It has nothing to do with Russia
As NATO prepares to devour Montenegro, most commentators in the mainstream and alternative media claim that Russia now has egg on its face. The former are giddy about it, while the latter are worried, but both agree this has something to do with Russia. They could not be more wrong.
Supposedly Montenegro joining NATO will pain Russia because it is a country which has been traditionally in the Russian sphere of influence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Montenegro has never been in the Russian sphere of influence.
In the 19th and 20th century Moscow's sphere of influence intermittently extended over Bulgarians and Romanians but it never reached the western Balkans. Even at the heyday of the Soviet Union, Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia which was unaligned and independent of Moscow.
Traditionally Montenegrins have been staunch Russophiles and Russia in turn has at times been able to lend some military and diplomatic support to their position. Yet these were temporary, and often symbolic, intrusions into the sphere of influence of powers much nearer to Montenegro—the Ottomans, Austria, Italy, France and Germany.
In fact Montenegro has only ever been dominated by the Turks, or by Western Europeans (or was independent in alliance with other South Slavs) which sufficiently explains its traditional admiration for Russia. The "loss" of Montenegro will not pain Russia because it never had it in the first place.
There is a Russian presence in Montenegro today but it is as apolitical as it is visible.
Russia is the single most important source of tourists for Montenegro. Russians make up 30 percent of foreign visitors, who often tend to be more spendthrift than their European counterparts.
Menus on the Montenegrin coast come in Serbian, English and Russian. Ads for holiday homes in the Russian language abound. The coastal town of Budva in particular is a giant construction yard fueled by Russian oligarch money.
Yet the very fact tourism is the biggest tie between Russia and Montenegro today shows just how thin their ties are. Russian tourists travel abroad in search of sunshine rather than a particular political climate. If they wandered out based on politics they would be drawn to places like Donbass, or the Serb half of Bosnia – not the likes of Turkey and Montenegro where they are found instead.
Hordes of Russian beach-goers in Montenegro are no more sign of Russian influence than they are in Turkey or Bulgaria. Bulgaria is another Slavic, Orthodox country which has been a member of NATO since 2004, yet every year gazillions of Russian tourists descend to their Black Sea coast.
The number of Russian visitors in Montengro has declined steadily in the last few years but this has far more to do with the plunging value of the ruble rather than sour grapes over Montenegro's NATO membership.
West vs the Balkans
The proper context of international politics in the western Balkans has never been one of Western Europe vs. Russia. Russia was always too far away to play a major role, and today it is farther than it has ever been since the 1700s. The friction has always been between Balkan independence and western (and earlier Turkish) domination.
In 1876 Montenegrins rushed to aid Christians rising against Turkish oppression in Herzegovina. Rather than allow expansion of South Slav independence against the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Austria – with the blessings of Europe – moved in and occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina for itself. It then subjected the land to a forced colonial "civilizing mission" which ended with its murder-suicide in WWI.
In 1915 Austrians and Germans rolled over Serbia and Montenegro, destroying the two independent states in the western Balkans. In 1941 they repeated the exercise destroying the first Yugoslavia.
In 1991 the second Yugoslavia was destroyed in a civil war with generous help from Germany and the US. Then in 1999 US and Germany for good measure bombed and dismembered the third Yugoslavia – but not before ending the independence of Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, in 1994 and 1995 respectively.
The west would then go on to set itself up as de facto highest authority in Macedonia being called to arbiter (some would say to fan) disputes between its Macedonians and Albanians. Just as it had made itself the de jure absolute authority over Bosnia and Kosovo Albanians.
It is a fact that western Balkans has been for the longest time the playground, not of Russia, but of the west.
The west has been rarely so interested in the region as to desire to conquer it outright, but it has often felt called to manage and transform it. The chosen means however have been the same – force, supremacy, colonialism.
If Yugoslavia was independent of Russia and the west alike, all of its successors are in a subordinate relationship to western elites of one kind or another. On one side of the spectrum are Slovenia and Croatia, which at least can say they are not more colonies than any other small EU states.
On the other end are Bosnia and Kosovo where foreigners wield power over local officials as per the imposed law of the land. In fact in Bosnia that power is absolute – the foreign High Representative may kick out any elected official and strike down any law.
In this spectrum Montenegro, a pocket-sized mafiosi state with an identity crisis, falls somewhere in the middle. The west gets its way, but it is its embassies, rather than EU institutions, or modern colonial governors, who run the show.
In this context NATO membership for Montenegro isn't about Russia or even about Montenegro. It is about the west.
In 1991 the west embarked on a project to manage and transform the western Balkans. It sought to control the region by way of trade and arms embargoes. By no-fly zones, and occupying and peacekeeping troops. By repeated military action against headstrong and independent local actors. By funneling arms and lending moral, diplomatic and propaganda support to its chosen champions on the ground. By dispatching its police, judges and politicians to wield formal power over locals in their own land. And by expending millions on "democracy promotion", co-opting the local media, and freezing out politicians who won't play ball.
Naturally the west would like to be able to say that its transformation has succeeded and its heavy hand was justified. For that it needs these countries to join NATO and the EU.
In the mythos of western intervention in the Balkans its peoples are retrograde semi-barbarians who can not stop killing each other in name of passé ideas thus justifying western intervention against them. However by long-term western management they may be civilized into a slightly shoddier version of proper Europeans who will finally be ready to enter to enter the "European family" of nations.
And by Europe, they of course mean NATO and EU.
Westerners who worked to bring Montenegro into NATO – and that largely means foreign services, and NGO and media people – want Montenegro in NATO because that helps to paper over what an unmitigated disaster their dominance over the region has been.
It is simple. If even a government of a country which was bombed by the west asks to join NATO it must mean the wars west waged over locals were justified.
And if NATO only accepts states which are sufficiently democratic and functional and Montengro joins, it must mean Montenegro has become one such state, and their project of civilizing the last wild peoples of Europe is on course.
In fact, under the surface the region is at its most dysfunctional ever since attaining liberation from the Ottomans precisely because of harebrained western intervention.
The comically inconsistent and unjust settlement of the 1990s wars as was imposed by the west only persists because the west continues to guarantee it (except against its own arbitrary and unilateral modifications). It has brought no real settlement between affected peoples.
Ironically the one major factor of stability has been precisely the plunder and ineptitude of the local elites the west has sponsored.
Nowadays most of the Balkans, Montenegro included, is an economic moonscape. A regular worker wage in retail or a manufacturing plant is 300 dollars and that is with 20-30 percent unemployment. Economic emigration is heavy, and most populations are shrinking.
Between a shrinking population, zero economic prospects, and fantastically corrupt local elites, there isn't so much outrage over foreign tutelage and unjust foreign-imposed borders, as much as resigned apathy over national life itself.
That is the real context of Montenegro in NATO. It is no setback for Russia, and it is certainly no coup for NATO, or Montenegro.