As Donald Trump Questions Montenegro's Place in NATO, Alliance Expands Into Region Russia Wants to Control

President Donald Trump shocked many international observers this week by casting doubt on the utility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its pledge of collective defense.

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday evening, Trump questioned whether a small NATO member like Montenegro deserves to be defended by other members of the military alliance. Meanwhile, Montenegro's neighbor Macedonia—another small Balkan country that, like Montenegro, is caught between Russian aggression to the East and Europe's pull to the West—is working to secure its position in both NATO and the European Union.

The EU's enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn traveled to Macedonia Wednesday, just one day after Trump made his controversial comments to Fox News's Tucker Carlson, in which he suggested that Montenegro could start World War III by acting aggressively toward Russia and triggering NATO's Article 5 on collective defense. Hahn visited Skopje to launch the formal process that would begin Macedonia's EU accession talks as early as next year.

A recent diplomatic breakthrough between Macedonia and its southern neighbor Greece will allow the country to begin the processes to join both NATO and the EU. NATO formally invited Macedonia to begin membership talks just last week. The alliance's expansion is taking place amid Trump's tirade against NATO allies and his friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Did Putin - who attempted a coup in Montenegro in 2016 - raise this with Trump in their one-on-one? Here Trump describes them as “very aggressive” people who may do something provocative.

— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) July 18, 2018

But Russian officials were reportedly livid when Montenegro, a country the Kremlin wishes to control, joined NATO. Prosecutors in Podgorica have even accused Moscow of trying to assassinate the country's prime minister and stage a coup to prevent the country from joining the military alliance. Investigations into the alleged coup attempt are still ongoing.

Experts have warned that Macedonia could be subject to a similar attack as it prepares to join Western alliances, and Trump's comments Tuesday made the country even more vulnerable.

"I'm absolutely worried about Russian intervention [in Macedonia]. The case studies of Montenegro, Ukraine, and Georgia show that Russia is willing to use aggression and hybrid warfare to stop a country from joining NATO. Macedonia may be particularly vulnerable to Russian pressure, especially with the skepticism from the White House on NATO's collective defense," Mark Simakovsky, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek.

On Monday, a report by the investigative reporting group the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed that Ivan Savvidi, a Russian businessman based in Greece, has been bankrolling anti-NATO protests and politicians in Macedonia. The oligarch's business released a statement Tuesday denying the accusations.

Great day for me as #Enlargement Commissioner+ good news f. #citizens of the countries concerned: t’day we launched officially the #screening process w/ 🇲🇰 + 🇦🇱, setting the path f. opening #accession negotiations next year. A big motivation to continue+ intensify #reforms!

— Johannes Hahn (@JHahnEU) July 17, 2018

Aside from Russian interference in the country, Simakovsky said Macedonia could be the first test of whether Trump will side with Russia or the West on NATO expansion. Political dynamics in Washington will likely play a role.

"Montenegro managed to join NATO during the first months of the Trump presidency, mostly due to the fact that the Republican majority is more pro-NATO than Trump and he invested little energy in disrupting the alliance at that point," Florian Bieber, a Balkan expert at the University of Graz in Austria, told Newsweek.

"There are two caveats. First, what will the Congress look like after the [2018] mid-terms? Will there be more Trump-Republicans who are skeptical about NATO and isolationist in Congress? Second, will Trump become more interested in the Balkans and NATO and throw his weight around?" Bieber asked.