No chance of NATO expansion for years, U.S. ambassador says

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) talks with and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, December 2, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

LONDON (Reuters) - There is no chance of NATO expansion in the near future because of fears it could destabilize Russia, the U.S. ambassador to the military alliance said on Friday, a prospect which could disappoint Georgia and a number of Balkan states.

Douglas Lute said NATO was at an “an inflection point”, facing an upheaval matched only by circumstances at the end of the Cold War, and the alliance did not want to exacerbate internal weaknesses in Russia.

“In practical terms I don’t there’s much additional room in the near term, the next several years perhaps or maybe even longer, for additional NATO expansion,” Lute told the Aspen Security Forum in London.

“I think Russia plays an important part in the strategic environment and the strategic environment will put a brake on NATO expansion.

“If you accept the premises ... about Russia’s internal weakness and perhaps steady decline, it may not make sense to push further now and maybe accelerate or destabilize that decline.”

Last December, NATO invited Montenegro to join in its first expansion since 2009, a move which provoked anger from Moscow which opposes any extension to former communist areas of eastern and southeastern Europe.

NATO gave Georgia an open-ended promise of membership at a summit in April 2008 and other Balkan states such as Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are keen on membership while Ukraine, which has battled Russian-backed separatists in its east since 2014, has also set its sights on joining.

Lute said the policy line for additional members remained open but all NATO’s 28 allies had to agree on inviting new members and there was little likelihood of that.

“There’s no way we’re going to get consensus any time in the near future on adding ... Georgia or Ukraine,” he said.

Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison