Montenegro is set to become NATO's newest member after the US Senate voted to ratify its entry into the alliance. The Netherlands and Spain are all that stand in the way of ratifying the Balkan nation's membership.
Senators voted 97-2 on Tuesday to admit Montenegro, with only Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah voting "no."
Montenegro - led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (above) - will become the 29th member of the alliance if the Netherlands and Spain vote in favor - as expected - later this year. All members of the alliance must ratify a bid to join in order for the petition to proceed.
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.
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."
The vote sends the issue to the White House for President Donald Trump's signature.
A stone in Russia's shoe
Montenegro sits on a geopolitical faultline in the region. Having elected a pro-EU government last October, the outcome of its NATO application could determine the way the region is heading: toward NATO and the EU, or back to Russia's sphere of influence.
The Kremlin has opposed Montenegro's accession, calling it a "provocation" that would reinforce the pro-Western military alliance's presence in the Balkans.
Paul warned Washington against spreading itself too thinly when its military is involved in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. "Montenegro in NATO will antagonize Russia while doing nothing to advance US national security," he said. "Most Americans can't find Montenegro on a map," Paul said in a sharply worded Senate speech. "Are you willing to send your kids there to fight?"
President Donald Trump's administration encouraged lawmakers to back the Balkan nation's NATO bid. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote to Senate leaders earlier in March to say Montenegro's membership of NATO was "strongly in the interests of the US." He added that Montenegro's membership would give NATO a contiguous border along the Adriatic coast.
NATO holds its summit on May 25 in Brussels, where Trump will use the opportunity to reaffirm Washington's strong commitment to the alliance, according to the White House.
jbh/bw (AP, Reuters)