Russia warned of retaliatory measures Wednesday after NATO invited the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro to join the military alliance in its bloc’s first expansion since 2009. The move defies previous warnings from Moscow that enlargement of the U.S.-led alliance further into the region would be seen as a provocation.
In a scripted session at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic strode into the imposing conference hall to loud applause from his peers as NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg declared: “This is the beginning of a very beautiful alliance.”
Stoltenberg said inviting Montenegro had nothing to do with Russia. But NATO diplomats have said the decision sends a message to Moscow that it does not have a veto on NATO's eastwards expansion, even if Georgia's membership bid has been complicated by its 2008 war with Russia.
Moscow opposes any NATO extension to former communist areas of eastern and southeastern Europe, part of an east-west struggle for influence over former Soviet satellites that is at the center of the crisis in Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last September that any expansion of NATO was “a mistake, even a provocation.” In comments to Russian media then, he described NATO's so-called open door policy as “irresponsible.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that NATO’s encroachment eastwards would lead to retaliatory measures.
RIA news agency cited a Russian senator as saying Wednesday that Russia would end joint projects with Montenegro if the ex-Communist country joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Adriatic state of 650,000 people is expected to become a member formally next year.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council's defense and safety committee, said the projects which could be axed included those in military areas, RIA reported.
NATO foreign ministers broke off formal contact with Russia in April last year after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and sparked the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 8,000 people.
Still, NATO allies are divided over what message to send to Georgia over its long-delayed membership bid, with some European capitals arguing the alliance would be unable to defend the ex-Soviet state in the event of a conflict with Russia.
Those difficulties were underlined by a foreign ministers' joint statement that provided little momentum in Georgia's membership talks.
While Stoltenberg said the door remains open for Tiblisi, ministers reiterated their long-held position that Tiblisi must continue to prepare for membership one day, calling for Russia's military to withdraw from Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia's presence there and the agreements signed between Russia and the two regions “blatantly contradict the principles of international law,” ministers said.
NATO's founding treaty deems an attack against one ally an attack against all, giving any member a guarantee of protection.
But Russia's build-up of surface-to-air missile batteries and anti-ship missiles in Crimea and the Black Sea make Georgia more difficult to defend from the Mediterranean or NATO-member Turkey, meaning any action might have to involve a deployment of ground troops from Western Europe.
NATO membership is also dependent on a country settling any outstanding territorial disputes, a big hurdle for Georgia.
After Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009, only Serbia, Russia's closest ally in the Balkans, is not actively pursuing membership of the alliance. Foreign ministers signaled support for Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but neither are expected to join soon.
Al Jazeera and wire services