NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday decided to invite Montenegro to become the 29th member of their alliance despite Russian concerns, leading Moscow to threaten a response.
“A NATO accession of Montenegro would not change the strategic balance, but it shows that the US-promoted quest to enlarge is not stopping,” Aleksey Pushkov, the influential head of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Interfax.
The leadership in Moscow will analyse the situation and react, the news agency also quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov as saying.
Montenegro would be the third nation from the Western Balkans to join NATO after Albania and Croatia. Russia should have no say on the country’s decisions, top NATO officials and ministers said.
“This is a decision which is up to 28 NATO allies and Montenegro to make, and no one else has the right to interfere,” Stoltenberg said. “To invite Montenegro is not directed against Russia, it is a decision for our security.”
“NATO is not a threat to anybody … It’s not focused on Russia per se or anybody else,” US Secretary of State John Kerry added. “It would be a great mistake to react adversely to a country that has been working for 10 years [to join NATO].”
The membership invitation is a positive signal for all of the Western Balkans, Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Igor Luksic said.
“This is indeed a great day for my country, I believe a well-deserved one,” he told NATO ministers in Brussels. “The invitation to Montenegro is great news for the Western Balkans as well, for the strengthening of its security and stability.”
Luksic promised that his country would steadfastly continue implementing reforms, for instance when it comes to fighting corruption or improving the defence sector.
“We are fully aware that the invitation is not the end of the process, but the beginning of a new one,” he said. “We’re determined to constantly improve and work tirelessly, not to please others but to change our society for the better.”
Accession talks and a parliamentary ratification process in existing NATO member states will now take place before the nation, once part of Yugoslavia, can formally join.
The accession talks could wrap up in early 2016 and the ratification process took approximately one year the last time around, Stoltenberg noted.
“But I will not give any dates [for Montenegro] because it’s not possible to say anything with certainty about how long … this will take in different parliaments,” he said.
Kerry said his government looks forward to working with Montenegro on the accession process in the months “leading up to the [NATO] Warsaw summit in July.”
The three other countries seeking to join NATO are also expected to be a topic at that summit.
Ministers on Wednesday issued guidance to Bosnia, Georgia and Macedonia, calling on them to “continue to implement the necessary reforms and decisions to prepare for membership.”
“We remain as committed as ever to the membership aspirations of these countries,” Stoltenberg said. “We will do everything we can to assist them in achieving their goals.”
Ukraine also aspires to join NATO, but the process has largely been placed on hold.