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Montenegro '100 percent' sure of U.S. backing for NATO accession

PODGORICA (Reuters) - Montenegro has received assurances the U.S. Senate will ratify its accession to NATO and expects to become a full member of the alliance at a summit in late May, Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic said on Thursday.

In an interview with Reuters, Darmanovic countered speculation that U.S. ratification of Montenegro’s NATO accession may fall victim to a desire by the new administration of President Donald Trump to improve relations with Russia.

Moscow opposes NATO’s enlargement in the Western Balkans.

Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic of some 650,000 people, said last week it had evidence that Russian state structures were involved in an alleged plot to overthrow the government during an election in October last year with the aim of halting its NATO accession, an accusation Moscow dismissed.

Darmanovic, Montenegro’s Washington ambassador from 2010 to 2016, said the country had received assurances from both sides of the Senate aisle that “it’s going to happen, 100 percent.”

“We understand that President Trump wants to make some breakthroughs in relations with Russia, especially in combating terrorism, but we can see no signs about sacrificing the principal American national interests,” he said in English.

Twenty-four of NATO’s 28 members have ratified Montenegro’s accession. The United States, Spain, Canada and the Netherlands have yet to do so, for procedural reasons, Darmanovic said.

“It (accession) is expected to happen at the next summit at the end of May,” Darmanovic told Reuters. “It is reasonable to expect all procedures to be finalised by that moment.”

Congressional aides say Republican Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul are blocking any quick “voice vote” approval of the resolution ratifying Montenegro’s accession. An aide to Lee said the senator wanted a roll call vote in which every senator’s position on the issue was recorded.

The Senate’s Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could overcome their objections by scheduling a debate on the matter and a roll call vote, but he has not done so. Aides to Paul and McConnell did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump described NATO as “obsolete” during the U.S. presidential election campaign but is expected to attend a summit of alliance leaders in late May in Brussels.

Asked what might have motivated Russia to try to overthrow the Montenegrin government, Darmanovic replied: “Not to have the whole Adriatic and Mediterranean under the NATO shield, but also maybe reshaping the geopolitics of the Western Balkans.”

Montenegro said one of two Russian citizens accused of masterminding the October plot had been identified as an intelligence officer who had previously worked at the Russian embassy in Poland.

Darmanovic said Russia was “of course” trying to send a message to other countries in the region with EU and NATO aspirations.

“Full-fledged NATO membership will be for sure the game-changer for all the stakeholders,” he said. “It is not the same if you live under Article 5 or not,” Darmanovic said, referring to the NATO principle that an attack against one member is considered an attack against all.

Darmanovic, an avid chess player, said it was question of patience. “It’s a complex strategic battle in which we should be patient, and patience is one of the highest qualities in a chess battle,” he said.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Heneghan