updated 3/29/2004 4:52:02 PM ET 2004-03-29T21:52:02

President Bush welcomed seven former Soviet-dominated nations into NATO as “full and equal partners” Monday and said the Western alliance was stronger because of their presence.

Under a bright sun on the White House South Lawn, Bush stood with the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Hundreds of people cheered. Some waved flags of the new member nations, whose additions expanded the alliance to 26 countries.

A military honor guard carried the flags of the NATO countries.

Fifty-five years after the birth of NATO, Bush recalled that the seven new members were “captives to an empire” when the alliance was formed.

“They endured bitter tyranny. They struggled for independence. They earned their freedom through courage and perseverance, and today they stand with us as full and equal partners in this great alliance,” he said.

The new NATO members will take part in their first meeting Friday in Brussels. Three other nations — Albania, Croatia and Macedonia — still hope to join. NATO has agreed to include the Baltic states under its air defense shield, planning to enforce it by stationing four F-16 fighter planes in Lithuania.

‘Eastern European influence’
Some new members, such as Romania and Bulgaria, have military bases and training ranges that the United States would like to use or have access to in times of crisis. Their presence could mean a decided shift in NATO’s decision-making processes, particularly within the governing councils, said Marine Gen. James Jones, the supreme allied commander in Europe.

NATO’s eastward march

“It will be a different organization,” Jones told reporters Friday. “The eastern European influence will change the voting demographics. They’ll bring different views.”

Russia has cast a wary eye toward the expansion of NATO, which was established during the Cold War to shield the United States, Canada and 10 European countries from various threats, including the Soviet Union’s military might.

U.S. officials have minimized worries that NATO expansion could cause tensions with Russia, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has warned that Moscow intends to take steps to defend itself should it perceive NATO’s eastward push as a threat.

Moscow to listen in
Russia is not a member of NATO, but it has accepted an invitation to participate in talks at NATO’s headquarters Friday in Brussels.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who plans to attend that meeting, said in a speech last week that Russia should not view this bigger NATO as a threat but as a partner against the ill-defined threats that jeopardized global security.

“Whatever NATO members today may lack by way of identical definitions of threats, we do more than make up for that through a mature recognition that we share the same vision of a good society and of a better world,” Powell said. “We shouldn’t let the inevitable stress of dealing with change mislead us or deter us. Our partnerships are growing stronger as they adapt to new realities.”

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