“Probe with bayonets,” Soviet ruler Vladimir Lenin famously said. “If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, stop.”
Like his late predecessor, Russian President Vladimir Putin will advance until he meets steel. Until this week he met mush in, of all places, the United States government thanks to Republican Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky who used an arcane senate rule to block a vote on the accession of tiny Montenegro—the former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic between Albania and Croatia—from joining NATO.
“He knows the vote will be 99 to 1,” a disgruntled Republican senator anonymously complained to Politico.
Rather that spit-balling from under his desk, Senator John McCain stood and lobbed a rhetorical hand grenade, and he did it on television: “I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”
That was two weeks ago. This week, Paul finally relented and on Tuesday, the Senate ratified Montenegro’s membership in NATO by a vote of 97 to 2—not quite 99 to 1, but close.
Rand Paul isn’t working for Vladimir Putin. He hates war and therefore thinks it makes sense to hate NATO. “Most Americans can’t find Montenegro on a map,” he said in a speech. “Are you willing to send your kids there to fight?”
They say war teaches Americans geography, but Americans don’t need to find Montenegro as long as it is in NATO. NATO expansion doesn’t precipitate wars; it prevents them before they can even get started. Paul apparently hasn’t noticed, but—so far anyway—Vladimir Putin’s Russia only invades and dismembers nations on its periphery, such as Georgia and Ukraine, that haven’t joined the alliance. Those who hate war should want more countries under the West’s security umbrella, not fewer.
Montenegro should be safe enough inside NATO, but until its membership is official, it is exposed. Last fall, Russian intelligence agents ginned up a plot to assassinate the prime minister and install a pro-Russian political party in parliament. They didn’t do it because they randomly woke up one morning and felt like it. They did it because Montenegro applied for NATO membership, and Putin wants Montenegro for himself.
It’s a spectacular piece of real estate, by far one of the most gorgeous countries I have ever visited, with storybook coastal villages, mountains as steep as the Alps, and ancient Mediterranean forests that ceased to exist almost everywhere else in the region thousands of years ago. Russians love to go there on holiday. Americans will too, once they discover it, but that’s not the reason Vladimir Putin covets it.
Where Rand Paul sees a backwater, Vladimir Putin sees a Mediterranean beachhead. In Newsweek, Montenegro’s former Ambassador to NATO Vesko Garcevic points to a Moscow Defense Brief article by Aleksey Nikolsky who notes that in 2013 that the Kremlin made “a request” to “discuss the terms of allowing Russian warships temporary moorage at the ports of Bar and Kotor for refueling, maintenance and other necessities.”
Montenegro told Russia to pound sand.
“In the Balkans there were no states founded on rule of law, democracy, freedom,” Prime Minister Marković told Sohrab Ahmari at the Wall Street Journal in January. “We want to escape from this vicious circle that has been going on for so many centuries, and move toward NATO.”
If the Assad regime falls in Syria, Russia may lose its only Mediterranean port. And since Montenegro is gearing up to join NATO, Russia could be stuck without a backup forever because it’s the only place along the entire northern shore of that sea that doesn’t already belong to the West.
“They are ready to admit even the North Pole to NATO just for the sake of encircling Russia,” Russian Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov said in 2015. Moscow doesn’t get it, though. If Russia were a friendly country like Canada, the West would treat it like Canada. The reason the West doesn’t—and won’t—is because Russia invades and butchers its neighbors and annexes sovereign territory at gunpoint.
What will the West gain when Montenegro’s membership in NATO becomes official? Not much. Barely half a million people live there. The Boise, Idaho, metropolitan area is more populated than that. With roughly 2,000 soldiers, its miniscule army will hardly boost NATO’s military capacity by an iota.
Vladimir Putin wants it and needs it much more than we do, badly enough to assassinate an elected head of state and instigate a regime-change. That’s precisely why he shouldn’t have it.
For years now, the Kremlin has been violently expanding its power, its influence and even its territory in Europe and Asia. Every time Putin racks up a victory and gets away with it, he grows more confident that he can take more. That’s how it goes with expansionist dictators everywhere. So if you don’t want to go to war against Russia—and only an insane person would—the fewer wins in Putin’s column, the better.