Russia, could become Moscow’s inside man at the NATO table.

Montenegro was the last Yugoslav Republic to break from Serbia and it remains today culturally and religiously close to the larger Slavic community of nations. Over 90% of Montenegro’s population is ethnically Slavic.  They are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian (74%).  With a population of about 650,000 people, Montenegro is host to 70,000 Russian vacation homes. Polls indicate that Montenegro’s people are evenly split over joining NATO, with 36.5 percent in favor and 36.2 opposed.

The country’s pro-NATO stand has largely been pushed forward by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who with his Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, has essentially ruled Montenegro since 1991. But, it is not hard to imagine a situation where an opposition party might someday take power.  NATO’s policy of requiring unanimous support by all members for key decisions could backfire in such a case – with tiny Montenegro blocking NATO actions against an aggressive Russia. Beware what we wish for NATO in this holiday season. We might get it.

The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.