WASHINGTON - Montenegro is one step closer to becoming NATO's 29th member.
Ratification of the treaty on Montenegro's admission into the alliance cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate Monday, setting the stage for a final vote later this week. Approving the treaty requires a two-thirds' vote in the Senate, after which the president can ratify it.
Ninety-seven senators supported the measure.
“[Approval] will enhance our security. It will strengthen the alliance and it will send a strong message of resolve to Russia as it invades its neighbors and the international order,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, said. “No country outside the alliance gets a veto over who gets to join, especially Russia. So we must send a strong signal.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., praised the small Balkan nation's effort to fulfill membership standards while actively supporting NATO-led combat and military training operations in Afghanistan.
"It's important to note that Montenegro has taken these steps despite Russia's best efforts to undermine their progress every step of the way," Corker said.
A final vote is expected as early as Tuesday.
Tillerson supports addition to NATO
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to the Senate pressing lawmakers to approve the treaty ahead of a summit scheduled for May that will include NATO heads of state and government.
“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,” Tillerson wrote in the letter. He said Montenegro's membership would give NATO a contiguous border along the Adriatic coast.
Montenegro is in the middle of a clash between the West and Russia over influence in the Balkans. The outcome could determine the way the region is heading: toward NATO and the European Union, or back to Russia's sphere of influence.
Two senators against expansion
All 28 of NATO's members must ratify Montenegro's accession before it can formally join the alliance. Only three members have not finalized their approval. The vote in the U.S. Senate was blocked for months by two Republican senators, Rand Paul and Mike Lee, who oppose expanding the military alliance.
Paul spoke on the floor against ratification of Montenegro's membership and NATO expansion.
“Admitting Montenegro to NATO will do nothing to advance our national security, and will do everything to simply add another small country to the welfare wagon of NATO. Advocates for expanding NATO believe that unless the whole world joins NATO, Russia will conquer the world. but the truth is more nuanced,” he said. “The same cheerleaders for Montenegro being in NATO want Ukraine in NATO. They want Georgia in NATO. If both Ukraine and Georgia were in NATO today, we would be involved in a world war with Russia.”
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Serbian Service.