Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Montenegro_sm_2015Last week, Montenegro, that tiny mountainous country, population of about 662,000 on the Adriatic Coast between Bosnia and Albania, was invited to join NATO. The invitation had been nine years in the making. (Montenegro map 2015 from Perry-Castenada map collection.)

 Whereupon the Kremlin threw a hissy-fit.

As a result of the invitation to Montenegro, NATO – from Moscow’s viewpoint – was supposedly somehow continuing its encirclement of the Russian Federation and once again encroaching further into Russia’s sphere of influence. However, the Kremlin’s faithful propaganda mouthpiece RT mentioned none of this.

Rather – it claimed that Russia’s opposition to Montenegrin membership was in support of a sizeable part of the Montenegrin population (37% opposed, 36% in favor and 26% with no opinion) who had responded to an opinion poll (taken in July 2015) regarding support or opposition to NATO membership. Russia furthermore objected to the fact that Montenegro’s NATO membership would likely not be put to a popular referendum but rather only voted upon, and presumably approved, by Montenegro’s pro-NATO parliament. This, by the way was the only poll referenced or linked to by RT although the “news” organization claimed that there had been several.

It’s as if Vladimir Putin had never looked at a map of Europe or perhaps even knew Montenegro’s size or location. Ever since this outsized reaction, I’ve been puzzling as to why the Kremlin should care whether NATO offers membership to a “mouse that roared” – especially one that should be of no consequence to almost anyone – except for possible smugglers and gun runners surreptitiously moving contraband and perhaps humans across the Adriatic to Italy or travel agencies bringing Europeans to its spectacular coast on holidays.

The closest I can come to an answer – besides the well-known argument that the Russian Federation somehow thinks that not getting along with NATO is better for the country than working with NATO – is that Montenegro was one of the last parts of Yugoslavia to separate from the rump state of Serbia; that its multi-religious population includes a substantial Serbian minority (28.7%); and that Russia and Serbia still seem to retain a special relationship with Russia acting as the protector of the latter.

Any port in a storm?

Kotor_bay_map_bigOr could it possibly be that the Kremlin is looking at the Bay of Kotor (see map left) as a fallback position for a port on the Mediterranean if it loses out in its support for Assad in Syria and needs to move its naval repair and supply station elsewhere? Serbia, after all, lost its only port after Montenegro voted to secede in 2006 so the Russians can’t fall back on a now landlocked Serbia for an outpost on the Mediterranean. This all seems pretty far fetched – but any port in a storm as the saying goes – even if it’s only 28 kilometers wide, surrounded by mountains and sometimes described as a fjord.

But no, the Russian objection seems to be aligned with the fear that NATO’s open door policy could widen further to the East and is based on the predicate that it is better to protest admission of a country with little or no strategic importance to Russia now than somehow later find NATO, the NATO umbrella and its Article V commitment moved even closer to home.

306px-Percentages_AgreementYet, this tiny countrylet was never a part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union and even under the secret “Percentages Agreement” (scribbled on a half-sheet of paper by Churchill, passed to Stalin and back to Churchill in 1944) that casually proposed division of influence in the Balkans at the end of World War II, Yugoslavia was split 50-50 between West and East.

Opening the Barn Door – Again?

The most probable possible new NATO members that could matter to the Russians are Sweden, Finland and Georgia – all far more important to Russian strategic interests than tiny Montenegro. Although Georgian membership is a long way off if ever, Sweden and Finland could probably join tomorrow if they so chose. They are stable and wealthy democracies. Their military hardware is NATO compatible, and last spring, when Russia’s bullying of its Baltic and Nordic neighbors was at an all-time high these two EU countries signed cooperation agreements with the alliance – edging another step further towards formal NATO membership.  They were pushed further in NATO’s direction in reaction to the Kremlin’s Storm King approach to the neighborhood and in opposition to its hopes and dreams.

Not Mentioning the Unmentionable

The unmentionable country, however, is Ukraine. And presumably that’s the real question that neither Russia nor NATO are talking about.

In the meantime, Russia’s attention has moved on to focus on other – more important foreign policy issues like, well, Syria for instance. As Steven Coll so succinctly stated in The New Yorker on November 30, Putin’s approach to foreign policy is indeed improvisational.

Maybe he and his public affairs gurus in the Kremlin need to revisit some of the jazz greats – like Dave Brubeck – who really did do improvisational well.