Months before a preliminary decision is due on its membership application, Montenegro has become the test case of NATO’s willingness to keep an “open door.”
The conflict in Ukraine is fueling a behind-the-scenes struggle within the Western military alliance over a proposal to bring in Montenegro, which lies 2,000 kilometers southwest and four borders from Russia but has gotten entangled in that crisis.
Months before a preliminary decision is due in December on its membership application, Montenegro has become the test case of NATO’s willingness to keep an “open door.” The divisions over future enlargement reflect — roughly but not exactly — differences over how the West ought to respond to a militarily aggressive Russia.
Germany and France, which have brokered two shaky ceasefire deals between Ukraine and Russia, favor negotiation over confrontation with the government of Vladimir Putin in Moscow. By their thinking, any move by NATO to take in new members inflames tensions with Russia.
Italy and the Netherlands are skeptical as well. The Obama administration hasn’t tipped its hand.
Officials at NATO say the debate won’t intensify until the second half of the year. A final decision will be taken at the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw. But positions are hardening.
After returning from talks in Minsk on the last ceasefire deal, French President François Hollande met NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Paris. Briefing the press afterward, President Hollande surprised the visiting NATO leader by stating that, “France’s position for the moment is to refuse any new membership.”
A senior NATO and an EU official say the French leader had offered the same reassurance to President Putin during the Minsk talks. “Hollande revealed a quiet side deal from Minsk – no more enlargement,” said the NATO official, likening it to a “secret protocol” of that ceasefire deal.
A spokesman for President Hollande declined to comment on this allegation.
A senior French official said Hollande was primarily motivated to avoid doing anything that might jeopardize the Minsk agreement. Along with other European countries, France opposes any steps by NATO to move ahead with accession for Ukraine and Georgia — the two former Soviet states that Russia considers within its sphere of influence. The official said France is skeptical of Montenegro’s suitability for membership, but willing to keep an open mind.
On the other side, Turkey, Croatia and Bulgaria are making the push for Montenegro, according to diplomats at the alliance’s headquarters near the Brussels airport. “They want to show NATO isn’t afraid of enlargement and will lock the Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic strategy and won’t leave them in limbo,” said a senior NATO official, who asked to remain anonymous. Some of former members of the Warsaw Pact who aren’t in the Balkans want to make sure that Russia can’t claim a veto over NATO’s decisions.
“There have been different opinions and there still are different opinions, and for me that is not an expression of weakness,” Stoltenberg told POLITICO in an interview. Asked about enlargement coming up at the Minsk talks, he added that, “I guess [enlargement] is discussed in many different fora but that’s up to NATO to decide together with the applicant country, and no one else.”
Stoltenberg endorsed the “open door” policy — in principle.
“It is a fundamental right of every sovereign nation to decide its own path, including what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of,” Stoltenberg said in the interview. “Whether NATO shall continue to enlarge is the question which should only be decided by the applicant countries and the 28 allies.”
Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who took over at NATO last October, has to walk a tricky line between the conflicting views of the member states. After Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea last year, his predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen was one of the most prominent European hawks on Russia, calling for a firmer response. His rhetoric made Berlin and other European capitals uncomfortable. Stoltenberg was the preferred choice of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wanted a less outspoken secretary general, according to officials in Berlin and Washington.
Differences over who to bring in have flared every time it has come up at NATO since the end of the Cold War. Jacques Chirac, the former French president, wanted to include Romania in the first wave of eastern enlargement in 1999. He was overruled. Skepticism about the Baltic states ran deep but the U.S. helped push them through in 2004. And in 2008, Merkel blocked an initiative by the Bush administration to offer Ukraine and Georgia a “Membership Action Plan,” a formal first step toward membership. Russia has since invaded both countries, which are no longer part of the serious enlargement conversation.
Although Russia’s focus is on its immediate neighborhood, Putin has tried to strengthen ties with the Orthodox Christian Balkan states. He visited Belgrade last year, attending a military parade, and reached out to Greece. There’s concern inside the alliance that Russia is moving to undermine NATO’s southeastern flank.
Yet the Ukraine conflict has also softened the views on enlargement of some Eastern European members, previously the loudest proponents of a larger alliance. The Polish government is on the fence with Montenegro, fearing that the alliance’s Article Five commitment to mutual defense will be diluted by a move into the Balkans. They also see little enthusiasm in Washington, and would prefer for NATO to focus on strengthening collective defense.
The camp is divided as well. “You need enlargement more than ever,” said a diplomat at NATO from another Eastern European country. “It stabilizes the entire region.”
With his measured support for an “open door,” Stoltenberg offered assurances to those in the gray zone between Russia and the West. NATO, he said, was “moving Georgia forward on the path towards membership.” He added that, “we will assess a possible application from Ukraine in exactly the same way as we assess any other application.”
These two are a non-starter for most NATO countries, leaving Montenegro as the most contentious issue. “It’s a general political context that’s not within our power to control,” said Dragana Radulović, Montenegro’s ambassador to NATO. “What is in our power to control,” she added, is to implement the reforms required for membership.
In the alliance, there are concerns about the low public support for membership in the country and the infiltration by Russia of its intelligence services.
“The French no is a soft no,” said a NATO diplomat who favors an invitation to other countries. “If Germany and the U.S. come out in favor, others will fall in line.”
Nicholas Vinocur in Paris contributed to this article.
This article was updated on April 23. The first wave of NATO eastward enlargement was in 1999. A previous version of this article misstated the date.