WASHINGTON (AP) — Montenegro is set to become NATO's newest member after the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to ratify the tiny Balkan nation's entry into the alliance.
Senators voted 97-2 on Tuesday to admit Montenegro, with only Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah voting "no." Paul had suggested that adding Montenegro could lead to heightened tension with Moscow, possibly even war. Under NATO's principle of collective defense, an attack against one ally is considered an attack against them all.
Despite its size, Montenegro bears strategic importance. A former ally of Russia, the country is in the midst of a clash between the West and Moscow over influence in the Balkans. Montenegro's membership gives NATO a contiguous border along the Adriatic coast.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month pressed the Senate to act quickly on Montenegro's admission. He wrote in a March 7 letter to Senate leaders that the chamber's approval needed to come ahead of a summit scheduled for May that will include NATO heads of state and government. Tillerson said the U.S. was one of the last remaining NATO members not to have given Montenegro's bid full parliamentary approval.
"Since Montenegro borders on five other Balkans nations, including NATO allies Croatia and Albania, its membership will support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security, and stability with all of its neighbors," Tillerson wrote in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Montenegro will become the 29th member of the alliance. NATO invited Montenegro to start entry talks in December 2015, roughly nine years after the nation of 620,000 people split with Serbia in a 2006 referendum.
Russia strongly opposes the expansion of the Western military alliance in a region it considers part of its strategic sphere of interest. Wary of Russian influence in the still-volatile region, NATO wanted Montenegro to join the alliance.
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report that accompanied the resolution of ratification said that "an attack against Montenegro, or its destabilization arising from external subversion, would threaten the stability of Europe and jeopardize United States national security interests."
Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the senior U.S. military commander in Europe, said last week that failing to add Montenegro would send the wrong signal to other nations eager to join the alliance.
"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," Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Paul's decision to block an earlier attempt to vote on Montenegro's admission despite strong bipartisan support for the move touched off a bout of name-calling between him and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was a staunch proponent of ratification.
After the Kentucky senator stopped the move, McCain accused Paul of "working for Vladimir Putin," the Russian president. A day later, Paul said the 80-year-old senator was "a little bit unhinged," and may be "past his prime."
Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner