Russia Is Trying, But It Can't Stop NATO Entry, Montenegro SaysBy
Defense minister says military is facing daily cyber attacks
Balkan state can join alliance next month in historic shift
Russia is still trying to undermine Montenegro’s NATO membership with continued cyber attacks after last year’s failed coup attempt, but no one can stop the tiny Balkan nation from joining as early as next month, the country’s defense minister said.
Lawmakers in the Adriatic state of 630,000 people will formally agree to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Friday, Predrag Boskovic said in an interview in the capital, Podgorica. All 28 NATO members have given consent except for Spain, which is expected to do so this week. Montenegro hopes to attend the alliance’s May 25 summit as a full member, he said.
The approval signals a years-long shift in geopolitical loyalties for the former Yugoslav republic, which has historically shared religious and cultural ties with Russia. Adding its 200 miles of shoreline will clinch NATO’s nearly complete control over the northern Mediterranean. Russia isn’t backing down, though. After Montenegro accused Moscow for trying to overthrow the government and assassinate the prime minister during last year’s elections -- an allegation Russia denies -- its institutions are coming under attack by hackers believed to be backed by the Kremlin, he said.
“Neither Russia, nor any other country, can change our course,” Boskovic, 45, said in his office on Tuesday. “Joining today’s 28 most advanced economies, the most advanced civilizations, is a step necessary for Montenegro, for it to become part of the Western world and ensure long-term stability and security.’’
Montenegro’s accusations coincide with warnings from other European nations that Russia is stepping up efforts to infiltrate rival governments and influence politics across the continent. Denmark’s defense minister was cited on Sunday as saying Russian hackers gained access to military emails, while French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron’s campaign has been hit by cyber attacks resembling those used against Democratic Party organizations in the U.S.
Boskovic said his ministry is trying to defend against “cyber attacks on a daily basis against state institutions’’ and computers of military officers containing classified data. That follows Montenegrin prosecutors’ indictment this month of 14 people, including two Russians, for trying to seize the parliament, kill the country’s most powerful politician, Milo Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian administration.
“Russia has its interests and has shown that in a most direct way,’’ he said. “Of course it’s the Kremlin. That’s a fact.”
Montenegro’s pro-Russian opposition wants to stop NATO entry and wants a referendum on joining. But the government will avoid a vote because it knows the country’s citizens would reject it, Andrija Mandic, of the opposition Democratic Front, said in an interview. He also rejected the government’s accusations against Vladimir Putin’s government, dismissing the overthrow attempt as a “fake coup” meant to raise support for Djukanovic, who won the vote last October and formed a coalition cabinet.
By letting Montenegro join, NATO is showing it wants to tighten its grip on the Balkans, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Wednesday.
“The military potential of Podgorica is close to zero, though its geographical position permits a strengthening of control over the Balkans,” Shoigu said.
Russia has a point. Montenegro’s has just 1,950 soldiers, two aging frigates, 13 helicopters and two light jets. The country currently spends 1.66 percent of gross domestic product on its forces -- below the NATO’s 2 percent requirement, but it plans to hit the target by 2020, or even perhaps this year if it buys new choppers, Boskovic said.
“Montenegro is aware of its size,’’ he said. “But what matters more is that we want to contribute to making the traditionally turbulent Balkans a more secure place. ’’