Russia fumes over Nato invitation to Montenegro

Financial Times, 2.12.2015.

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Nato on Wednesday invited Montenegro to join the north Atlantic military alliance, defying opposition from Moscow, which threatened unspecified retaliation.

The invitation is Nato’s first enlargement for six years and a remarkable role reversal for the 620,000-strong republic that, together with Serbia as part of the rump Yugoslavia, endured Nato bombing strikes during the 1999 Kosovo war.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, cast the invitation as “reaffirming the open door policy of Nato” and moving a step closer towards a Europe “that is whole, free and at peace”.

Responding to Moscow’s warnings that it would view the move as a provocation, Mr Kerry said Nato was a defensive alliance that was “not a threat to anybody”.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, said the decision to invite Montenegro was “not directed against Russia”.

“It is important to underline that fundamental principle that every nation has the sovereign right to decide its own path, including security arrangements it wants to be part of,” Mr Stoltenberg said.

Moscow has portrayed Nato enlargement into former communist eastern Europe as a threat to Russia that brings a “hostile alliance” right to its borders.

Russia’s foreign ministry late on Wednesday called the Nato move an “openly confrontational step, fraught with further destabilising consequences for the Euro-Atlantic security system”.

It said the alliance, instead of focusing on joint steps to combat proliferating threats, had “once again confirmed the immutability of its commitment to reckless expansion of its geopolitical space, artificial division of states into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and promoting ideas about its own security at the expense of the security of others”.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in east Ukraine in the wake of Kiev’s pro-western revolution last year were seen as partly aimed at preventing its biggest Slavic neighbour from joining the north Atlantic alliance.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said on Wednesday that Montenegro’s inclusion in the alliance would not go unanswered by Russia, but said it was too early to be specific.

“Moscow has always said that the continued expansion of Nato, of Nato military infrastructure in the east, cannot but lead to a response from the east, that is from Russia,” he said.

Viktor Ozerov, head of the committee on defence and security in Russia’s upper house, said many joint projects with Montenegro, including military-technical co-operation, would cease.

“For Russia, Montenegro is becoming a potential participant in а threat to the security of our country,” he said.

Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s prime minister, has portrayed his government’s bid to join the alliance as an opportunity to assert autonomy from Serbia — after citizens voted for independence in 2006 — and safeguard security.

“Montenegro is entering the exclusive circle of states which are synonymous with the highest values of modern civilisation,” he told a reception.

But in recent weeks, memories of civilian casualties during Nato’s 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslav army targets saw thousands take to the streets of the capital Podgorica in occasionally violent anti-Nato demonstrations.

“These rallies were fairly small and were stirred up by nationalists, Russian elements and parts of the Serbian Orthodox church, who all view Montenegrin independence as a temporary project,” said Jelena Milic, director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, who said Moscow had been vocal in supporting the rallies.

Russia was the second-largest source of foreign investment in Montenegro for much of the 2000s, as Russians bought up properties along the country’s Adriatic coast. But declining oil prices and western sanctions have hit inward Russian real estate investment hard.

One Nato insider said Montenegro had worked hard on meeting the alliance’s requirements, including steps to make its intelligence services independent and fight corruption.

A warning in September by Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, that further Nato expansion would be a “a mistake, even a provocation” had only strengthened resolve to accept the ex-Yugoslav republic, the insider said.

The debate was more difficult over Georgia, which has been pushing, without success, to be put on a formal track to membership. Some European members warn Nato could not defend the ex-Soviet republic in any conflict with Russia.

Mr Stoltenberg said the alliance was preparing a statement offering “renewed commitments to our strong support of Georgia’s aspiration for Nato membership”.