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NATO split on message to send Georgia on membership hopes

BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - NATO allies are split over what message to send Georgia over its long-delayed membership bid, diplomats said, with some European capitals arguing the alliance would be unable to defend the ex-Soviet state in the event of a conflict with Russia.

Georgian medevac helicopter flies over US marine Humvees during in a joint military exercise with NATO members, called "Agile Spirit 2015" at the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, Georgia, July 21, 2015. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

NATO gave Georgia an open-ended promise of membership at a summit in April 2008. That fed into tensions with Moscow that four months later culminated in a war leaving the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia occupied by Russian military.

Talks about Georgia’s NATO membership have largely been on the back-burner since. But the question will arise again next Tuesday when NATO foreign ministers decide whether to launch accession talks with tiny Montenegro -- an event at which they will be expected to give an update on Tbilisi’s aspirations.

The United States sees expanding NATO as key to its strategy for dealing with Russia. But as NATO nations seek Moscow’s help to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria and to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, others argue for caution over enlargement, which Russia views as a direct threat to its security.

“Some worry that inviting Montenegro could send the wrong signal (to Georgia),” said a NATO diplomat who sought anonymity.

France fears that extending an invitation to Montenegro would raise expectations of an invitation to Georgia too. Germany, while in favor of Montenegro joining, remains opposed to Georgian membership as it did back in 2008. Others such as Denmark and Britain are waiting to see if a consensus emerges.

NATO’s founding treaty deems an attack against one ally an attack against all, effectively giving any member a guarantee of protection.

But Russia’s build-up of surface-to-air missile batteries and anti-ship missiles in Crimea and the Black Sea make Georgia more difficult to defend from the Mediterranean or NATO-member Turkey, meaning any action might have to involve a deployment of ground troops from Western Europe.

Moreover NATO membership offers are dependent on a country settling any outstanding territorial disputes -- a clear hurdle for Georgia as it is for Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Others, notably the United States, point to the fact that Georgia has been one of the alliance’s most loyal partners and a major contributor of troops in Afghanistan and want to keep it in the running for eventual membership.

“(They) don’t want to give the impression that Georgia is left hanging,” said one NATO diplomat.

Georgia, which already has a joint NATO training center in the country, wants NATO to grant it a so-called “membership action plan” to formalize its path to becoming a NATO country.

An alliance official said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expected a decision on Montenegro next week and noted that Georgia had made strong reform progress this year.

“Foreign ministers will provide some guidance for the way ahead with our other aspirants, including Georgia,” the official said.

Contacted by Reuters in Tbilisi, Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili said he had no comment on the meeting.

If NATO ministers next week decide to give the green light to accession talks with Montenegro, an Adriatic republic of 650,000 people, it would be NATO’s first expansion since 2009.

NATO needs all 28 allies to agree on making an invitation, with accession talks expected to take about a year to complete. The other candidates are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark John