By Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou, Coordinator, IISS Defence and Military Analysis Programme
On 5 June 2017, Montenegro formally joined the NATO Alliance, as its instrument of accession to the North Atlantic Treaty was formally deposited with the US State Department. A flag-raising ceremony took place at NATO headquarters today to mark this historic event.
The completion of Montenegro’s Protocol of Accession to NATO in May, setting the small Balkan country to become the 29th member of the military alliance, was easily missed amid ongoing debates about the wisdom and implications of NATO’s 2% of GDP defence-spending goals and uncertainty about US President Donald Trump’s commitment to NATO’s Article V collective-defence guarantee. But Montenegro’s membership, while militarily of little significance, sends an important political message: NATO’s door remains open.
Montenegro’s population is smaller than that of Washington DC and Podgorica’s reform and professionalisation of the country’s armed forces has so far been slow, with only a small part of its defence budget being spent on modernisation. Its armed forces currently consist of 1,950 active military personnel and some 10,000 paramilitary personnel (see The Military Balance 2017). Yet inviting Montenegro in makes strategic sense for NATO.
The open-door policy
The North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 10 states that any European state ’in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area‘ can be invited to join the Alliance. Indeed, NATO’s open-door policy has been one of the cornerstones of the Euro-Atlantic security order, but it has always been a means to an end. The first two rounds of enlargement in 1952 and 1955, bringing in first Greece and Turkey and then West Germany, were driven by a desire to add capability and personnel numbers for the effective defence of NATO territory in the context of the unfolding confrontation with the Soviet Union. Spain’s accession in 1982 was in part motivated by the desire to help stabilise a nascent democracy. The enlargement of the Alliance to include Central and Eastern European states from 1999 followed a predominantly transformational and integrationist agenda.
Given Montenegro’s location and geopolitical status, and NATO’s repeated pledges of integration since the end of the Yugoslav war, it is not difficult to argue that Montenegro falls into the latter category. Indeed, Podgorica’s accession conforms to the path of enlargement pursued by NATO in the past. And although the prevailing security environment has changed, the motivation for enhancing the Alliance – to contribute to European security – remains.
Figure 1. Montenegro in Europe (Source: Military Balance+)
Assessing the effects
Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion is well documented. Moscow has accused Western governments of looking to ‘reign’ over Europe, attributing the strained relations between the Kremlin, the US and Europe on NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement policy. While even Moscow would be unlikely to argue that Montenegro’s accession alters the balance of power in a significant way, it might interpret the timing and geographical location of the latest NATO enlargement as further evidence for the West’s attempt to encircle and isolate Russia.
NATO’s decision to deploy 4,000 troops to the Baltic region as part of its Enhanced Forward Presence and its positioning in Norway, the Balkans and the Arctic is viewed by Russia as ’a demonstration of the forceful advance of its interests’. The Alliance’s expanding presence in the Balkans delivers a blow to Moscow’s long-term aim of keeping the former Yugoslav states distant from Western institutions. Some Western observers have suggested that NATO’s open-door policy could escalate current tensions.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has argued that NATO is following ’a course of projecting its power by bringing more and more states into its orbit’, noting that ’the recent decision to make Montenegro an alliance member is the latest proof of that. Podgorica’s military potential is close to zero, but its geographical locations allows [the alliance] to strengthen control over the Balkans.’ What is also likely to irritate Shoigu is that Montenegro’s accession sends a strong signal that NATO membership remains on the table not only for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also for Georgia and Ukraine.
Enlargement makes NATO a more heterogeneous organisation, in which decision-making could be further complicated and military interoperability difficult to maintain; yet despite these challenges, and Russian opposition, NATO leaders have decided that the freedom of sovereign states to choose their allies is worth asserting.