The U.S. Senate is set to ratify Montenegro’s admission into the NATO alliance, an event many lawmakers viewed through the lens of a deepening struggle between Western nations and Russia.

“This is more than the accession or non-accession of a small, 650,000-person nation,” said the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John McCain of Arizona. “It is a test in this contest we are now engaged in with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.”

“Montenegro is trying to do everything that Putin hates,” said South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. “Alliances of democracy are his worst nightmare.”

“It [Montenegro joining NATO] will enhance our security, it will strengthen the alliance, and it will send a strong message of resolve to Russia,” said the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland.

The United States is one of three NATO members yet to formally approve the Balkan nation as the newest member of the alliance, originally formed in 1949 to provide common defense against the Soviet Union.

Paul asks tough questions

On Monday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance ratification to a final vote, which could come at any moment. Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky was one of just two senators to oppose the measure, arguing that, as a NATO member, Montenegro would fall under America’s security blanket while providing little in return.

“We must ask: is Montenegro an asset to the defense of the United States?” Paul said. “Most Americans couldn’t find Montenegro on a map. Are you willing to send your kids there to fight (to defend Montenegro as a NATO member)?

“The same cheerleaders for Montenegro in NATO want Ukraine in NATO; they want Georgia in NATO,” Paul added. “If both Ukraine and Georgia were in NATO today, we would be involved in a world war with Russia.”

Defenders of NATO expansion countered that Montenegro already has done much in support of the United States and the broader alliance.

“Montenegro actively supported the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan,” said the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee. “Montenegro has taken these steps despite Russia’s best efforts to undermine their progress (as a democracy) every step of the way.”

Tillerson offers support in letter

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Senate to act without delay. In a letter to the chamber’s Republican and Democratic leaders, Tillerson wrote: “Montenegro’s participation in the May NATO summit as a full member, not an observer, will send a strong signal of transatlantic unity and that no third parties have veto power over NATO decisions.”

Paul suggested the Trump administration’s advocacy for Montenegro joining NATO constitutes a betrayal of the president’s promise to voters.

“President Trump said in his inaugural address that we’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own,” the senator said. “Today the question is: will we add another commitment to defend yet another foreign country?”

Rubio backs Montenegro

Others said a strong vote of approval on Montenegro would be especially timely, given recent anti-corruption demonstrations in Russia.

“The stakes here are extraordinarily high for the United States, for our European allies,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said. “We are watching as many Russians have turned out in cities in the thousands. They’ve turned out to protest the rampant corruption that fuels the Putin regime. And the Putin regime, as all totalitarian regimes do, has cracked down.

“I ask you to compare that to Montenegro, whose membership in NATO will help the United States and Montenegro deepen our already-strong bilateral relationship,” Rubio added.

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