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Brussels (AFP) - NATO on Wednesday invited Montenegro to become the 29th member of the US-led military alliance, defying Russia's warnings it would have to respond to what it branded a threat to its security.
Russia quickly said it would be forced to react to NATO's expansion eastward, with the invitation to the small Balkan country adding to bad blood between Moscow and the West over a host of issues including Ukraine.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, announcing the move at a meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers in Brussels, insisted the "historic" invitation to Montenegro was no one else's business and "not directed at anyone".
"It is extremely important to underline once again that every nation has the right to decide its own path, its own security arrangements," Stoltenberg said. "No one else has the right to interfere in that decision."
Stoltenberg said he expected Montenegro's accession talks to be completed early next year but ratification by the 28 NATO member state parliaments could take some time.
US Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile played down any threat to Russia from NATO, which has responded to the Ukraine conflict with a military upgrade to reassure nervous ex-Soviet states they need not fear a more assertive Russia.
"NATO is a defensive alliance that has existed for 70 years," Kerry said. "NATO is a not a threat to anybody... not an offensive organisation, not focused on Russia per se."
- Russian anger -
Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic said the decision reflected the great efforts his country had made to modernise and meet western civil society norms.
"It is a great day for my country and for the alliance ... It is great news for the western Balkans, for its unity and security," Luksic said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has bitterly complained of what he sees as a hostile NATO encroachment on his country's borders and Moscow was blunt in response on Wednesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said NATO's eastward expansion "cannot but lead to reciprocal actions from the east -- that is, from the Russian side".
Montenegro, a Balkans country of just over 600,000 people, won its independence in 2006 following the bloody break-up of what was Yugoslavia and the end of a federation with Moscow's long-time ally Serbia.
Its army has 2,000 soldiers, and it has contributed 25 soldiers to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan since 2010.
Russia has traditionally been a close ally of Montenegro and several thousand Russians live there, but relations have soured since Montenegro joined EU-led sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.
- 'Act of aggression' -
The Montenegrin government has accused Russia of being behind recent violent protests in order to prevent the country from joining NATO.
Srdjan Milic, head of the opposition Popular Socialist Party which wants a referendum on the issue next year, said most people opposed NATO membership.
"To extend an invitation ... represents an act of aggression against the peace, stability and security of our citizens," Milic said.
The area has long been the site of tensions between Russia and the West, with a NATO-led air campaign in 1999 having forced Serbian forces out of its rebel Kosovo province, which went on to declare independence in 2008.
Most of the former communist states of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact have joined NATO since 1999, and Balkan states Croatia and Albania were the most recent new members, in 2009.
Bosnia and Macedonia are also seeking to join along with Georgia.
Western diplomats say the decision on Montenegro was relatively "easy" but the position of the three others -- especially Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 -- was much more difficult.