To many, myself included, NATO's enlargement to take in, among others, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- which were once Soviet republics -- is an impossible dream come true. When the idea was first floated some 10 years ago, expansion into the Baltics was taken seriously by few people. Until recently, Russia's robust opposition to the idea posed a serious obstacle, because it sharpened the impression that Russia regarded its so-called "near abroad" as a zone of special interest and influence.
NATO's enlargement makes it crystal clear that no country in the new Europe can be regarded as part of another country's "zone." It assures the three small Baltic countries that the nightmare of occupation by big neighbors (Hitler's Reich and Stalin's USSR), which they endured for half-a-century -- will not be repeated. By putting paid to any revanchist tendencies in Russia concerning the Baltics, Europe is made a safer place, and Russia is helped in its effort to redefine itself as a national state and not an empire.
Expansion will also create a better Europe because enlargement widens the territory in which countries are committed to NATO's political values, including individual rights as well as the rights of minorities. Fortunately Russia now seems to grasp the value of this political aspect of NATO-enlargement.
Rightly so: enlargement of NATO is not an "expansion" that threatens Russia or other countries which strive for democratic political reforms. On the contrary, expansion takes away the worries - be they real or imagined - that surround the situation of the large Russian-speaking populations that now live outside of Russia but within the borders of the former Soviet Union. The civil rights of the Russian minorities in the Baltics and elsewhere are now enshrined in law, due in no small part to NATO demands.