- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The White House broadened its feud with Russia Wednesday, accusing Moscow of plotting an election day coup last fall in tiny Montenegro, the newest member of NATO.

Ahead of President Trump’s meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington, senior White House officials said the U.S. supports Montenegro’s investigation into the alleged Russian-backed plot to thwart the Balkan nation from joining the western security alliance.

“We’re very concerned about Russian interference in the October elections in Montenegro, including credible reports of Russian support for an election-day attack on the government,” a senior White House official told reporters. “The United States supports the efforts of the Montenegrin authorities to investigate this case.”

Authorities in Montenegro arrested a group of Serbian nationals on the eve of the country’s parliamentary elections last October and accused “Russian nationalists” of playing a role in supporting the alleged conspirators. Police allege that the plotters wanted to seize the Montenegrin parliament and assassinate Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic, who also served as the former president.

Moscow has denied the allegations, calling them “absurd” and unsubstantiated.

Mr. Trump, who has been fighting accusations that Russian meddling in the U.S. election helped him to win the presidency, signed a certification this week to formally admit Montenegro into NATO. Russia has opposed strenuously the expansion of NATO, especially by nations in its former sphere of influence in the Balkan region.

Montenegro, on the Adriatic Sea, is part of the former Yugoslavia and has a population the size of Memphis, Tennessee. It has a standing army of 2,000 soldiers.

The administration’s potential provocation of Russia also comes at a moment when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is holding contentious meetings in Moscow over Russia’s military support of Syria, where the U.S. launched missile strikes last week in retaliation for Syria’s chemical-weapons attack on civilians. The U.S. says Russia tried to cover up the gas attack and may have been complicit in the atrocity.

The senior White House official said Montenegro “will strengthen NATO and U.S. security by bringing a capable and committed partner into the alliance.”

Montenegro’s accession will also increase stability and security in the western Balkans,” the official said, adding that it “will make clear that no third country has a veto over a country’s sovereign decision to join NATO.”

“The door to membership in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations remains open,” the official said.

Mr. Trump, who questioned the U.S. commitment to NATO during the campaign, also plans to discuss with Mr. Stoltenberg options for getting more NATO members to pay the suggested 2 percent of gross domestic product to the alliance. One White House official said Mr. Stoltenberg and Mr. Trump “are likely to see eye-to-eye” on that issue.

Montenegro now spends 1.7 percent of its GDP on defense, a greater share than all but six other NATO members, including the U.S.

But White House aides said Mr. Trump fully supports the alliance. He will visit NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on May 25 during his first visit abroad as president.

“The president will reaffirm the strong commitment of the United States to NATO, and the value he places on the trans-Atlantic bond in general,” the official said of the meeting on Wednesday. “He will emphasize the ironclad U.S. commitment to the collective defense of NATO allies.”

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