The North Atlantic Treaty Organization formally invited Montenegro to begin talks to join, the first expansion of the alliance since 2009.
The vote Wednesday morning was a rebuff to Russia, which has been deeply critical of the alliance’s expansion calling it a threat to European stability and security.
The decision leaves other aspirants, most notably Russia’s neighbor Georgia, disappointed. While Georgia has been far more active in NATO missions than Montenegro, many in the alliance believe with Russia occupying a portion of the country admitting Georgia is impossible.
Montenegro, a small Balkan country, however presented an easier case, a way of affirming NATO’s “open door” policy without creating a new security obligations—neighboring Croatia was admitted in 2009.
“NATO’s open door policy has helped spread security, stability and democratic values for which the alliance stands,” said Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general. “We are stronger, more effective as an alliance because our door has remained open.”
Gaining NATO membership has been a critical policy goal of the Montenegrin government. Alliance members have said Montenegro has taken difficult steps to reform its security services.
Mr. Stoltenberg said that Montenegro’s progress in improving rule of law will be important during the accession talks so that the membership can be formally ratified.
Igor Lukši?, Montenegro’s minister of foreign affairs and European integration, said his country was “humbled and excited” by the invitation, an important step for his country to move closer to the rest of Europe.
“By opening your door to Montenegro, both literally and symbolically, you have shown why this alliance is so vital and strong,” Mr. Lukši? said.
He said that Montenegro was committed to fighting organized crime and corruption as well as adapting and modernizing its military. He also said the government would work to further build public support for alliance membership.
“We are determined to work tirelessly not to please others but to change our society for the better,” he said. “To paraphrase a famous movie sentence: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful alliance.”
The Kremlin said it would take unspecified “retaliatory measures” over Montenegro’s joining of NATO.
“On all levels, Moscow has always noted that the continuing expansion of NATO, of the military infrastructure of NATO to the east, can only lead to retaliatory measure from the east, from the Russian side, in terms of guaranteeing the security and maintaining a parity of interests,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday, official news agencies reported.
He said it was too early to speak of specific measures.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asked about the Russian statement, said NATO is “fully prepared” to work with Russia.
“NATO is a defensive alliance,” he said. “NATO is not a threat to anybody.”
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