Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have made "good progress" toward qualifying for NATO membership, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Saturday.
In a meeting with his counterparts from the Nordic and Baltic nations, Rumsfeld said the United States favors adding members to the alliance when they are ready. At a news conference afterward, Rumsfeld did not define "ready" or say whether the Baltic countries would be invited to join.
The issue of NATO membership for the three nations is especially sensitive in Moscow because it would mean expanding the alliance for the first time into territory of the former Soviet Union.
"The three Baltic nations have made good progress in their military efforts, and they have indicated their desire to join NATO," Rumsfeld told reporters.
The Bush administration has not defined a timetable or plan for expanding NATO. Expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of several major irritants in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Russia strongly opposed NATO expansion in 1999, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance.
Rumsfeld also assured the Baltic and Nordic nations that they will be included in the administration's consultations on a new approach to security and defense, which Rumsfeld called a "new framework of deterrence."
On the final stop of a seven-nation European tour, Rumsfeld met in Turku with the defense ministers of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
In a joint statement, the ministers said that in the Baltic nations, "a lot of progress has been made in strengthening national defense structures" and in cooperation on peacekeeping and military training.
Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are among nine countries considered candidates for NATO membership.