BRUSSELS • Nato has invited Montenegro to become the 29th member of the United States-led military alliance, defying Russian warnings the move would be a provocation and threaten stability in Europe.
The invitation to the small Balkan country comes as the West remains at loggerheads with Moscow over a host of issues, and as Nato responds to the Ukraine crisis with a military upgrade to reassure nervous former Soviet states they need not fear a more assertive Russia.
Announcing the move yesterday at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg insisted the "historic" invitation to Montenegro was no one else's business and "not directed at anyone".
"It is extremely important to underline, once again, that every nation has the right to decide its own path, its own security arrangements," Mr Stoltenberg said. "No one else has the right to interfere in that decision." He said he expected Montenegro's accession talks to be completed early next year but ratification by the 28 Nato member state Parliaments could take some time.
Montenegro Foreign Minister Igor Luksic said the move reflected the great efforts his country had made to modernise and meet western civil society norms. "It is a great day for my country and for the alliance... It is great news for the western Balkans, for its unity and security," he said. Nato diplomats have said the move sends a message to Moscow that it does not have a veto on Nato's eastwards expansion.
Russia yesterday said it would be forced to react to Nato expansion. Moscow opposes any Nato extension to former communist areas of eastern and south-eastern Europe.
"On all different levels, Moscow has always noted that the continuing expansion of Nato, the military infrastructure of Nato, to the east of course cannot but lead to reciprocal actions from the east, that is from the Russian side, in the interests of providing security and supporting the priority of our interests," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists yesterday.
RIA news agency cited a Russian senator who said yesterday that Russia will end joint projects with Montenegro if it joins Nato. Senator Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council's defence and safety committee, said the projects that could be axed included those in military areas, RIA reported.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that Nato is a defensive alliance and its decision to enlarge into the Balkans is not directed at Russia or any other nation. "Nato is not a threat to anyone... it is a defensive alliance, it is simply meant to provide security," Mr Kerry told a news conference.
The tiny Balkans country of just more than 600,000 people had been part of a federation with Serbia, a long-time Russian ally that Moscow has always regarded to be part of the same Slav family. Russia has traditionally been a close ally of Montenegro and several thousand Russians live there. However, relations between Podgorica and Moscow have soured since Montenegro joined European Union-led sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine conflict.
Ms Daliborka Uljarevic, head of the Centre for Civic Education, one of the most prominent Montenegrin non-governmental organisations that promotes EU and Nato integration, said: "An invitation to join the alliance is an additional guarantee that... we can devote ourselves calmly to the democratisation of society without being concerned about our borders."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE