A recent debate about Montenegro’s NATO membership has put the spotlight on this Western Balkan country. But it is not the first time that it has been at the centre of political debate and international attention. A recent study by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) focuses on the interest of the Kremlin in Montenegro, and on how several well-known influence tactics, among them disinformation, have been applied by Russia during the last couple of years in an attempt to gain influence in the country.
The report concludes that, despite the fact that Russian efforts to hinder Montenegro’s NATO accession ultimately failed, the attentions continue with a new strategy, specifically; “stoking political and ethnic divisions to destabilize Montenegro and preclude further Western integration.”
To this end, disinformation about NATO has been spread by Russian officials, narratives familiar to those regularly following Russian disinformation, namely describing Montenegro joining NATO as a provocation (a word often used in Russian disinformation narratives) against Russia as well as responding with threatening remarks, also something we have seen before.
With regard to Russian interference in Montenegro’s domestic decision-making, the study also reports how Russian agents are currently being tried in Montenegro by a Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime for their involvement in an attempted coup d’état in 2016. Both Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU) and its Federal Security Service (FSB) are thought to have been behind the planning. The goal would have been to instigate political violence with the hope of triggering nationwide protests and toppling the government led by Milo Djukanovic. Montenegrin authorities, however, successfully prevented the coup attempt.
Montenegro is not the only country in the region where Russian influence techniques have recently been put under the spotlight. Recently, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats on the accusation of stirring up popular protests in order to stop the conclusion of a long awaited deal between Greece and its neighbour The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on the official name of the latter country. If the Western Balkan country changes its name in agreement with Greece to the Republic of North Macedonia, this facilitates a path towards both EU and NATO membership.
In his interview with US President Donald J. Trump, Tucker Carlson of Fox News asked why the United States should come to the defense of Montenegro, a tiny country in the Western Balkans with a population the size of Washington, D.C., that is a NATO ally.
It’s a perfectly reasonable question, with a good answer.
Montenegro is a proud nation with a proud people, who have proven strong and resilient throughout their difficult history. They will defend their nation and now our alliance. And we are all stronger – including the nations of the Balkans, including Americans – for having Montenegro in NATO.
Despite geopolitical pressures, Montenegro opted to anchor its future with the West. Its forces serve shoulder to shoulder with ours in Afghanistan. They have kept the peace in Liberia, Cyprus, and Somalia. As an ally, Montenegro aligns with the United States on tough issues whether sanctions against Russia, expelling a Russian diplomat after the Skripal case, or casting tough votes in the United Nations. Montenegro plays a stabilizing role in its region, getting along well with all of its neighbors.
We are proud to have Montenegro as an ally and we know our Alliance is stronger as a result.
A quarter century ago, the Western Balkans was a region defined by devastating war and brutal ethnic cleansing. The instability in that region threatened the wider European continent and spurred costly military action by NATO allies and the United States to stop the crisis. Today, thanks to the prospect of NATO and European Union membership, the region’s outlook has never been better.
Take for example the case of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), soon to be enshrined as the Republic of North Macedonia and the recipient of an invitation to start NATO accession talks just last week. After a nearly twenty-seven-year dispute over FYROM’s name, the Macedonian and Greek prime ministers reached an agreement in June that will normalize relations between the two countries and eliminate the risk of conflict between them as they become allies. The prospect of NATO membership and full integration into the Western community made this possible.
Just minutes after NATO’s invitation was announced, I interviewed Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev at NATO Engages, a conference co-hosted by the Atlantic Council on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Brussels on July 11. He said that the negotiations with Greece were tough, but that his citizens “believe so much in our integration in NATO and in parallel in the European Union, that we will have a new friend, our southern neighbor.”
The prospect of NATO enlargement to Montenegro and other Western Balkan nations helped to prevent further conflict in this region and contributed to the peaceful transition to independence for Montenegro in 2006 and its recognition of the Republic of Kosovo in 2008. This is the biggest benefit the United States gets from bringing Montenegro into the family—the promise that the United States will never again have to intervene to stop a regional conflict in the Balkans. Given where the region was just two decades ago, this is a tremendous achievement.
NATO’s eastern enlargement is also key to containing potential Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. In the Western Balkans, the Kremlin has used political intimidation, economic coercion, and covert operations as a means to sow chaos, disrupt political and economic reforms, and prevent NATO and EU enlargement. In 2014, NATO foreign ministers discussed potential enlargement to Montenegro, but decided to punt on the decision due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and a desire not to provoke Moscow further. This ambivalence, rather than preventing further Russian aggression, gave Russia an opportunity to pounce.
In October 2016, Russian GRU intelligence agents orchestrated an attempted coup in Montenegro to try to install an anti-NATO government. They planned to pose as Montenegrin security officers, open fire on opposition supporters, and assassinate the prime minister. Although the plot failed, it demonstrated Moscow’s ability to reach its hand into the Balkans when NATO wasn’t looking. Despite Russian efforts, Montenegro officially joined NATO as the Alliance’s twenty-ninth member on June 5, 2017.