The White House and Pentagon support the Balkan state acquire membership but the Senate has yet to approve it and Trump could oppose it as president

A behind-the-scenes drama over Montenegros accession to Nato is currently playing out on Capitol Hill.

The tiny Balkan states bid to become the 29 th member of the alliance is strongly backed by the White House and the Pentagon, but its status is unresolved in the Senate, which will end its legislative conference on Thursday.

And although the Senate can take up the Montenegro question in January, experts on European security are urging senators to ensure the US formally blesses the Nato expansion before Barack Obama leaves office on 20 January, to minimize the risk that Donald Trump will oppose it as president.

Russia opposes Montenegros accession, and Trumps apparent tilt towards Russia despite its recent aggressive moves in Ukraine has caused great dread among Natos northern and eastern European member states.

Russia and our European allies are watching us very carefully to find what we will do across the board. Congress taking action on this would be regarded as a positive step by our European allies, surely, told Evelyn Farkas, who until 2015 was the Pentagons policy chief for Russia and eastern Europe.

It likely wont get a reaction from the Russians, but they will take note if the Senate fails to act, because they will view that as an opening, an opportunity for them to somehow change the dynamic.

On Tuesday, the Senate foreign relations committee voted in a business meeting to advance Montenegros Nato bid to the Senate floor after a months-long bottleneck. The committees inertia had depicted scrutiny, as the panel chairman, Bob Corker of Tennessee, has met with Trump about joining the administration. Even without Corker in the administration, his committee will be a critical friend or obstacle to Trumps foreign policy agenda, and many in the US and Europe are trying to divine which it will be.

But Mitch McConnell, the powerful Senate leader, has not committed to putting Montenegro on the floor. The Senate still needs to take up a major funding bill to avoid a government shutdown, and several senators oppose taking up additional business. It is not possible to say if that will change between now and when we leave, told Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell.

The uncertainty has unsettled traditional Nato supporters in both parties and abroad. At a right-leaning defense meeting in California on Saturday, visiting foreign defense ministers discussed whether the US still valued Nato, as Trump has called it obsolete. Mike Turner, an Ohio GOP congressman and key Nato backer on Capitol hill, said he looked to greeting Montenegro into the Nato family.

But with Washington and foreign capitals looking to see whether Trump will govern with the same warmth toward an expansionist Russia that he proved on the campaign trail, supporters of expanding the alliance consider it essential to keep the pressure on, the momentum on, so it gets done sooner rather than afterwards, told Sue Brown, a former US ambassador to Montenegro during the Obama administration.

Nato officially endorsed Montenegros accession bid at its July conference in Warsaw. The US endorsement will not guarantee that Montenegro joins the alliance, but whatever action Washington takes is likely to be viewed as a bellwether in alliance countries for their own legislative action.

Support for permitting the smaller Balkan country into Nato was not a foregone conclusion within the Obama administration. Several key figures in the White House and the state department had to be convinced that Montenegro had taken sufficient steps to combat internal corruption and strengthen democratic, civilian control of its military before they supported a commitment to protect Montenegro against assault, the guarantee at the heart of the Nato alliance.

Both Brown and Farkas pushed inside the administration to support Montenegros Nato membership. Internally, resistance dissolved post-Ukraine, Farkas told, referring to Russias annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists.

Vice-president Joe Biden proved to be a critical friend in helping overcome administration fears that the accession negotiations would be needlessly provocative to Russia.

Russia opinions Nato as a military threat and is suspected of involvement in an October coup plot to install a pro-Moscow government in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. Several Serbians and Montenegrins arrested in the failed coup endeavor had fought with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. Allegedly, they intended to wear police uniforms to burst into Montenegros parliament and assassinate the prime minister.

While Russia opinions the Balkans as sitting within its sphere of influence, Farkas told, even more important to Russia is the vague perception Russia is losing to Nato.

The implications of Montenegro joining Nato or its membership stalling, particularly in the US are likely to be felt in eastern European nations closer to Russias frontiers that might also seek confederation membership, Brown indicated.

If this can be completed before the end of the administration, it will send a strong signal to those countries pushing to be Nato members that Nato maintains an open-door policy. If you commit to the work needs to be done, Nato is open to you, she said.

This is the track[ Montenegro] decided to take, and Russia needs to accept it and then move on.

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