An air exercise marks the nation’s first year in the alliance, along with a rising role

WASHINGTON — Italian and Greek warplanes practiced intercepting intruder aircraft in the airspace over the Montenegro capital of Podgorica, beginning an assignment to patrol the skies of the newest NATO member.

The exercise comes one year after the small, Conneticut-sized Balkan country joined NATO over vehement Russian protests.

A Montenegro government press release called the air policing mission “one of the most important forms of direct benefit” of Montenegro’s membership in NATO.

Alliance regulations stipulate each member state must have at least two fighter aircraft on 24/7 readiness. For nations without fighter aircraft capabilities of their own, this standard can be met through multinational cooperation.

President Milo Đukanović of Montenegro, left, has moved to deepen security ties with NATO, including welcoming allied air patrols and pledging to meet defense spending goals. (NATO)
President Milo Đukanović of Montenegro, left, has moved to deepen security ties with NATO, including welcoming allied air patrols and pledging to meet defense spending goals. (NATO)

A NATO news release stressed this type of “air policing is not a response to any specific threat” but a consistent part of collective defense operations.

However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg did discuss Russia with Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović during a June 4 meeting between the two leaders at NATO headquarters. The secretary general noted that they had agreed a “dual-track policy of deterrence and dialogue is the right one” towards Russia.

President Đukanović has struck a careful balance, reaffirming his nation as “decisively committed” to NATO objectives while also stating a desire to “cooperate and to harmonize as much as possible” with an increasingly aggressive Russia.

The recent summit at NATO headquarters showcased Montenegro’s growing role within the alliance. The Secretary General highlighted Montenegro’s clear plan to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense by 2024.

Montenegro also earned praise as a “very solid and very reliable member” for increased contributions to NATO counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.