BRUSSELS The largest summit in NATO's history starting next Wednesday could mould the West's relations with Russia for years to come and show whether the U.S.-led alliance has the resolve to win the war in Afghanistan.
The three-day meet in Bucharest offers U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin -- an unusual guest at the NATO feast -- the chance to brush up the legacies they leave on the world stage as each prepares to leave office.
NATO decisions on the membership hopes of Ukraine and Georgia, together with Putin's reaction to U.S. ideas for a new strategic pact with Moscow, could decide whether the summit marks a turning-point or deterioration in Russia-West ties.
All eyes will be on the sharp-tongued Putin who is adamantly opposed to the two former Soviet allies joining NATO and could well seize the occasion to speak his mind.
"A lot of what happens at this summit will depend on the duet between the two presidents," Frans van Daele, Belgian ambassador to NATO, told a recent conference on the summit.
The gargantuan Parliament Palace of communist-era dictator Nicolae Ceausescu will host no fewer than 60 leaders from NATO states, partners and aspirant members, plus Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Germany, France and a handful of other western European allies do not buy the U.S. argument that now is the time to offer Ukraine and Georgia the membership action plan (MAP) -- a roadmap to eventual entry -- they are seeking.
Such a step would give Bush the satisfaction of having set the stage for NATO's frontiers to extend all the way to Russia's eastern border from the Baltic to the Black Sea, with the exception of Belarus.
That would go alongside less controversial membership invitations that the summit is expected to hand to Croatia and Albania -- and Macedonia if it is able to resolve a long-running row over its name with NATO ally Greece.
Washington argues that Russia has swallowed past NATO enlargements to the east and that it is best to finish the business now rather than have it complicate a possible new start with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. But others disagree.
"The German position is that ... they would like to try to establish good relations with that president. They don't want something like this, which Russia really opposes, to get in the way," said James Goldgeier at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, suggesting Bush was viewed as a lame-duck leader.
The Kremlin said last week that the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia was a test-case of whether the alliance wanted to cooperate with Russia.
Skeptics argue that Ukrainian public support for joining NATO -- barely 30 percent, according to polls -- is too low to start MAP, and that Georgia must first solve territorial disputes in the Russian-backed regions on its soil.
They add that ties with Russia are already strained by Kosovo's Western-backed secession and may not be able to bear a new row.
There is also the issue of U.S. plans to site parts of a missile shield in eastern Europe -- another project that Moscow opposes.
Bush is hoping the offer of a strategic framework document newly drafted by the United States may help overcome Russian hostility to the idea.
Few dare to predict Putin's response. But his move to invite Bush to his Black Sea villa after the summit has raised hopes in Washington that he may take a moderate tack.
END TO INFIGHTING?
Alliance leaders also want the summit to resolve tensions over the 47,000-strong NATO mission in Afghanistan and signal it is ready to stay the course there and defeat the Taliban.
Months of noisy infighting about troop levels, tactics and the refusal of some European allies to send soldiers into the fiercest fighting have overshadowed what alliance officials say is modest but real progress in security and reconstruction.
France has indicated it will come to the meeting armed with an offer of more troops as part of a wider reinforcement in the heartlands of a stubborn Taliban-led insurgency.
The scheduled presence of Karzai and the United Nations' Ban is designed to show Afghan authorities are serious about tackling corruption and that the world body is ready to address deficits in its aid effort.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also hopes to seal a pact with Putin for NATO troop and equipment transit routes via Russia to Afghanistan, plus more cooperation on tackling the Afghan narcotics trade.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington)
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)