- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Lithuania's president yesterday expressed growing confidence that NATO will invite at least one Baltic nation to join the alliance next year, and said he could support the eventual membership of Russia in the trans-Atlantic alliance.

President Bush's June speech in Warsaw on the next round of NATO enlargement "made it clear that while the question of 'when' the Baltic states will join NATO may still be up for debate, the question of 'whether' is not," said President Valdas Adamkus during a Washington visit yesterday.

The NATO applications of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are considered the most sensitive among the 10 candidates angling for an invitation at NATO's Prague summit in November 2002.

Moscow has particularly objected to the Baltic states' NATO hopes, warning it would be seen as an unfriendly move by the alliance to accept three new members on Russia's doorstep — members that endured a half-century of Soviet domination before achieving their independence in the early 1990s.

Inviting Lithuania into NATO would also leave the strategic Russian enclave of Kaliningrad surrounded by alliance members.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters during a trip to Finland last week: "NATO's eastward enlargement is anachronistic.

"We are not glad about this, we think it is a mistake. This step does not contribute to European security," said Mr. Putin.

But Mr. Adamkus said yesterday that Mr. Putin has told him that Lithuania had the right to make its own security decisions, something the Russian leader confirmed in his remarks in Finland.

"It is their choice," Mr. Putin said, "but we do not see any objective reasons for the Baltic states to join NATO."

Central and East European leaders have been making a steady stream of pilgrimages to Washington as the NATO decision looms. Many consider the Bush administration far more open to the idea of NATO enlargement than many Western European powers, and consider Washington's voice decisive.

"Some of my European counterparts tell me we are one of the most pro-American countries in Europe," Mr. Adamkus observed. "Most of them — I think — mean it as a compliment."

U.S. officials insist Russia will not have a veto on the enlargement process, but recognize the issue could prove delicate.

Said a senior U.S. administration official: "My impression is that among the Russian elite and the government, NATO enlargement — particularly enlargement to the Baltic states — may be a more neuralgic issue" than Mr. Bush's missile-defense shield.

Mr. Adamkus said yesterday he did not fear a debate over Russia's eventual membership in NATO, which was originally formed to contain the Soviet threat in Europe.

"If Russia wants to share the burdens and responsibilities of membership, I say the more the merrier," said the 74-year-old president, who spent decades living in the United States before returning to his homeland in 1997. "Lithuanians do not view our aspirations to join NATO as an anti-Russian act," he said, noting that Polish-Russian relations have improved markedly since Warsaw joined NATO in 1998.

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