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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, right, shakes hands with Milica Pejanovic-Djurisic, Montenegro's defense minister, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015.The small Balkan nation was invited to join NATO on Wednesday. At center is Montenegro Foreign Minister Igor Luksic.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, right, shakes hands with Milica Pejanovic-Djurisic, Montenegro's defense minister, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015.The small Balkan nation was invited to join NATO on Wednesday. At center is Montenegro Foreign Minister Igor Luksic. (Courtesy of NATO)

BRUSSELS — Russia threatened unspecified measures in response to NATO’s decision Wednesday to invite the small Balkan nation of Montenegro to join the alliance, a step that virtually guarantees the U.S.-led security pact will soon expand to 29 nations.

The decision to start “accession talks” paves the way for the country to formally join the alliance next year.

“This is a good day for Montenegro, a good day for the Western Balkans and a good day for the alliance,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the continuing expansion of NATO to the east would lead to retaliatory measures from Russia.

The decision by allies to extend the invitation during a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, signals the first expansion since 2009 for the alliance, which other nations such as Georgia and Ukraine also have ambitions to join. In recent weeks, Russian officials have spoken out against NATO expansions plans, saying they complicate Russia-NATO relations at a time of already high tension.

For Montenegro, the path to NATO membership has been a nearly 10-year endeavor that demanded a host of military and political reforms for the former Yugoslav republic that itself was a target of NATO bombs during the war in the Balkans 16 years ago.

“The decision to invite Montenegro as a full member is not about Russia,” Stoltenberg said. “It is about Montenegro and NATO. It is for our shared security.”

Stoltenberg also said the alliance remains committed to eventually adding other aspirants, notably Georgia, which has been on a path to membership since 2008. Moscow is especially sensitive about the former Soviet republic, with which Russia fought a brief war in 2008.

It remains unclear whether Georgia will achieve member status, given the reservations of other alliance members, including Germany. Still, Stoltenberg said NATO remains committed to its open-door policy.

“Every nation has its right to decide its own path and its own security arrangements,” he said.

Inside Montenegro, public opinion polls reflect a divided public over the merits of NATO membership. The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, said there have been signs of increased public support in the country.

“We’ve looked for some period now for indicators of that national decision and national support for that decision,” Lute said ahead of Wednesday’s decision. “We have seen over the last two or three months’ progress in terms of generating public support by way of opinion polling.”

Still, he added: “I think it’s safe to say that public support in Montenegro is not unanimous, but quite frankly, I can’t think on any issues in any one of the 28 allies in which polling is unanimous.”

If it becomes an alliance member, Montenegro will become the third state once part of the former Yugoslavia to join NATO.

“This is definitely a long-awaited decision but also recognition of very hard work over the past nine years,” said Igor Lusic, Montenegro’s foreign minister. He added that the country would continue to make political reforms ahead of accession.

The former Yugoslavia was unique among communist states in that it was associated with NATO. The 1953 Balkan Pact enabled military ties between the alliance and Yugoslavia.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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