The last piece of real estate on the Adriatic and the only northern part of the Mediterranean Sea, that did not belong to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was Montenegro. On June 5th, the former Balkan republic of Yugoslavia, became the 29th member of the Western military alliance, over Russian objections and internal political controversy.
Montenegro is still the most current, newest fully recognized country in the world. Independence came in June 2006, after a referendum the preceding month.
The nation was part of Yugoslavia since 1918, when it had been incorporated into that political configuration, following the First World War. Before that, it had been nominally independent, since it had formally been recognized as a country in 1878. This was after it had separated from the Ottoman Empire.
When the larger Yugoslavia broke up in 1992 during a civil war, the republics of Montenegro and Serbia established a loose federation, known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The two constituent republics functioned separately, through the brief period of unity. The only real exception, was in defense. They had two individual economic policies and used different currencies. Montenegro had already adopted the Euro, for greater financial stability.
In 2003, the last two republics of the former Yugoslavia became the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. Three years later, the unity would end by a declaration of independence by both republics.
Since 2011, Montenegro has been negotiating for accession into the European Union. The ruling Democratic Party of Socialists in power since 1991, has made it a foreign policy priority along with joining NATO.
Last October, a political coup was thwarted. It had been organized by 20 people, including both Serbian and Russian nationalists. It ended up being a turning point, in the view of many influential citizens of Montenegro in their attitude towards Russia.
The attempted overthrown of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, a major force behind the bid for joining NATO, was the main target.
The Montenegrin government claims, that the former Prime Minster had been marked, so the opposition could be brought to power. This was to be achieved by a seizure of the Parliament building and then the subsequent assassination of Djukanovic.
The Putin controlled government of Russia, denies any involvement. Djukanovic insisted he merely wanted to steer the country, towards greater stability for all citizens of the country, foreign investors and numerous tourists as well.
The pro-Russian opposition party the Democratic Front, whose top leadership were indicted over planning the coup, insists the further alignment of Montenegro to the West is a grave mistake.
Montenegro has been caught up in the ongoing struggle, between Russia and the European Union. The tiny country of around 645,000, had once been a stronghold of pro-Russian sentiments. Some 15,000 Russians permanently reside in Montenegro.
Around 80,000 Russians still own property in Montenegro.
The foreign policy of Russia was based on maintaining the extensive influence, it once had in the Balkans. The strong cultural and political influence the Russians had developed historically in Montenegro, had made this Slavic nation a special zone of interest.
Montenegro as a member nation of NATO, further reduces Russia’s strategic influence in southeastern Europe. It denies Russia the possibility of a warm sea port, beyond the naval facility at Tartus in Syria.
The neighboring countries of Albania and Croatia, had already joined NATO in 2009.
Montenegro has been moving ever closer to the West, in recent years. This was after observing the stationing of Russian troops in Moldova to the east, and the advance into Georgia, by Russian forces during the 2008 war in the Caucasus.
The take over and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, alarmed some Montenegrin officials. In response,the government issued a statement condemning the blatant violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and the aggression of Russian armed forces.
The further destabilizing of Ukraine, through Russian intervention in eastern portions of that country, caused further concern in Montenegro. The ongoing civil war in eastern Ukraine Montenegrin officials claim, can be directly attributed to the subversive support of the Russian government.
The escalating interference that Russia is exhibiting in the region, provided further impetus by Montenegrin officials,to more fully integrate their country with Western institutions. If there is to be a second Cold War, the pro-Western government, wants to firmly entrench the country in NATO.
Article 5 of the NATO charter, where an attack on one nation in the alliance is an attack on the entire bloc, gives Montenegro greater security against a militarily resurgent Russia.
As the Montenegrin government moved closer towards NATO membership in 2014, Russia began to threaten the country. Mikhail Degtyarev a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia in the Russian legislature, warned that belonging to NATO, would make Montenegro a legitimate target of Russian missiles.
Montenegro joined the European Union sanctions that were enacted against Russia, already in 2014.
Both Croatia and Slovenia had wanted an early admission of Montenegro into NATO, since the accession would garner them greater security, given their close geographic proximity.
The events in Crimea and later eastern Ukraine, added to the sense of urgency by a number of Eastern European nations.
There was however, concerns among some NATO members including the United States, that further Eastern expansion, would bring about Russian retaliation. New security arrangements with countries that were either former allies of Russia or close to their borders, would needlessly further antagonize the government in Moscow.
Even more blatant to Russia, was the addition of the three former Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to NATO. These three countries had been constituent parts of the former Soviet Union, which Russia had dominated.
Other nations in NATO argued that the military alliance should of moved quicker to incorporate nations like Georgia and Ukraine, before the revitalization of Russian power. In other words, a historic opportunity had been missed.
The formal invitation to join finally arrived in December of 2015, despite strong Russian opposition.
Inside Montenegro, pro-Russian opposition parties argued that a referendum on NATO membership should be held simultaneously, to parliamentary elections in October 2016.
The pro-Western government in power ahead of the elections, instead believed that the vote was a de facto plebiscite on the issue. The Montenegrin electorate they insisted, knew if the ruling government won re-election, that NATO membership would likely be the result in 2017.
Russia has continued to threaten Montenegro with economic and political retaliation.
The Russian government began a campaign to undermine the Montenegrin tourist industry, which is heavily dependent on visitors from Russia. It has banned the importation of Montenegrin wine as well.
A Montenegrin official from the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists was even detained.
Last week, as the new Prime Minister Dusko Markovic visited the United States, to mark the accession to NATO, Russia continued to warn of retaliation against the country’s hostile course and condemned Montenegro’s anti-Russian hysteria.
As further evidence of deteriorating relations between Montenegro and their neighbor to the east, two Russians have been indicted with being responsible for the coup attempt, in an effort in preventing Montenegro from joining NATO.
Eduard Sismakov and Valdimir Popov along with 12 other people, were charged with various offenses, including terrorism and for performing acts against the constitutional order of Montenegro.
Montenegrin authorities insist that Sismakov and Popov are members of Russian military intelligence. They both have returned to Russia, ahead of the legal proceedings.
There is little doubt, the eastward extension of NATO, will further antagonize the Russian government.
At the same time it is quite understandable, why additional nations in the region, would like to join the Western military alliance. It is a safeguard for their present and future security. Montenegro is the most recent example of this reality.
It is also quite revealing, that Georgia and the Ukraine have already taken steps in the same direction. These two nations both former republics of the Soviet Union, have already been victims of a expansionist Russian foreign policy.
Both Georgia and Ukraine have been somewhat rebuffed by Western officials, because they no longer have clearly defined political borders. A situation that Russia undoubtedly knew, would complicate any future membership in NATO.