NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow says membership in the alliance will bring long-term stability to Montenegro, which is the next in line to join despite strong opposition from Russia.

Vershbow said Friday the small Balkan country's hard-won independence remains vulnerable nearly a decade after it split from much larger Serbia. He says membership in NATO will "underpin that independence and enhance it."

Vershbow adds that "becoming the 29th member of NATO will ensure Montenegro's long-term stability, sovereignty and security."

Montenegro's membership bid has drawn protests from Moscow, which has strong historic ties to both Serbia and Montenegro. Pro-Russian opposition in Montenegro have organized violent protests against the entry and demanded that a referendum on the issue.

Vershbow says Montenegro's accession protocol should be approved later this month.