WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is set to vote this week on the ratification of Montenegro as the newest member of NATO.
Montenegro's accession would be viewed as encouraging to other Balkan countries moving toward the West, and the move was seen as a major test of the new administration's policy toward Moscow—until Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Senate leaders earlier this month to approve ratification.
Tillerson argued that Montenegro's membership in the alliance would support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security and stability among its neighbors, according to Reuters, which viewed a letter from Tillerson to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
McConnell set the first procedural vote on the treaty for Monday evening. Approving the treaty requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, after which the president can ratify it.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, NATO's top military commander in Europe told lawmakers the tiny nation's accession is "absolutely critical," and that failure would undermine other NATO aspirants in Eastern Europe.
"They've had this desire, they've met the [membership action plan], and it underscores NATO's outreach and ability to bring in those who want to determine their own means of government and become part of NATO," Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the chief of U.S. European Command, said of Montenegro.
"If we were to lose this, it would set back many of the other countries and peoples, particularly in Eastern Europe, who are looking forward to, and have their eyes set on, the West … and becoming a part of NATO," he said.
Scaparrotti told the panel that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Montenegro's accession as inevitable but continues to threaten other Eastern European states seeking self-determination, to control them.
At the same hearing, Scaparrotti said he supports lethal assistance to Ukraine, which Congress authorized in the last two annual defense policy bills. "We need to reinforce the Ukrainian military as much as we can and provide them the best opportunity to fight what is a very lethal Russian proxy at this point," he said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously voted to advance Montenegro's accession late last year, but last week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked SASC Chairman John McCain's request on the Senate floor for approval by unanimous consent by the full Senate.
That prompted McCain, R-Ariz., to accuse Paul of "working for Putin" as Paul exited the Senate chamber.
Paul argued the U.S. should not commit to protecting a small country with little value for its national security, and fired back at McCain as "unhinged" in a March 16 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Americans, if asked, would not agree to spend their lives or tax dollars on behalf of NATO prospects Montenegro, Ukraine or Georgia, he said.
"I think the people were asked that question, you'd find that many more would side with me than with the so-called bipartisan consensus up here that has spent us to oblivion and obligated us to fight everyone else's war," he said.
In 2006, Montenegro gained independence from Serbia and maintains a solid Serbian community that is traditionally allied with Russia, which opposes the alliance's eastward expansion.
When NATO formally invited the Balkan state to join the alliance just over a year ago, Russia said it would have to respond to what it sees as intrusion into a region crucial to its security.
Late last year, officials in Montenegro said they uncovered a plot to violently disrupt the nation's electoral process, overthrow the government, set up a new administration loyal to Russia and perhaps assassinate the prime minister. The plotters reportedly told investigators that Russian officials funded and equipped the effort.
The U.S. and Montenegro's strong ties should grow stronger with its entry into the alliance, U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro, Margaret Ann Uyehara, said in a statement on Friday.
"As the Senate is scheduled to take up the issue next week, we hope to soon see Montenegro as the newest member of the NATO alliance, which will continue to contribute to peace and stability in the Balkans, and across Europe and ultimately the United States," she said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.