The military alliance has offered Russia a new relationship, in which Moscow wins political influence, but they must agree how much.
Marching west, diplomatically
Talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have reached a "mature" point, a NATO spokesman has said to the Moscow Times newspaper, as the couple sorts out its evolving relationship.
But the depth of the courtship remains undecided. The spokesman denied a report in London’s Financial Times that the 19 NATO ambassadors have agreed to offer Moscow a "closer relationship" with direct political influence.
These are sensitive times, a decade after the end of the Cold War, as Europe sorts out its security policy, yet while the United States and Russia pursue their own transatlantic friendship by reaching out to each other, across the continent.
And expectation of NATO expansion this year into east European countries including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – Baltic republics that Moscow occupied during the Soviet era and has long considered part of Russia’s own "near abroad" – heightens diplomatic sensitivity in Washington, Moscow, Brussels and other European capitals.
Moscow’s long-standing opposition to Baltic NATO membership has softened somewhat, yet there is heavy pressure on diplomats to arrange a deal, thus ensuring expansion can go forward without tension.
But the terms of any deal are likely to be hard.
NATO’s member states are not considering "membership" for Russia, which would provide protection under the alliance’s Article 5 – guaranteeing collective defence to any member state that comes under attack. Yet Russia could stand to gain greater say over issues such as counterterrorism, peacekeeping arrangemnets, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and search-and-rescue.
As recently as 1999, Russia warned of "world war" against the alliance when NATO bombed Yugoslavia and intervened in the breakaway province of Kosovo. The tense stand-off calmed down after Russian troops entered the region and grabbed a role of the peacekeeping action.
Russia is a member of NATO’s "Partnership for Peace", which extends through much of the former Soviet Union but does not afford its partner states the benefits or obligations of NATO membership.
Nine former socialist countries in eastern Europe are presently seeking membership in the alliance. The Baltic states are at the top of the list. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became the first former Warsaw Pact countries to join, in 1999.
On the surface, NATO expansion is a strictly rational process, but high-stakes politics is at work under the skin.
Visiting the Baltic states last week, NATO Secretary General George Robertson suggested that the new relationship with Russia "is not based on sentiment, it is not based on a trade-off to do with enlargement" but on the interests of Russia and the alliance’s member states.