BRUSSELS— NATO invited the Balkan nation of Montenegro to become its 29th member, agreeing Thursday to expand for only the seventh time in its history despite Russia’s angry objections.
The decision is still subject to formal approval by the U.S. Senate and the alliance’s other national parliaments.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it was the “beginning of a new secure chapter” in the former Yugoslav republic’s history.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic attended the signing of an accession protocol at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He said his country, bombed by NATO warplanes 16 years ago, would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the other members of the U.S-led alliance.
“You can count on us at any time,” Djukanovic said.
Russia has accused NATO of trying to encircle it and friendly nations like Serbia, and vowed to do what’s necessary to defend its national security and interests.
Sergei Zheleznyak, a prominent member of the Russian parliament, has said his country would have to alter its relations with Montenegro, historically close to Russia, if it joined NATO without holding a national referendum.
“We would have to change our policy in regard to this friendly country,” Zheleznyak said. “If NATO military infrastructure were placed there, we would have to respond by limiting our contacts in economic and other spheres.”
Other Russian officials have said their country could ban some imports from Montenegro and levy other trade sanctions.
The signing ceremony at NATO headquarters for Montenegro’s membership invitation coincided with the start of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, and Secretary of State John Kerry signed the document on behalf of the United States.
Since NATO’s creation in 1949 as a bulwark of the West’s Cold War defenses against the Soviet Union, it has grown from 12 founding members to absorb most of the Kremlin’s former allies in the communist East Bloc. NATO last added new members in 2009, when Albania and Croatia joined.
Asked by reporters how long it will take for Montenegro to become a fully-pledged member, Stoltenberg said he couldn’t predict how fast legislators in NATO member nations will act, but that ratification of the accession protocols took about a year in the last expansion round.
“I expect we will soon see 29 allied flags flying outside the NATO headquarters,” Stoltenberg said. Until ratification is complete, he said Montenegro is guaranteed a “seat at the table” at all alliance proceedings as an observer.
Montenegro would be among NATO’s smallest members, boasting active-duty armed forces of only 2,000. But Stoltenberg said that as an alliance partner, it has already contributed to NATO-led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and that the document signed Thursday “shows once again that NATO’s door remains open” to countries like Georgia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that also aspire to become members one day.
“Montenegro is a signal that the alliance is not giving up on the enlargement process and that Russia holds no veto on the accession of an aspirant country,” said Bruno Lete, senior program officer at the German Marshall Fund, a Brussels think tank.
Another U.S.-based NATO expert, though, said that for the alliance to open its ranks to Montenegro hardly constitutes a “brave challenge to Russia” and that NATO and the Kremlin alike are exaggerating the significance.
“Montenegro is joining NATO because it is small enough and far away enough from Russia’s borders to be a relatively safe decision for NATO governments,” said Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council in Washington.