On 7 June, NATO welcomed Montenegro as its newest member with a flag-raising ceremony at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. “NATO is an alliance of democracies, united by a single purpose: to stand with each other and defend each other,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, calling it a historic day. “Montenegro’s accession sends a message to other states that seek membership: that if a country travels the path of reform, embraces democracy and the rule of law and proves itself willing to and able to contribute to our collective defense, sharing the responsibilities as well as the rewards, then it, too, can join the alliance.” Montenegro’s entry into NATO is significant for Russia given the two nations’ historic, cultural and religious ties.

Yet the move comes at a time of heightened regional competition between the West and Russia, and increasing tensions generally. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on 6 June that Montenegro was “dragged into NATO.” In an official statement, his ministry said Moscow reserves the right to take “retaliatory measures” against what it called “anti-Russian hysteria” in Montenegro, where officials have charged 14 people linked to an alleged Russian-backed plot to take over parliament last October and assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in a bid to keep Montenegro out of NATO. Russian propaganda mouthpieces RT International and Sputnik assured website visitors that Montenegro’s NATO membership was opposed by most of its people, would not make the country secure and was a cover masking its economic problems.

Russia’s active Balkan policy reflects its goal of hampering the integration of the Balkan states with the Euroatlantic structures and maintaining an area of instability and frozen conflicts in the EU’s near neighborhood. That policy is increasingly effective thanks to diminishing support in the EU for Balkan integration with the 28-member bloc. Moscow is also engaged in the region because it views having the preponderance of the Balkans as a way to exert control over energy supply routes leading to Europe, strengthening its dominant position in Europe’s energy sector.  

However, Serbia—not Montenegro—is the centerpiece of Kremlin strategy. In March, Russia and Serbia announced increased defense cooperation as well as an arms deal, despite widespread speculation that Belgrade will finish negotiations for EU membership in 2019. In fact, the day after Montenegro’s accession to NATO, Russia, Serbia and Belarus held “Slavic Brotherhood 2017”—a  joint military exercises—on the Belarusian border near Poland. Russia also has a strong position in Serbia thanks to Serbia’s strong dependence on Russian natural resources. Traditional pro-Russian attitudes have been strengthened as a result of a series of Russia-inspired, wide-ranging soft power initiatives that have proved so successful that a large part of society has begun to believe that Russia’s interests are consistent with those of Serbia.

In neighboring Macedonia, according to files obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and disclosed last week, Russian spies and diplomats long have been involved in an effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord. In fact, Moscow has been seeking to step up its influence across the former Yugoslavia for many years; the leaked documents note that Russian and Serbian soft-power efforts to push Macedonia away from the West have contributed to the former Yugoslav republic’s long-running political and ethnic crisis. In addition, Russia has drastically stepped up its cultural outreach in Macedonia, the documents reveal, pushing its idea of “pan-Slavic” identity and shared Orthodox Christian faith. Its embassy has overseen the creation of roughly 30 Macedonia-Russia “friendship associations,” opened a Russian cultural center in Skopje and built Orthodox crosses and Russian-style churches across the country.