NATO officials say such developments would have been inconceivable had the alliance's Partnership for Peace program (PFP) not existed. The PFP was launched 10 years ago by NATO and is regarded by many as one of the alliance's most successful initiatives.
Furthermore, the PFP, which was initially designed as a tool for fostering closer military and political relations with NATO's former Cold War adversaries, is currently shifting its focus to other regions, such as Central Asia and the Western Balkans.
Robert Pszczel, a NATO spokesman, told RFE/RL that the PFP was invaluable in preparing ex-communist countries for full NATO membership, but also helped other countries set off reforms of their militaries.
"As you look back at 10 years of partnership, it's proven its usefulness to NATO, definitely, but I think also for the countries that have been participating in this. And this is evident in countries who've joined NATO since then," he said. "It's been very helpful in preparing them. It's been very useful for countries who engaged in a series of important security defense reforms."
When it launched the Partnership for Peace on 10 January 1994, NATO meant for it to help new democracies establish civil control over their armies, assist in the reforms of their Soviet-era forces, and to guide those countries in their efforts to develop NATO-compatible militaries.
As other countries, including Russia and Ukraine, saw the benefits of security cooperation through the PFP, membership was extended. The program soon transcended military cooperation and reform, turning into a means of promoting democracy.
Former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson gave a measure of how much the alliance values the program when, in his farewell speech in December, he called it one of NATO's "gold-dust assets" and "one of the best investments ever for a future safer world."
Tim Garden of the London-based Center for Defense Studies says the program, which had been regarded with skepticism in the beginning, has exceeded all expectations: "I think the Partnership for Peace has been far more successful than any of us ever thought it could be in the early days. It's been the bridge, really, for much closer engagement of a wide range of countries with the old parts of Western Europe, and has had developments beyond just the pure security relationship."
After 11 September 2001, the Partnership for Peace found itself playing an unexpected role in the war on terrorism. NATO spokesman Pszczel says existing ties between Central Asian members of PFP and NATO proved very useful in the antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan.
"If it wasn't for those contacts, for these engagements, for the links and, simply, the participation of various people on the political side, on the military side, I think it would have been very difficult to have these countries engaged in such a constructive manner in the collective effort in the fight against terrorism -- particularly with operations initially by U.S.-led, and now also in relation to the NATO-led, operation [of the International Security Assistance Force]. So this is, I think, the best example that it's an absolutely mutually beneficial project which has direct, almost operational, spinoff."
NATO has indicated that much greater emphasis will now be placed on practical cooperation as part of the ongoing effort against terrorism. Military analyst Ian Kemp, of "Jane's Defence Weekly," told RFE/RL that this will be of mutual benefit.
"The forces of NATO countries and the forces of partner countries have had the opportunity to train with each other's military forces and to train in each other's countries," Kemp said. "So this has been a tremendous benefit for the United States and other nations who've been participating in the war on terrorism because it's given them an opportunity to train in countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and this has been of great benefit to discover what sort of facilities were available in those countries to support operations in Afghanistan. But NATO is using this as an opportunity to spread its military doctrine and its experience, not just of war-fighting operations, but also of peace supporting operations."
But analysts say the PFP can also continue to act as a democratization tool in the immediate future, mainly in the Balkans, where two countries have yet to join the PFP -- the federation of Serbia and Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Bosnia, in particular, has expressed hopes of becoming a PFP member later this year, at a NATO summit in Istanbul. But NATO has warned that any PFP hopeful must fulfill the military criteria first.
Analyst Garden says the prospect of PFP membership could help speed the reform process in the two Balkan countries. "It is a very powerful lever, which can be used in a way that doesn't embarrass governments and produces better decision-making, I think, among governments that have lots of conflicting requirements. And certainly, in the various parts of the former Yugoslavia, there are still many political difficulties, because the horrors of what happened during the breakup are still very fresh in people's minds. And so, the Partnership for Peace processes can help to move the political process forward."
Analysts say the Istanbul summit is likely to play an important role both for NATO itself and the Partnership for Peace. The summit will be dominated by the admission of seven new members -- Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. According to news reports, however, NATO is also likely to use the summit to give the PFP more prominence and visibility in Central Asia.