NATO defense ministers included their Baltic neighbors in their debate on counterterrorism Saturday in a series of meetings seeking greater cooperation with the 27 mostly former Soviet bloc nations. Estonia and its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, are in a favored position to become the first former Soviet republics to be invited to join the alliance later this year.
Like other former Eastern European countries that used to be behind the iron curtain, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia want to join an alliance whose focus has switched from containing a westward push by Moscow to stopping terrorism.
In fact, the battle against terrorism was a top issue at the meeting that brought together the defense ministers from the three Baltic nations along with those from the United States and Nordic countries. Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser explained why no longer facing a threat from Moscow - his country has made joining NATO a priority.
"We do not see an attack by any hostile nation. But there are so many new security risks appearing and a small country like Estonia can never afford the whole spectrum of military capabilities to counter all those threats that are there very much in the world today," Mr. Mikser said.
This past week in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told his 18 NATO counterparts that terrorism needs to become the alliance's new priority. He warned member nations may have to take offensive action - perhaps far from European soil - or else face the possibility of an attack with weapons of mass destruction, and with consequences far deadlier than what happened in the United States last September.
But could Baltic nations with relatively small military budgets make a meaningful contribution? Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out that each country has something of value to offer.
"Each country can make judgements about what they particularly feel they can bring. In some cases it's special forces, in some cases it's mine clearing activities, in some cases it's explosive ordinance destruction, in some cases it's ships and all of it adds up to an improved capability for our countries collectively," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
In addition to the Baltics, other countries wanting to join NATO include Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Macedonia.