The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to admit the small Balkan nation of Montenegro to the NATO military alliance, in what is seen as a crucial step in pushing back against Russian meddling in Eastern Europe.
The vote, 97-2, now sends the defense treaty to President Donald Trump, whose top aides have expressed strong support for the move over fierce objections from the Kremlin.
The treaty was originally expected to be ratified during the final days of the Obama administration. But the vote was delayed by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
The two were the only senators to vote against the treaty.
“I don’t see how the accession of Montenegro, a country with a population smaller than most congressional districts, and a military smaller than the police force of the District of Columbia, is beneficial enough that we should share an agreement for collective defense,” Lee said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
The vast majority of their colleagues, however, see the further expansion of the Western military alliance as a means to deter more destabilizing moves such as Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
If approved by the full alliance and Montenegro’s parliament, all of NATO’s current 28 members would be pledged to come to the country’s aid if it is invaded.
Only Spain has yet to approve Montenegro’s membership.
“I want to send a clear signal to our friends in Montenegro and to the Russians about how we feel,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a major supporter of Montenegro’s membership, said recently.
Russia opposes the move and is suspected of fomenting an attempted coup in Montenegro last October.
“The Russian attitude to the further eastward enlargement of NATO is well-known, this attitude is negative,” Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said last month.
Paul’s efforts to stall the vote sparked strong emotions. Earlier this month Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accused him of “working for Vladimir Putin.”
“You are achieving the objectives of trying to dismember this small country, which has already been the subject of an attempted coup,” McCain said on the Senate floor.
Although some White House officials reportedly oppose NATO expansion, Trump is widely expected to sign the treaty upon the advice of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Trump could refuse to sign the treaty but rejecting a measure with nearly unanimous bipartisan support would come at a high political cost.
Montenegro has spent over seven years applying for NATO membership. But NATO membership is a highly controversial issue in Montenegro. An opinion poll conducted in December 2016 has only 39.5 percent of Montenegrins in favor of NATO membership and 39.7 against. Other opinion polls have suggested similar margins.
Russia has taken advantage of this division and is accused of bankrolling Montenegro’s Democratic Front, a stridently anti-NATO party that won 20 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections.
An investigation by Montenegro’s special prosecutor resulted in a formal accusation that Russia had been involved in a “coup attempt” back in October. According to the Balkan country’s foreign minister, the U.S. and the U.K. provided substantial help in discovering and confirming Russia’s role.
By: Andrew Hanna