Russia's offensive in Georgia in August exposed the dangers of the Western alliance's lack of contingency plans against an invasion on its eastern flanks.
Political leaders from the Baltics and Eastern Europe have subsequently demanded that Nato fulfil the requirements implied by its "Chapter 5" commitment to defend the territorial integrity of all its members.
General James Craddock, Nato's Supreme Commander, has asked for the political authority to draw up contingency defence plans at a Nato meeting in Budapest later this week.
France and Germany have signalled opposition to the move but Gen Craddock has the strong backing of American and Britain.
But even US officials acknowledge there is a risk that the move will cause a rift within Nato. "This becomes politicised very quickly," a Pentagon official said.
Gen Craddock has already proposed that Estonia, the Baltic state that has a 20 per cent Russian speaking minority, should be the first country to undergo a formal military risk assessment.
The Budapest meeting on Thursday and Friday is likely to provide a key indication of the Nato membership appetite to take a robust stance towards Russia.
Relations with the Kremlin have steadily deteriorated as Nato accepted a series of its neighbours as members. Prior to the Russian incursion in Georgia, Nato members had refused to draw up plans to fight the Russian military in Eastern Europe. The majority feared that news of the decision would unnecessarily offend the Kremlin.
The fighting in Georgia, which alongside Ukraine, has been accepted as a future Nato member, raised the stakes for advocates of expansion. A decision on granting a firm membership date to Georgia and Ukraine has been brought forward but deep divisions between Washington and Berlin could yet wreck a December summit.
Pentagon officials said a date would bolster Nato's credibility. "We do want to send a message to the Russians that their actions will not affect our commitment to our colleagues and our allies," said one official.
Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, signalled that Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defence, would lobby for a tougher line during a visit to Europe this week. "It would be a real mistake to view the secretary's trip as a move to inflame relations with Russia," he said. "The purpose is to work with our allies on common goals. But while we are not looking for the opportunity to exacerbate the tensions that have developed, we are also not going to neglect our responsibilities in that part of the world."
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Oct. 7, 2008
Nato commanders to draw up plans to defend ex-Soviet bloc members from Russia