LAKE KIS, Latvia — A military plane growls slowly across the evening sky. In its wake, six white parachutes bloom one by one against lilac-tinted clouds.
Half a dozen observation boats bob on the lake below. The man in charge of preparing Latvia for NATO candidacy watches his special forces troops descend alongside U.S. training comrades.
"We are on the right track," says Col. Raimonds Graube. "Our development is right. Our procedures are right."
Just a decade ago, Latvia was part of the Soviet Union and the possibility of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was unthinkable. As recently as three years ago, Latvia's entry into the alliance--or that of its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania--was considered a long shot, given proximity to Russia and the former superpower's sensitivities.
But these days, at least here, the unthinkable feels increasingly like the inevitable. In an interview, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga spoke of "when"--not "if"--Latvia joins NATO.
Across Europe, she said, "there is an overall re-integration taking place. We feel we need NATO as much as Germany or France or Norway."
Vike-Freiberga stood beside her commander in chief to watch the joint training exercises late last month on this lake outside the Latvian capital, Riga. Under her gaze, the special forces simulated an aquatic reconnaissance mission: donning diving gear as they descended, plummeting into the lake and deploying an inflatable boat.
The exercises are part of a steady series of military contacts between NATO countries and the three tiny Baltic states. Nearly 3,000 troops from the Baltics and 11 other countries recently took part in elaborate NATO-sponsored peacekeeping exercises in Lithuania dubbed "Amber Hope."
"Politicians and the public will do everything possible to secure an invitation to join NATO," Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said recently.
Officially, Western governments insist that each country's candidacy will be evaluated on its own merits when NATO ministers meet in Prague, the Czech capital, in November 2002 to approve the next batch of candidates. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were admitted in the last expansion round. As a Western diplomat put it, none of the Baltic states "will be excluded on the basis of history or geography."
But in geopolitical terms, history and geography are the crux of the matter. Russia borders all three states, and Moscow historically has considered them part of its sphere of influence. The biggest argument against the Baltics joining is the possibility that their membership could antagonize Russia.
Russian feelings on the issue continue to run high. During a visit to non-NATO member Finland early this month, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin denounced possible alliance membership for the Baltics, insisting that "only in an inflamed imagination could one think that someone in the European region, including Russia, has aggressive intentions" toward them.
"We see no objective reasons for NATO expansion," Putin said, arguing that incorporating the Baltic states into the alliance won't enhance European security. "Why should we deceive ourselves? It just moves the borders of NATO toward the Russian frontier."
When Russian troops withdrew from the Baltics in the early 1990s after 50 years of operation, they left little military equipment behind. The three countries had to build their militaries from scratch.
Western diplomats say the three states are making progress in fulfilling the alliance's requirements. Training exercises such as those here and in Lithuania are designed to build "interoperability"--NATO jargon for enhancing coordination between armies with varied equipment and native languages.
The biggest technical problem the countries face is reaching the target level of spending 2% of gross domestic product on the military, diplomats say. But the problem stems in part from a positive development: Their economies are growing so fast that 2% "is a moving target."
In public, Baltic officials and Western diplomats insist that Russia's opposition won't be a factor in deciding whether to invite the three countries into NATO. Nonetheless, the acceleration of the Baltics' bid is likely to revive a whole raft of unsettled questions within NATO: What is the essential nature of the alliance? Against whom or what are the members allied? Will more members make it less effective? Is the alliance prepared to defend the three countries' territory by stationing troops on their soil or extending the nuclear umbrella?