BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO offered to take in Montenegro on Wednesday and thus expand its reach in southeast Europe, prompting a brisk Russian threat of retaliatory measures against the tiny Slavic country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted the alliance is “not a threat to anybody” and sought to redirect focus on the radical Islamic State group in Syria.
The invitation to Montenegro culminated a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers that was largely overshadowed by the alliance’s complex relationship and tensions with Moscow over issues like Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Russia continues to bomb “moderate” opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad more than the extremist Islamic State group that the West is fighting, according to U.S. officials.
Montenegro, an Adriatic Sea nation of just over 600,000 people that was part of Yugoslavia and split from Serbia in 2006, was struck by NATO bombs during the air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s forces. Kerry said that NATO’s invitation to Montenegro, which has been working hard to meet that alliance’s admission criteria, didn’t amount to a slap at Russia.
“This is not focused on them specifically. It’s focused on the potential of defense against anybody or anything that is a threat — including ISIL,” he said, using another name for IS. “It would be a great mistake to react adversely to a country that has been working for ten years.”
“NATO is not a threat to anybody,” he said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the invitation to Montenegro, which has strong economic and cultural ties to Russia, reaffirmed the alliance’s longstanding “open-door” policy toward potential member states. Stoltenberg also repeated hopes that NATO will one day take in Georgia, a former Soviet republic that has helped the alliance in Afghanistan, which would be another move that could rankle Moscow.
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia are also being considered as possible entrants to NATO.
The planned expansion of the alliance, which grew to 28 members with the inclusion of Albania and Croatia in 2009, comes as the West has been facing off with Russia over its annexation of Crimea last year and continued support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Nine weeks ago, Russia started airstrikes in Syria, where a U.S.-led coalition supported by all NATO members — if not the alliance itself — was already operating against IS.
The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, cautioned that when it comes to Russia’s air operations in Syria, “the vast majority of their sorties are still against the moderate opposition and those forces that oppose Assad.” The coalition, he said, is targeting IS almost exclusively.
In a softer tone toward Moscow, Kerry said the U.S. believed Russia could be “an extremely constructive and important player in reaching a solution to this current crisis,” as long as it focuses on IS.
“And I think the world would welcome that kind of cooperative effort,” he said.
Russia has opposed the NATO accession of Montenegro, a favored getaway spot and investment site for some Russians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that Moscow will consider possible retaliatory measures. And Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the defense committee at the upper house of Russia parliament, told state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that Russia will freeze joint projects with Montenegro, including defense cooperation.
In 1999, Montenegro, then in a union with Serbia, was heavily bombarded in the first waves of NATO airstrikes which were triggered by Serbia’s violent crackdown against independence-seeking Kosovo Albanians. During the three-month bombardment, Montenegro became refuge for Serbia’s pro-Western opposition leaders and dissidents who were persecuted by Milosevic, Serbia’s leader at the time.
Montenegro’s prime minister said that Wednesday’s invitation represented the most important day for the country since its independence referendum nine years ago.
“Montenegro is entering the exclusive circle of states which are synonymous with the highest values of modern civilization,” Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said. “This is a crown jewel of the long-standing national efforts and comprehensive reform processes launched in 2006.”
But public opinion has been divided on the issue. Srdjan Milic, leader of Montenegro’s pro-Russian opposition, said NATO’s formal invitation “represents an aggression on peace, stability and security of citizens of our country,” and several recent protests by thousands in Montenegro against the pro-NATO government turned violent.
NATO’s announcement sets in motion an accession process that will continue over months before Montenegro formally joins. Until all NATO states ratify the decision, Stoltenberg said Montenegro will be a non-voting participant in meetings.
In their meeting, the NATO ministers also considered issues like the improving air defenses in Turkey, whose military shot down a Russian plane that had allegedly crossed through Turkish air space during a Syria mission, as well as “hybrid” threats like cyber-attacks and continued violence in eastern Ukraine.
Stoltenberg said he was looking into ways of reviving communication in the NATO-Russia Council, as sought by countries like Germany, though he said “this is not about going to business as usual” — insisting the alliance is still very much at odds with Russia over its annexation of Crimea and alleged violations of a deal struck in Minsk, Belarus, aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine.
“Challenges posed by Russia actions in the Euro-Atlantic area will be with us for a long time,” he said.
Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, and Bradley Klapper in Brussels, contributed to this report.
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