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As Sanctions Bill Stalls, Lawmakers Highlight Russian Interference in Montenegro

Russia staged a failed coup in the small republic. Lawmakers worry they will try again.

By , a freelance journalist and was a 2019-2020 Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Japan Times.
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11:  Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (R-RI) listen to testimony during the confirmation hearing for Richard Spencer in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. Spencer was nominated by President Donald Trump to be the 76th secretary of the U.S. Navy.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (R-RI) listen to testimony during the confirmation hearing for Richard Spencer in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. Spencer was nominated by President Donald Trump to be the 76th secretary of the U.S. Navy. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (R-RI) listen to testimony during the confirmation hearing for Richard Spencer in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. Spencer was nominated by President Donald Trump to be the 76th secretary of the U.S. Navy. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Amid a continuing debate over a bill to tighten sanctions on Russia, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are looking to highlight Kremlin-inspired mischief around the world.

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing Thursday on last year’s attempted coup in Montenegro, accusing Moscow of being behind the plot. The United States can no longer look at Russia through “the warped lens of politics,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s chairman. “We must take our own side in this fight. Not as Republicans and Democrats.”

Montenegro, a country of less than 700,000 people, decided in 2015 to join NATO. The following year, a small group of operatives led an attempted coup, which was later blamed on the Russian government.

Amid a continuing debate over a bill to tighten sanctions on Russia, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are looking to highlight Kremlin-inspired mischief around the world.

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing Thursday on last year’s attempted coup in Montenegro, accusing Moscow of being behind the plot. The United States can no longer look at Russia through “the warped lens of politics,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s chairman. “We must take our own side in this fight. Not as Republicans and Democrats.”

Montenegro, a country of less than 700,000 people, decided in 2015 to join NATO. The following year, a small group of operatives led an attempted coup, which was later blamed on the Russian government.

“As NATO ministers failed to reach consensus on Montenegro that tumultuous summer, Moscow saw an opening,” Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, told lawmakers. “NATO had blinked.”

The Montenegro coup was Russia’s plan B, according to Wilson. Plan A was for Russia to tip the balance of the elections with anti-NATO propaganda, the Serbian Orthodox church, telecommunications, and the media. When that didn’t work, Russia attempted to overthrow the government.  

The plot failed, however, and Montenegro officially joined NATO this year. The small country’s membership gained attention in May, when President Donald Trump appeared to push Montenegro’s prime minister out of the way at a photoshoot during the NATO summit.

Russia’s alleged role in the coup is just more evidence of how Russia can undermine NATO, Lisa Sawyer Samp, a senior fellow at the International Security Program, told the panel. “Putin can get a lot done without declaring war with the West,” she said.

Moscow’s next conspiracy is likely to be more sophisticated, she warned. “It’s not the enemy at the gates,” she said. “It’s the enemy in your pocket.”

The hearing comes on the heels of a congressional stalemate over tightening sanctions against Russia. The bill passed the Senate last month, but has been languishing in the House.

Samp, like other witnesses, argued for firm action against Russia.

“I think that the House should take immediate action to pass the bill, as is. I think any effort to water it down or delay it should be considered a dereliction of duty on their part,” said Samp.

But economic pressure may not be enough. “Sanctions should be part of a strategy rather than the strategy,” Wilson, of the Atlantic Council, said. 

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jesse Chase-Lubitz is a freelance journalist and was a 2019-2020 Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Japan Times. Twitter: @jesschaselubitz

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