On Wednesday (2 December) the Balkan state of Montenegro will be formally invited to join the NATO military alliance, diplomatic sources said, a move which could further strain already difficult ties with Moscow.
The offer is expected to come after a meeting of foreign ministers from the 28-nation alliance in Brussels on Tuesday (1 December) and Wednesday.
“The proposed text has been approved at (NATO) ambassador level,” one source said Monday, asking not to be named. “After that, it would take at most a year and a half for Montenegro to become a member state,” the source added.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said he could not confirm the decision because it was up to the grouping’s foreign ministers but he commented positively on the prospect.
“Montenegro has come a long way on its path to join the Euro-Atlantic family,” he told a briefing ahead of the meeting.
“Extending an invitation to Montenegro to start accession talks would be a historic decision. It would signal our continued commitment to the Western Balkans,” he said.
The foreign ministers’ meeting is expected to be dominated by the Syrian conflict, closely followed by relations with Russia and the Ukraine crisis.
Moscow has historic ties with Montenegro’s neighbour Serbia and interests in the Western Balkans, while finding itself at loggerheads with NATO over a series of issues.
Russian President Vladimir Putin bitterly complains of what he sees as NATO encroachment, especially after the pro-Western Kyiv government said it was looking to join the US-led alliance in the future.
NATO offered Ukraine membership in 2008, when Russia went to war against another former Soviet state, Georgia, but Kyiv opted for what it said was a “non-bloc” policy instead.
President Petro Poroshenko however reversed that position last year over Moscow’s support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
Most of the former communist states of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact have joined NATO, starting in 1999.
Balkan states Croatia and Albania were the most recent countries to join, in 2009.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, for the new members of the Western clubs, usually NATO membership has preceded EU accession. Montenegro has applied to join the EU in 2009 and received the status of candidate country in December 2010. Accession negotiations are ongoing.
The United States has been spearheading Montenegro’s accession to NATO in spite of Russian opposition.
Russia has described NATO's extension into the Balkans, where Moscow enjoys historically close relations with fellow Orthodox Christians, as a "provocation".
Western diplomats say Montenegro's accession would send a message to Moscow that it cannot halt NATO's expansion, though it is much less contentious than the its earlier overtures to the likes of formerly Soviet Georgia, whose own membership ambitions were quashed by its war with Russia in 2008.
Montenegro's breathtaking Adriatic coastline has seen an influx of Russian private money, homebuyers and tourists since the country split from a state union with Serbia in 2006.
But Podgorica's relations with Moscow have long been uneasy given the Montenegrin government's pursuit of closer integration within the West largely since the end in 1995 of the wars over the break-up of old federal Yugoslavia.
Ties deteriorated further when Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Montenegro's government points to opinion polls that suggest a narrow majority support entering NATO - 16 years after the alliance struck targets in the country during an 11-week air war to drive security forces under Serbian strongman Slobodan Miloševi? from Serbia's then-southern province of Kosovo.
Montenegro was at that time part of a rump Yugoslav state with Serbia, left over after Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia broke away from their joint communist federation.
But unlike Miloševi?'s Serbia, Montenegro began leaning towards cultivating ties with western Europe. It won independence in 2006 and has undertaken reforms in pursuit of EU and NATO membership.
Critics, however, point to the 25 years of political domination by Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovi? and his Democratic Party of Socialists, long dogged by allegations of organised crime that the government says are unfounded.