A Russian Attack on Montenegro Could Mean the End of NATO

Trump doesn’t think the country is worth defending. Putin has already tried to destabilize it once—the West can’t let it happen again.

Montenegrin Army soldiers fire artillery look at the Montenegro flag during preparations on the eve of Independence day, on May 20, 2010 in Cetinje, Montenegro.
Montenegrin Army soldiers fire artillery look at the Montenegro flag during preparations on the eve of Independence day, on May 20, 2010 in Cetinje, Montenegro. (SAVO PRELEVIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has repeatedly outsmarted the West in recent years, managing to play a weaker hand with remarkable skill. Moscow has finely honed its skills in information warfare and hybrid warfare, relying on methods including pressure diplomacy, fake news, and foreign electoral intervention. Along the way, it has taken parts of Georgia and Ukraine by force and knocked both the United States and Britain down several pegs geopolitically.

Russia is not as powerful as it was in the Soviet era but, thanks to President Vladimir Putin’s strategic thinking, it is now regularly punching above its weight in global affairs. Russia is far more effective than China in kneecapping the West whenever it can, while constantly seeking and frequently finding ways to undermine it.

Most worryingly for the West, the coup de grâce could come in the Balkans, long the stage for Russian competition with the West. No one knows what Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to in their two-hour private meeting in Helsinki earlier this month. Trump may have handed Putin a list of key marginal congressional races in which he needs Russia to interfere. It’s more likely that they talked about NATO, Crimea, and Ukraine—and that Putin got what he wanted from Trump.

Indeed, Trump appears to be playing along with a Russian ploy that could shatter the NATO alliance by going after its newest member. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” the president told the Fox News host and Trump admirer Tucker Carlson, the day after meeting with Putin. “They have very aggressive people. And they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III,” he added. An armed Russian incursion in Montenegro—involving hybrid or traditional warfare—would give Trump an opportunity to make good on his word to Fox News and tell NATO allies that Washington will not honor Article 5 of the NATO treaty and join its allies in coming to Montenegro’s aid.

Without U.S. involvement in an operation by the NATO Response Force—NATO’s multinational high-readiness attack force—Europe would likely back off and not respond to a surprise assault. Russia’s attack would not occur via land-based forces, which would have to travel through multiple countries that lean Western. Instead, the attack would likely come by sea and air.

Such a scenario would do mortal damage to NATO, irrevocably splitting the alliance. Russia has already attempted a coup in Montenegro to prevent it from joining NATO in the first place, and more recently, developments in Macedonia have led to Russian intelligence agents from the FSB—the main successor to the KGB—deploying in order to attempt to foment unrest there, as well as in Greece, where two diplomats were just expelled for ginning up opposition to a Greek deal with Macedonia to change the latter’s name and put to rest a long-simmering dispute.

Although Russia will never attack U.S. or Western forces directly—the several hundred Russian mercenary soldiers killed by U.S. forces in Syria recently are a case in point—it actually doesn’t have to. Russia can mortally wound NATO without ever engaging its forces head-on. Not only are the FSB and GRU—Russia’s military intelligence unit—increasingly targeting the Balkans, but Russia has also now deployed the bulk of its most effective military forces on its western border.

Montenegro is NATO’s newest and, in many ways, its weakest member. Having only become independent from Serbia in 2006, its minuscule population of about 630,000 features armed forces that number only around 2,000. It is a small and peaceful country, the only one of the former Yugoslav republics that did not get caught up in the violent aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia.

However, even before it was independent and well before becoming a member of NATO, Montenegro was and continues to be a contributor to NATO forces in Afghanistan, making a significant contribution in per capita terms. In fact, at Washington’s request, Montenegro actually increased its deployment in Afghanistan in 2017. But Russia has been pressuring Montenegro for the past decade.

In 2017, after the Montenegrin Parliament voted in favor of joining NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the government had “ignored the voice of reason and conscience” and that Russia reserved “the right to take steps aimed at defending our interests and national security.” Russia rapidly banned imports of all Montenegrin wine and declared an advisory for Russians traveling there, while Putin’s spokesman threatened further “retaliatory actions.”

Montenegro holds Russia responsible for attempting to carry out a coup against the current president, Milo Djukanovic (when he was still prime minister), on election day in October 2016, accusing 14 individuals—Russian and Serbian nationalists, including two members of the GRU—of planning to attack state buildings and kill Djukanovic. Fittingly, it was Montenegro’s current prime minister, Dusko Markovic, whom Trump literally pushed out of his way in his first visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Montenegro has already joined the Council of Europe, as well as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The European Union is also seriously considering inviting it to join as a full-fledged member, which, along with its newfound NATO membership, is why Russia is so concerned. Moscow doesn’t want another pro-Western country in the geographical zone it defines as its “near abroad.”

In hindsight, it appears Russia’s assertiveness in the region goes all the way back to the aftermath of the Kosovo War in 1999, when, after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s capitulation to NATO, there was a surprising race between Russian and NATO forces to occupy an airfield on the outskirts of Pristina in Kosovo. Russia got there first, and a direct confrontation was narrowly avoided after high-level British and U.S. officials intervened.

With Russia resentful of NATO’s expansion, the next major inflection point came when it invaded NATO applicant Georgia in 2008. Senior U.S. officials, including former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, have publicly admitted it was a mistake not to respond to this incursion in a concrete manner. Russia still occupies part of Georgia to this day.

This was a turning point, allowing the Kremlin to conclude that it could challenge Western interests with minimal response, so long as it didn’t take the West on directly. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine occurred in response to the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 and the EU invitation for Ukraine to join it. Since then, Russia has engaged in hundreds of near-miss provocations of NATO forces in the air and at sea.

It also appears that Moscow successfully interfered in the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. election and poisoned a former Russian spy on British territory. Having already achieved this degree of damage to the West, it is possible Russia is now beginning to misjudge the NATO allies’ tolerance and is overplaying its hand.

The reason the Helsinki summit amounts to a full-blown national security crisis is that the Russians have announced they are moving forward on agreements made in the meeting, while top U.S. officials and military commanders remain totally in the dark. Hints from the Russian side suggest that a new referendum in eastern Ukraine, a Putin visit to Washington, and Syrian refugee resettlement were all discussed.

The real question is whether Trump is simply acting on his whims to harm U.S. national security interests or if strings are actually being pulled from Moscow. Already, during the 2016 campaign, Trump spoke on multiple occasions about how NATO was taking advantage of the American people, specifically mentioning the Baltic countries by name, further casting doubt on whether he would honor Article 5 as president. Now, he is singling out Montenegro.

At the very least, Trump’s comments about Montenegro serve to weaken the alliance, giving Russia further latitude to destabilize NATO’s newest member and increasing the risks of renewed conflict in the Balkans. At worst, these words reflect Putin’s own views, raising serious concerns that the two presidents arrived at some form of understanding about Montenegro behind closed doors. Unless NATO is fully prepared to counter the threat militarily, the immediate consequence of a Russian attack on Montenegro would be the effective end of the most powerful military alliance in world history.

Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former official in the State Department from the Obama administration. He is author of Integrating Europe from Oxford University Press and the forthcoming Rise of the East, End of the West? Twitter: @JeffreyAStacey