by Paul Pryce. He is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.
On 2 December 2015, the North Atlantic Council formally invited Montenegro to start accession talks and likely become the 29th member state of NATO. This follows a more than six-year pause in the enlargement of the Alliance – the last time new members joined NATO was in April 2009, when Albania and Croatia were officially admitted. Politically, this invitation was very likely motivated by a desire to emphasize the continued relevance of NATO even as the membership has shown disunity on issues ranging from Russian aggression in Ukraine to the ongoing Syrian civil war. But does extending NATO membership to Montenegro really advance the North Atlantic Treaty’s stated goal of safeguarding peace and freedom in the North Atlantic area? Furthermore, does NATO membership truly meet national interests of Montenegro?
Burden-sharing should be one concern for the Alliance’s current 28 member states. The NATO benchmark for defence spending is 2.0% of annual GDP, although only two members currently meet or exceed that expectation: Estonia, and the United States. As of 2015, defence spending in Montenegro is only 1.3% of annual GDP, lower even than the European average of 1.6%. It would also be difficult for Montenegro to increase its defence spending to at least meet the European average as well. Although some newly joining members have experienced a significant increase in defence spending in their first years with the Alliance, this has been due to the new members upgrading their equipment to meet NATO standardization requirements. Montenegro, meanwhile, employs equipment that is largely compatible with NATO standards; for example, the standard-issue assault rifle of the Montenegrin Army is the Heckler & Koch G36, which is manufactured in Germany and is chambered for 5.56x45mm NATO standard rounds.
It is important to note, however, that Montenegro has shown a robust commitment to participating in overseas operations. Approximately 25 Montenegrin soldiers deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support, the follow-on to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. Montenegrin military personnel have also served with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), and the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU-NAVFOR / Operation Atalanta). For a country with a total population of just over 600,000 people, this indicates significant potential for Montenegro to make small but valuable contributions to future NATO deployments. In fact, it calls to mind the active participation in the Alliance of some other small states, such as Estonia, which, despite being home to only 1.3 million people, maintained a contingent of 150 troops in the Helmand province of Afghanistan as part of ISAF while also deploying 50 troops each to multilateral operations in Iraq and Kosovo.
If Montenegro is to follow the Estonian example, it must find its niche within NATO. Full interoperability is highly unlikely, even though the Montenegrin authorities have been working since 2008 to meet the objectives outlined in the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) which offers a roadmap to potential NATO membership. The Montenegrin Air Force is essentially non-existent; the dissolution of the state union between Serbia and Montenegro has left the latter in possession of Golubovci airbase and its stockpile of Soko G-4 Super Galeb jet fighters but there are no plans for these to be pressed into Montenegrin service due to the considerable operating costs this would incur. The Montenegrin Navy, aside from a small complement of support vessels, is comprised of two Kotor-class frigates, each with a displacement of almost 1,500 tons and having first entered service with the Yugoslav Navy in the late 1980s. In short, aside from its ground forces, Montenegro is incapable of full interoperability with other NATO member states – the Montenegrin Air Force could not join NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission tomorrow, nor could one of Montenegro’s Kotor-class frigates seamlessly join Operation Ocean Shield off the Somali coast. Montenegro would be well-served by finding one thing to do well, rather than trying to match as many NATO capabilities as possible. In Afghanistan, the Montenegrin contingent was heavily geared toward providing medical assistance, and that could be an area in which Montenegro’s military builds its reputation and stakes out some territory within the Alliance. This could be demonstrated in accession talks by simultaneously signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the NATO Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine based in Budapest, Hungary.
Just as important as Montenegro’s potential contribution to NATO, one must consider how membership in the Alliance will benefit the small Southeast European country. In June 2006, just weeks after securing independence from Serbia, the Montenegrin authorities released their National Security Strategy. In September 2008, a revised document was released. Both acknowledge that there is no apparent threat to the territorial integrity of Montenegro; rather, the most prominent security threats are asymmetric, such as terrorism and organized crime. Homegrown organized crime has certainly presented a security challenge for Montenegro, with various groups engaging in activities like cigarette smuggling, as well as narcotics and arms trafficking. These groups are occasionally linked to activities in Albania and Slovenia, and much more often to Serbia where there is a significant Montenegrin diaspora. However, NATO membership will not directly impact organized crime; Montenegrin authorities already enjoy close cooperation with regional partners through Interpol and Europol.
Otherwise, the 2006 and 2008 National Security Strategy documents describe one of the most paramount objectives of Montenegrin foreign and defence policy as “developing good neighbourly relations and strengthening regional cooperation.” Two of Montenegro’s neighbours – Croatia and Albania – joined NATO in 2009. Bosnia-Herzegovina, another neighbour, aspires toward NATO membership and actively participates in NATO’s Partnership for Peace but has a long road to accession due to stalled security sector reforms and other issues. Much of Serbian society, meanwhile, has experienced considerable animosity toward NATO, driven to some degree by the NATO bombing campaign against Belgrade and other Serbian communities during the 1999 Kosovo War. It is not clear how Serbia would react to Montenegro’s NATO accession, though it may not be so severe over the long-term; in January 2015, Serbia began negotiations with NATO to establish its own IPAP while it has also participated to some extent in the Partnership for Peace since 2006.
Insofar as NATO membership is concerned, it can be argued that Montenegrin accession would enhance regional cooperation. Montenegrin forces would have more opportunities to engage in joint activities with Croatian and Albanian counterparts, for example. But such a significant commitment would not have a correspondingly significant impact on Montenegro’s “good neighbourly relations”. In fact, in the short term, it could actually have a negative impact on Montenegro’s relations with Serbia, as well as with the Serb majority areas of eastern Montenegro. As a stepping stone to eventual membership in the European Union, NATO membership could be said to be in keeping with Montenegro’s state interests. As an end in itself, however, NATO membership seems overall inconsistent with state interests.
Clearly, both NATO and Montenegro must give serious thought to the terms of the accession agreement to be negotiated in 2016. At this time, the approach from both sides has been haphazard. For Prime Minister Milo Đukanović and President Filip Vujanović, accession merely means delivering on a vague election campaign promise of “Westernization”, which apparently means joining institutions like NATO and the EU. For NATO, the interest in Montenegrin accession is simply to assert that the Alliance remains alive and well. Neither side’s superficial goals will be achieved unless underlying substantive goals are outlined very soon.