The tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, NATO’s newest member state, is suddenly in the news because of criticisms President Trump made of the alliance in a televised interview this week.
During the interview, with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Mr. Trump turned his attention to Montenegro and raised questions about the United States’ commitment to the legal obligation that NATO members come to one another’s defense in the event of attack — a core commitment in the 1949 treaty that established the alliance.
When Mr. Carlson asked why, hypothetically, his son should be sent to Montenegro to defend the nation if it were attacked, Mr. Trump said he had “asked the same question” and went on to say the “aggressive people” of Montenegro could potentially start World War III.
(Mr. Carlson did not mention that the United States has an all-volunteer military; that there has not been a draft since 1973; or that the collective-defense clause of the treaty, known as Article 5, has been invoked only once in NATO’s history, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.)
Mr. Trump’s comments came only a week after a tense NATO summit meeting in which the president urged allies to accelerate their progress in meeting a target of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product for military purposes.
But the comments are significant in terms of the tensions between Russia and the West that are playing out in the Balkans. Here are four things to know about Montenegro that help add context to Mr. Trump’s comments.
During Mr. Trump’s interview with Mr. Carlson, the president noted that though Montenegro was small, it was full of “very strong people.”
“They have very aggressive people,” Mr. Trump continued. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
But when war did break out in the Balkans in the 1990s, Montenegro was largely seen as a stabilizing force in the region. As the countries around it became engulfed in conflict, Montenegro, which was then part of Serbia, welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from Bosnia and Croatia.
That may be part of the reason that Montenegrins are taking President Trump’s depiction of them as “aggressive people” in stride.
“Montenegro is proud of its history and tradition and peaceful politics that led to the position of a stabilizing state in the region and the only state in which the war didn’t rage during disintegration of the former Yugoslavia,” the Montenegrin government said in a statement.
Modern Montenegro is a young country, having only gained independence from Serbia in 2006, but its relationship with Russia has grown increasingly complicated, particularly after it joined NATO last year. Russian companies have invested heavily there, and it has long been a tourist destination for wealthy Russian vacationers.
Serbia was traditionally an ally of Russia. Serbian is the main language of Montenegro, and the official religion is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as it is in Serbia and Russia. So Montenegro’s moves to more closely align with the West have been condemned by Moscow.
In recent years, Montenegro joined the Council of Europe, a human rights body, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was created during the Cold War to bridge divisions between East and West. Montenegro is also being considered for membership in the European Union, which would irritate Russia. But it is Montenegro’s new membership in NATO that has stirred perhaps the most unease in Moscow.
Before NATO invited Montenegro to join in 2016, Russia was a vocal opponent of the move, as it considers any NATO expansion into the Western Balkans unacceptable.
After NATO invited Montenegro to join its ranks, a spokesman for Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, vowed “retaliatory actions.” Moscow issued advisories for Russian citizens traveling to Montenegro and quickly banned the import of Montenegrin wine.
“Montenegro has been under continuous pressure by Russia for more than a decade,” Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a former supreme NATO allied commander, said in a message on Twitter on Thursday.
General Clark said he found Mr. Trump’s comments about Montenegro “worrying.”
In 2016, prosecutors in Montenegro claimed that a pair of Russians — believed by some to be linked to Russian intelligence — had orchestrated a murky coup plot and planned to carry out an “undetermined number of criminal acts of terrorism and the murder of highest-ranking representatives of Montenegro.”
Prosecutors said the plot included plans to kill Milo Djukanovic, who was the prime minister at the time and is now the country’s president. Russia denied involvement.
While Russia’s link to the plot has been difficult for Montenegro to prove, political analysts in the region say that Russian influence poses a real threat to Montenegro’s sovereignty.
Dritan Abazovic, a member of Parliament with United Reform Action, a pro-NATO party outside the country’s governing coalition, agreed.
“There’s a strong influence of Russia and Serbia in the region, which is why NATO is necessary,” Mr. Abazovic said. “We are small. We have to be part of some collective security membership. Without collective security and collective defense, we don’t have a chance.”
Mr. Abazovic also believes that international support of Montenegro and the backing of NATO sends a powerful message to Russia, which cannot be quantified.
“NATO is the best option for fighting against Russian influence in this region,” he said. “So symbolically, Montenegro gives a lot that’s not calculated monetarily.”
Mr. Trump’s latest comments about Montenegro could undermine that.
“Trump’s comments weaken NATO, give Russia a license to cause trouble and thereby actually increase the risks of renewed conflict in the Balkans,” General Clark wrote on Twitter.
Montenegro has troops in Afghanistan, taking part in a conflict initiated by the United States in the wake of the 2001 terrorists attacks, nearly two decades ago.
In fact, Montenegro contributed forces to this conflict even before officially joining NATO, and before it was even an independent nation.
With a population of about 650,000 and a military of just under 2,000 people, its contribution is significant.
“As a new NATO member and a candidate for the E.U.,” Montenegro “contributes to peace and stability, not only on the European continent but worldwide, along with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan,” according to the government’s response to Mr. Trump’s comments.
The treaty obligates member states to act if one of the member states is targeted. While the State Department has reaffirmed America’s commitment to this agreement, Mr. Trump’s own statements have muddied the waters.
But regardless of Mr. Trump’s intentions, some in Montenegro are simply laughing off the comments.
“It’s the summer season,” Mr. Abazovic, the lawmaker, said. “I think most of the people in Montenegro are too busy relaxing to be aggressive right now. We are not an aggressive country.”
Joseph Orovic contributed reporting.
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