A day after striking a landmark anti-terrorism deal with Russia, NATO foreign ministers have held talks with their counterparts from 10 countries that want to join the alliance. NATO is not only determined to bring in new Eastern European members later this year but also wants to strengthen its bonds with former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
NATO has refused to say which countries will be given invitations to become members at a NATO summit in Prague next November. But conventional wisdom at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels is that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia are almost certain to be accepted.
Slovakia's entry, say NATO diplomats, will depend on whether that country's voters prevent populist leader Vladimir Meciar from returning to power in September elections.
The candidacies of Bulgaria and Romania have gained favor in recent months after a statement by President Bush that he would like to see an alliance stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. NATO allies such as France, Greece and Turkey are also pushing for the admission of the two countries.
But NATO's eastward expansion does not sit well with Russia, despite the new spirit of cooperation between Moscow and the Western Alliance. Russian military and security officials are especially concerned about a NATO presence in the Baltic states, which border on their country.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, speaking through an interpreter, said NATO enlargement will not contribute to anyone's security. "We continue to think that a simply mechanical enlargement is no more than a hangover from the past and does not necessarily add to security either for NATO nor for those countries that desire to accede to NATO," he said.
NATO contends that its expansion will improve regional security and encourage fledgling democracies in countries formerly under the domination of the Soviet Union.
But the alliance is also looking beyond enlargement. It already has a special relationship with Ukraine. And former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, considered to be on the front lines of the new war on terrorism, have a partner relationship with NATO in such fields as civil defense and disaster relief.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said the alliance's ties to those countries are important in the post-September 11th world.
"North America, Europe, and the countries of Central Asia are now part of a political community that is unprecedented in its breadth, in its inclusiveness and in its capacity to work together," Mr. Robertson said.
In a sign that NATO's search for new relationships is working, representatives of 46 countries - the 19 allies, the 10 candidate nations, and 17 others ranging from Austria to Uzbekistan - agreed Wednesday to cooperate more closely to deal with the new challenges to global security.