PRAGUE, April 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The two-day NATO conference held in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, was not a formal summit. This was not a meeting at which any binding decisions or definitive statements was ever going to be made.
But the gathering did provide an opportunity for the foreign ministers of NATO's 26 members to voice unity on one of the key challenges that the alliance currently faces: Afghanistan. Violence is on the rise in the country, adding a sense of urgency to NATO's plans to reinforce its troops there. NATO leaders threw their backing behind the plan, with NATO spokesman James Appathurai saying the foreign ministers had down shown "a shared determination to push forward with the expansion of the mission" in Afghanistan.
That suggests plans are on track to raise the number of troops in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan from the current 9,000 to some 17,000 from July. That would also help the United States wind down its presence in the south of the country, the most unsettled and dangerous area of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the conference affirmed that NATO has no plans to cut troop levels in Kosovo before the end of talks on the future status of Serbian province, which is populated largely by ethnic Albanians and administered by the UN.
A 17,000-strong NATO-led force, KFOR, has been keeping the peace in Kosovo since 1999.
And, on the sidelines of the conference, the United States signed an agreement with Sofia to establish three military bases on Bulgarian soil.
Enlargement, A Purely Performance-Based Process?
While this meeting may not mark any new departures for NATO, Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer stressed its importance, saying that it paves the way to a key summit in the Latvian capital Riga this autumn.
Enlargement will loom large in Riga. Five countries -- Georgia and Ukraine as well as Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, and -- aspire to join the alliance, as some made very evident in Sofia.
"Ukraine's strategic course towards joining NATO is irreversible," declared Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, adding that Ukraine hopes to join NATO by 2008.
Ukraine can expect no invitation at Riga. De Hoop Scheffer made clear no formal invitations will be issued in Riga, but he did indicate a signal about enlargement can be expected at the November summit.
"But it's clear that the kind of signal the allies are going to give in Riga, and I think we're going to give a signal, depends first and foremost on their performance," he stated. "That is the mantra. [Enlargement] is a performance-based process."
The Balkan countries are further ahead in that process, but Ukraine's hopes will have been boosted by a report in the London-based "Financial Times" this week, in which unidentified NATO officials said the United States and Britain are keen on consolidating recent democratic gains in Ukraine by hastening Kyiv's entry into the alliance.
One official told the newspaper that Washington wants Ukraine to join a NATO membership action plan by September, which would give Kyiv the prospect of joining before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009. The article portrayed Bush as very keen on Kyiv joining NATO.
However, in Sofia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dodged a question about the timing of any membership plan and echoed De Hoop Scheffer's stress on performance criteria.
"The Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people will have to decide whether or not this is something that they wish to pursue," Rice stated. "And they will also have to work very hard, I think, to meet the criteria."
Expansion to include Ukraine would upset Russia. De Hoop Scheffer, though, seemed keen to indicate that Russia too can enjoy a good relationship.
Speaking at an informal meeting of the NATO-Russia Council during the summit in Sofia, he praised the "significant strides" made by NATO and Russia in increasing the interoperability among their military forces and civil emergency response teams, and he hailed "groundbreaking new programs of practical cooperation, in airspace management and, more recently, in addressing the multiple threats posed by the illegal narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Central Asia."
But he also said that the two sides "can and should do better" in their future cooperation. "We should look increasingly to this [NATO-Russia] Council, not just as an umbrella for practical cooperation, but as a forum for frank and open exchanges of views and perspectives, on issues where we agree and on those where the search for common ground continues."
A Ghost At The Conference
Looming over the conference was the diplomatic crisis triggered by Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy and possibly, as the United States and other leading powers fear, also nuclear weapons. The meeting is due to close on April 28 just as the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reports on whether Tehran has met key UN Security Council demands.
IAEA chief Mohammad el-Baradei is expected to say that Iran has not, and that it continues to enrich uranium and has failed to fully answer IAEA queries about its nuclear program.
His report could open the way to Security Council sanctions against Iran.
The United States wants tough action to be taken if the report finds that Tehran continues to ignore the international community's demands.
At this stage, any tough action is expected to be peaceful, not military. Moreover, NATO is not officially involved in the Iran talks, as De Hoop Scheffer stressed.
"Let's not have a misunderstanding that NATO is suddenly involved in the discussion of Iran. NATO is not," he told reporters.
That does not mean, though, that it was not an issue discussed in Sofia. As De Hoop Scheffer said, "this is a subject which is, of course by definition, a relevant political subject when you have NATO foreign ministers and EU foreign ministers sitting together."