NATO officials confirmed late on Friday that its eastward expansion had been agreed and that seven former communist states will join the defense bloc at the beginning of April.
The NATO compass now officially points east.
It's going to be quite a year for Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Not only do these former communist nations join the European Union on May 1 but it has now been announced that they will also be admitted to join NATO on April 2.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the bloc set up in 1949 to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union, has confirmed it will formally admit seven countries from the former communist bloc in the biggest expansion in the history of the organization.
The announcement comes almost a year after the seven countries signed the papers which set them on the path to full membership.
More than a decade ago, NATO peered over the Berlin Wall at these countries and made plans to combat any planned surge through them into Western territory at the height of the Cold War.
Suspicion and fear make way for inclusion
Now, with the exception of Romania and Bulgaria, which won't join the EU for another three years, most of those countries which were once looked on with suspicion and fear due to their inclusion in the Soviet dominated Eastern Bloc will join the two big Western clubs this spring.
The flags of the seven new members will be raised next to those of the 19 existing members at a foreign ministers' meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels place in just over a month's time.
New members to prepare for Istanbul summit
Their first task as members of NATO will be to prepare the groundwork for the coming Istanbul summit in June where alliance leaders, including those newly admitted from the seven newcomers, will attempt to boost NATO's role in Afghanistan and prepare to hand over to the EU a long-standing mission in Bosnia.
The NATO family in Afghanistan already includes troops from the Eastern states.
The new members paved their way to admission by providing air bases and troops for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and are currently being considered for new U.S. forward bases. Come April, officials will be included in decision making and their armed forces considered for future NATO missions. It seems a long way from the atmosphere of distrust that blanketed Europe specifically for over forty years.
Russia irritated by expansion to borders
But while long-standing rivalries look to be set aside as the Eastern states come in from the cold, NATO's expansion ideas continue to stick in Russia's craw. The three Baltic countries which have been granted admission were formerly part of the Soviet Union and their inclusion is likely to irritate the Kremlin which has been looking for closer ties and even eventual admission to NATO itself.
There is also likely to be friction as NATO's eastwards expansion has been spearheaded by the United States, which received strong support from the former communist nations in the wake of the 11 September attacks.
Old anxieties rekindled
Russia has made positive noises in the past to having U.S. troops on its borders and in former states when the mission has been to their advantage but the idea of forward bases manned by NATO troops unofficially under the command of the United States is bound to stir up old anxieties.
The culture of fear raised its ugly head earlier this week when Moscow accused NATO of spying on its military facilities by deploying AWACS reconnaissance jets over future members Latvia and Lithuania.