WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is ready to back NATO membership for Montenegro, provided the former Yugoslav republic continues to pursue reforms and increases popular support for joining the Western security alliance, the White House said on Monday.
Vice President Joe Biden told Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in a telephone call on Monday the United States would support extending a NATO membership invitation to Montenegro in December so long as it continued to make progress in those areas.
Allowing NATO membership for the former communist nation could escalate tensions between Russia and the United States and other members of the Western alliance amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
An invitation for Montenegro to join NATO could come at the group's foreign ministers meeting in December, the White House said. The Western alliance decided a year ago to open intensified talks with Montenegro on membership, but it delayed a decision on any offer until the end of 2015.
"The vice president and prime minister agreed that Montenegro’s membership in NATO would firmly anchor Montenegro in Euro-Atlantic institutions, promote greater regional stability in the Balkans, and demonstrate the credibility of NATO’s Open Door policy," the statement said.
Montenegro, along with Macedonia, another former Yugoslav republic, want to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Albania and Croatia, which joined NATO in 2009.
Russian officials have said the entry of such nations could be seen as a provocation even as leaders in other eastern European nations, such as Poland, have offered support, wary of Russia's intentions in Ukraine.
Russia has denied Western charges it fomented rebellion in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; editing by David Alexander)