(CNSNews.com) – The United States on Tuesday became the second to last NATO member to ratify the accession of Montenegro, paving the way for the alliance to grow to 29 allies, in its first expansion in eight years.
The ratification resolution, passed by the U.S. Senate in a 97-2 vote, must now be signed by President Trump. His administration has expressed strong support for the move, which is bitterly opposed by Russia.
In remarks alluding to Moscow’s objections, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a letter to U.S. Senate leaders, “Montenegro’s participation in the May NATO summit as a full member, not an observer, will send a strong signal of transatlantic unity and that no third parties have veto power over NATO decisions.”
With Spain alone still to vote – in early April – Montenegro’s accession looks assured well before Trump attends the summit in Brussels in May. Tillerson is due to meet with alliance foreign ministers in the Belgian capital on Friday.
The last countries to join NATO were Albania and Croatia in 2009.
Article five of the North Atlantic Treaty states that that an attack on any NATO member is considered an attack on all, and Montenegro’s accession will bring it under that umbrella of protection.
The Senate debate produced some heated words, as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) – who held up a vote and were the only two senators to vote against the move in the end – explained their opposition.
“I do not see how the accession of Montenegro – a country with a population smaller than most congressional districts and a military smaller than the District of Columbia’s police force – is beneficial enough that we should share an agreement for collective defense,” Lee said in a floor speech.
“Montenegro becoming a member of NATO is certainly attractive to European countries because it makes the United States the security guarantor of another country in a region prone to instability and ethnic unrest,” he added, “but that does not automatically make it of interest to the American people.”
Lee also challenged the wisdom of letting Montenegro into the alliance on the basis that Russia objects to its expansion.
“Some of my colleagues have argued that we should move forward with Montenegro’s accession into NATO because the Russians oppose it – just as the Russians have opposed all previous rounds of expansion. This is not the basis for a sound foreign policy,” he said.
“While the United States should not let another country have a ‘veto’ over our national security decisions, it would be equally unwise for the United States simply to engage in certain actions because a geopolitical adversary opposes them,” he said.
“There is no national security interest that an alliance with Montenegro will advance,” Paul said one the Senate floor earlier. “If we invite Montenegro into NATO, it will be a one-way street, with the U.S. committing to defend yet another country, and you, the taxpayer, being stuck with the bill.”
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), welcomed the vote outcome.
“Today’s vote sends a strong message that Russia’s malign influence in the region will not be tolerated, and that Vladimir Putin will not have veto power over the democratic aspirations of free peoples,” he said in a statement.
NATO membership is not universally supported in Montenegro; polls have found public opinion divided over the issue – something Russia frequently points to in airing its objections.
In February, Montenegrin authorities accused Russia of being involved in an alleged attempt last year to assassinate and overthrow the government of the pro-Western, four-term prime minister (now former prime minister), Milo Djukanovic. Moscow has dismissed the claims as “absolutely groundless.”
Others waiting outside NATO’s ‘open door’
Other countries partway through the lengthy process of joining NATO are Macedonia, which was granted a “membership action plan” (MAP) back in 1999, and Bosnia, which was offered an MAP in 2010, subject to reforms involving defense installations.
NATO members agreed in 2008 that Macedonia met the criteria for membership, but the alliance operates on consensus, and Greece has blocked its accession over a drawn-out dispute over its neighbor’s use of the name “Macedonia.” (Greece has a northern province of the same name.)
Georgia’s NATO aspirations, meanwhile, have been blocked by strong Russian objections going back a decade.
The former Soviet republic’s MAP request was turned down at a NATO summit in 2008, with opposition led by Western European members reluctant to upset Russia. Both Georgia and Ukraine were told then – and at subsequent NATO summits – that they “will become members” at some future, unspecified date.
Despite U.S. administrations’ declared support for Georgia’s NATO aspirations, they have not advanced.
Despite not being NATO members, Macedonia, Georgia, Montenegro and Bosnia all contributed troops to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.
At one time, Georgia had more troops deployed in Afghanistan than 22 of NATO’s 28 members, while Macedonia at one stage accounted for the biggest per capita troop contribution to the mission.
Both Georgia and Macedonia also participated in the U.S.-led mission in Iraq. Five Georgian troops were killed in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, and another 28 in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2015.