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story.lead_photo.caption From left to right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President Donald Trump, and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, look up in sky during a ceremonial fly-over ahead of the opening ceremony of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, July 11, 2018.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

BRUSSELS -- NATO has invited Macedonia to begin membership negotiations, a step toward adding its 30th member despite Russia's objection.

Macedonia was given a pathway to membership on condition that it iron out its yearslong standoff with Greece over the Macedonia name, a process that took a big step forward with the countries' deal last month that would rename the country North Macedonia.

Macedonian voters and the Greek parliament still must sign off on the deal, which also could dissipate any Greek objections to the Macedonian government's ambition to join the European Union.

"Once all national procedures have been completed to finalize the name agreement, the country will join NATO as our 30th member," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. "It cannot become a member if it doesn't change its name. That's in a way the simple choice, and that's up to the people."

Russia, NATO's most prominent rival, has bemoaned the possible addition of another alliance member. Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev hailed the invitation but noted the objections from Moscow.

"Very obviously, they are against our integration in NATO," he said during a panel talk on the sidelines of the summit. Zaev alleged that "some activities" by Russia had attempted to thwart the deal, but he did not elaborate.

The overture toward expansion came at a summit where President Donald Trump has increased his pressure on allies to shoulder a bigger share of defense spending.

Instead of increasing spending, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his country will lead NATO's new military training mission in Iraq, with up to 250 troops.

British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her country would send 440 military personnel for a similar training mission in Afghanistan -- by far the alliance's biggest foreign venture.

The pledges reflect NATO's desire to play a major role in the fight against terrorism and demonstrate its resilience against an aggressive Russia, which has annexed Crimea and sown instability in Ukraine.

Canada's offer is part of NATO's attempt to help Iraq rebuild and ensure the Islamic State militant group can't gain a new foothold there.

"Those sorts of tangible elements are at the heart of what NATO stands for," Trudeau said. "You can try and be a bean counter and look at exactly how much this and how much money that, but the fundamental question is: Is what you're doing actually making a difference?"

The British commitment in Afghanistan comes as NATO has agreed to fund the Afghan army through 2024. Britain's addition will beef up efforts that are already training about 16,000 troops.

"I think that shows when NATO calls, the U.K. is one of the first to step up," May told reporters.

In another show of resolve against Russia, the leaders rubber-stamped a plan to ready a crisis-response contingent that can be rapidly deployed -- 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 battleships within 30 days. It also endorsed two new command headquarters -- in Norfolk, Va., and Ulm, Germany -- to help better move troops and equipment across the Atlantic and through Europe.

A Section on 07/12/2018

Print Headline: Macedonia's NATO bid advances

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