Washington, 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush will lead a ceremony at the White House on 29 March marking the formal accession into NATO of seven new members.
"The chances of their fighting a war, for example, a tank battle in Germany today, are so modest that it calls for a review of how we're arranged."
Attending will be the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, along with NATO Secretary-General General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. The prime ministers of Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia -- current NATO partners who also aspire to join -- will be there as well.
On 2 April, the flags of the seven nations will be raised during a ceremony at NATO's headquarters in Brussels.
The events in Washington and Brussels will mark the end of a long journey for the seven countries that began when they were invited to join accession talks at the NATO summit in Prague in November 2002.
They also come as the United States is poised to make sweeping changes to its force structure in Europe and as NATO seeks to come to grips with both the changing threats of a new century and its own evolving relationship with former foe Russia.
Radek Sikorski is a former deputy defense minister of Poland, which along with the Czech Republic and Hungary was in the first wave of NATO expansion in 1999. Sikorski tells RFE/RL that NATO's new enlargement is no less momentous than its first.
"I imagine their feelings are similar to our feelings five years ago when we were joining NATO. And it's both a practical satisfaction that one's efforts over the years have borne fruit and that the countries are going to be safer now as part of the most successful military alliance in history. And also, it's a matter of prestige, of rejoining Western civilization, the clubs of the democratic, free-market, successful economies," Sikorski said.
The Bush administration has strongly supported NATO expansion. A few months into office in May 2001, Bush spoke in Warsaw about the need for NATO expansion so that Europe could finally become "whole and free" after the devastation of two world wars and the continent's Cold War divide.
NATO's post-World War II role as a bulwark against the Soviet threat is no more. But the alliance's mission is evolving to take on new threats, such as global terrorism. After its first war in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, it now runs operations in Afghanistan and has recently had to renew its efforts at peacekeeping in the Balkans.
But with NATO expansion comes friction with Moscow, which protested bitterly in 1999 and is voicing its dissatisfaction yet again.
In an article published yesterday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Moscow may have to revise its NATO-friendly military stance if the alliance does not drop what he called its "offensive military doctrine."
Writing in the magazine "Russia in Global Affairs," Ivanov said Russia wants NATO military plans to be purged of anti-Russian features and alliance members to stop making anti-Russian remarks.
But Sikorski says that given the historical experience with Russia of the new NATO members, wariness of Russia is and probably always will be a fact of life for them.
"Among new members, there's still the feeling that what we like is the old NATO, that there may not be the Soviet Union anymore, but there is a Russia which is still conducting a genocidal war in Chechnya; which is still refusing to withdraw its troops from Moldova; which is still sustaining the murderous regime of [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka; and which has still not quite acquiesced with the loss of Ukraine or the Baltic states," Sikorski said.
Sikorski, also a former deputy foreign minister of Poland, adds that, "for these countries, Russia as a geopolitical challenge is still very much a reality."
As NATO expands in Europe, Washington is also set to change its military role on the continent.
The commander of U.S. troops in Europe said yesterday that the Pentagon will make a final decision in two to three months on a major realignment of American forces in Europe. General James Jones said the plans call for a reduced, more mobile force working from smaller bases that could hop in and out of hot spots and stabilize areas from Eastern Europe to Africa.
America's 71,000-strong force in Germany could be halved, according to a story in "The Washington Post." But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not confirm that report and told a briefing that the changes will be gradual over a period of several years.
Rumsfeld said U.S. troops since the Cold War have basically been left in place to fight theoretical battles that are no longer likely.
"The chances of their fighting a war, for example, a tank battle in Germany today, are so modest that it calls for a review of how we're arranged. We are doing that," Rumsfeld said.