NATO Expansion Draws Russian Ire Plus Hints of Better Relations

  • Alliance to expand in southeastern Europe by adding Montenegro
  • Russia warns of consequences but is open to political dialogue

NATO and Russia traded insinuations while offering hints of a thaw in relations after the U.S.-led military alliance extended its reach deeper into southeastern Europe.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials said an offer of membership to Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people with close economic links to Russia, will help piece together a more secure Europe and isn’t meant to antagonize the Kremlin. It will take a year or more for Montenegro to become a full NATO member.

John Kerry meets with Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Igor Luksic

Photographer: Jonathan Ernst/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s not focused on Russia per se or anybody else,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters after the addition was approved at a NATO meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. “It would be a great mistake to react adversely.”

NATO expansion since 1999 into eastern European countries that were under Soviet domination during the Cold War has provoked Russian suspicions and, in 2014, was a factor in the Kremlin’s decision to retake Crimea and promote the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

Syria’s civil war has magnified the tensions, with Russia using its military to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and a U.S.-led coalition focused on defeating the Islamic State, the movement behind the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

While Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned of unspecified “retaliatory action” to the 28-nation alliance’s latest expansion, there were suggestions that the two sides might reopen formal lines of communication that were broken off after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary general, said he is moving toward calling the first meeting since mid-2014 of the NATO-Russia Council, a forum that puts both sides on an equal footing.

“I will now explore how we can use the council as a tool for political engagement, we have never decided to not use it,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.

Russia has never ruled out dialogue with the alliance, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Cyprus.

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