NATO invites Montenegro to join alliance, defying Russia

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NATO foreign ministers invited tiny Montenegro on Wednesday to join their military alliance in its first expansion since 2009, defying Russian warnings that enlargement of the U.S.-led bloc further into the Balkans would be 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."

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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 centre 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".

See photos from the meeting in Brussels:

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NATO invites Montenegro to join alliance
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NATO invites Montenegro to join alliance, defying Russia
NATO foreign ministers gather for the session to formally admit Montenegro during ministerial meetings at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels on December 2, 2015. NATO foreign ministers invited Montenegro to join the US-led military alliance, a move Russia has repeatedly warned would be a provocation and a threat to stability in the western Balkans. / AFP / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST (Photo credit should read JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)
Montenegro's Deputy Prime minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Igor Luksic (L) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg give a joint press conference during the second day of the Foreign Affairs meeting on the Nato-Ukraine Commission at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on December 02, 2015. / AFP / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, greets Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic, center, and Montenegro's Defense Minister Milica Pejanovic-Durisic during a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. NATO member states have formally invited the tiny Adriatic nation of Montenegro to join the alliance in the face of Russian opposition to the move. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - DECEMBER 02: (L-R) Montenegro's Defense Minister Milica Pejanovic-Djurisic, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Igor Luksic, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow attend the second day meeting of the NATO Foreign Ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on December 02, 2015. NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday invited Montenegro to become the 29th member of the alliance in its first expansion in six years. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - DECEMBER 02: Montenegro's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Igor Luksic speaks during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (not seen) on the second day of the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on December 02, 2015. NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday invited Montenegro to become the 29th member of the alliance in its first expansion in six years. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - DECEMBER 02: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a joint press conference with Montenegro's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Igor Luksic (not seen) on the second day of the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on December 02, 2015. NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday invited Montenegro to become the 29th member of the alliance in its first expansion in six years. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic address a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. NATO member states have formally invited the tiny Adriatic nation of Montenegro to join the alliance in the face of Russian opposition to the move. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic, center, speaks during a round table meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. NATO member states have formally invited the tiny Adriatic nation of Montenegro to join the alliance in the face of Russian opposition to the move. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
US Secretary of State John Kerry attends a Foreign Affairs ministers session with Montenegro on the second day of NATO ministerial meetings at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on December 2, 2015. NATO foreign ministers today invited Montenegro to join the US-led military alliance, a move Russia has repeatedly warned would be a provocation and a threat to stability in the western Balkans. / AFP / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry reads through his notes during a session on Ukraine at the NATO ministerial meetings at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels on December 2, 2015. / AFP / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST (Photo credit should read JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (2-L) greets US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on before a session on Ukraine at the NATO ministerial meetings at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels on December 2, 2015. / AFP / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST (Photo credit should read JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, left, looks over a paper with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, center, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during a round table meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. U.S .Secretary of State John Kerry and other NATO foreign ministers met Tuesday to discuss Russia, beefing up the alliance's southern defenses and whether to expand NATO by adding Montenegro to the NATO Alliance. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, speaks with Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, left, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, center, during a round table meeting of Resolute Support at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other NATO foreign ministers meet Tuesday to discuss Russia, beefing up the alliance's southern defenses and whether to expand NATO by adding Montenegro to the NATO Alliance. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, greets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as he arrives for the session to formally admit Montenegro during ministerial meetings at NATO Headquarters in Brussels Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. NATO member states have formally invited the tiny Adriatic nation of Montenegro to join the alliance in the face of Russian opposition to the move. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)
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RIA news agency cited a Russian senator as saying on Wednesday that Russia will end joint projects with Montenegro if the ex-Communist country joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. 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 defence 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.

'BLATANT' CONTRADICTION

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.

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 signalled support for Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but neither are expected to join soon.

Sixteen years after NATO bombed Montenegro during the Kosovo war, Montenegro has now been invited to join NATO but it can take up to 18 months for a country to formally join. Stoltenberg said he expected accession talks to go quickly.

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