PRAGUE, Czech Republic – After agreeing to expand their alliance deep into the former Soviet bloc, NATO leaders reached out Friday to the Central Asian nations whose assistance proved vital in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
NATO is eager to develop closer ties with the former Soviet republics that run through a volatile region north of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, seeing them as potential allies in the fight against terrorism — a security challenge that has become a top priority for the Western alliance.
"We have to be bold," NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson told leaders Friday. "We have to look beyond traditional roles and infuse the whole process with new substance."
The alliance "has committed itself at the very highest level" to the war on terror, he said.
Leaders of more than 20 non-NATO nations stretching from Ireland to Uzbekistan were scheduled to meet with the 19 alliance leaders Friday on the second and final day of NATO's first summit behind the former Iron Curtain.
One leader missing is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Russia has muted its opposition to NATO's expansion plans, Putin did not want to be too closely associated with the alliance's decision Thursday to invite in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
However, in a sign that NATO-Russia relations remain warm since the two sides signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement in May, President Bush was to leave the Prague meeting early Friday to meet Putin in St. Petersburg.
"I'm off to St. Petersburg to visit with our friend Vladimir Putin to assure him that NATO expansion is in Russia's best interests," Bush told leaders Friday.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov held separate talks with his NATO counterparts, and the two sides issued a statement expressing "deep satisfaction" at the progress made working together in areas such peacekeeping and counterterrorism.
Ivanov welcomed assurances by NATO leaders that the alliance's expansion was not aimed against Russia.
Russia and NATO will increasingly work together as long as the alliance focuses on "opposing new threats and challenges of this contemporary world — the same challenges Russia is trying to counter today," Ivanov told a news conference.
NATO officials gave chilly receptions to two of Russia's neighbors.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was kept away when Czech authorities denied him a visa because of human rights concerns.
Ukraine's President, Leonid Kuchma, did arrive, but the alliance changed normal seating arrangements that would have placed him next to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and one seat away from Bush. Kuchma is suspected of authorized sales of sensitive radar technology to Iraq in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
"The Ukrainian president knows there's a shadow over him," Robertson said Thursday.
Aside from expanding into the Balkans, Baltic states and Central Europe, NATO leaders also agreed Thursday on reforms designed to shift the focus of the alliance's military might to the dangers posed by terrorism, failed states and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Leaders agreed to create a 20,000-strong rapid reaction force, invest in new military equipment including ground surveillance planes, smart bombs and electronic jamming gear, and streamline the alliance's military command.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the new force "will contribute a great deal to NATO's relevance," though he was unsure what the American contribution to it will be.
Rumsfeld, heading Friday to Slovakia, said he would press new NATO members to reform their militaries and discuss how they can focus on niche capaiblities for the alliance.
The seven new countries have "militaries that were focused on the old Soviet model," he told reporters. "If there is something no longer relevant to the 21st century, that is it. And these countries know that."
NATO views its European-Atlantic Partnership Council, which met Friday, as increasingly important in spreading stability and defense cooperation over three continents. It encompasses nations seeking to join NATO such as Croatia and Albania, traditional neutrals like Sweden and Finland, and former Soviet states including Armenia and Kazakhstan.
One senior alliance diplomat last week called countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus NATO's "next frontier." He said building ties with them over the next 10 to 15 years would be a new priority following the last decade's outreach to eastern Europe.
In a sign of NATO's growing interests in that region, China sent its first official delegation to the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to open a dialogue with the Western military alliance.