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Nato's Next Moves East

BERLIN: Nato’s next summit will take place in Prague in the winter of 2002 – that is, if President Bush doesn’t call his allies together before then. But the questions to be answered leading up to the summit are already clear: which, if any, country will be asked to join Nato; when will any new member join? Whatever decisions are taken, it is also clear that preparatory work must begin as soon as possible, and at least before the end of the year.

All this is different from 1997, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined Nato. Back then, the outcome of the Madrid summit that agreed to their membership was uncertain until the final moments. That uncertainty ended when America succeeded in limiting invitations to three chosen countries, surprising those Alliance members who supported other candidates.

Today, the most important issue facing Nato concerns whether or not to admit the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – now, after some delay, or never. Turning down or delaying Baltic state membership will be seen as a concession to Russia; acting in their favor will be regarded by Moscow as a slap-in-the-face.

No matter what decision Nato takes, containing the negative fall-out – in Russia or the Baltics – will not be easy. So a surprise conclusion in the manner of Madrid will only make matters worse, because careful preparations will be needed to contain the damage, and too much time will be lost if everything is put off until the meeting in Prague.