NATO has a detailed routine mapped out for countries aspiring to join its multinational ranks, and for non-members who want to cooperate with the alliance without joining it, DPA reports. PfP: For many countries, the first step to cooperation with NATO is to join its Partnership for Peace (PfP), a system by which NATO works with third countries on issues ranging from defence reform to joint exercises and counter-terrorism.

Austria, Belarus, Bosnia, Finland, Ireland, the Kyrgyz Republic, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are current members of the PfP.

Of these, only Bosnia and Montenegro currently aim to join NATO. NATO members say that they also see Serbia`s future within the alliance`s ranks.

IPAP: Countries in the PfP which want to have a closer relationship with NATO can opt for an Individual Partnership Action Plan, or IPAP.

Each IPAP, renewed every two years, is aimed at improving cooperation with NATO on political, security, defence and civil-emergency planning.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Moldova now hold an IPAP.

INTENSIFIED DIALOGUE: The next step up the scale is to hold a so-called "intensified dialogue" with NATO. Such an agreement covers much the same issues as the IPAP in a more detailed way, and in many ways represents the first concrete step towards membership.

Georgia and Ukraine are currently at this stage.

MEMBERSHIP ACTION PLAN: for states wishing to become NATO members, the key step is to be awarded a Membership Action Plan, or MAP.

The MAP process involves a series of annual reports on the candidate state`s progress. The candidate has to prove that it has a functioning democracy based on a market economy, and that it is both able and willing to fight alongside other NATO members` forces.

It also has to prove that it protects its minorities in line with international law, and that it has worked to resolve outstanding disputes with its neighbours.

Croatia, Albania and Macedonia currently hold a MAP.

NATO officials insist that being awarded a MAP does not mean the country will automatically be invited to join. However, in practice the MAP process can take anything from two years to over a decade.

INVITATION: the next step is to receive an invitation from NATO members. Candidates hold intense talks with NATO to make sure that they are capable of joining the alliance and paying into its budget.

Following such talks, invitees write to NATO`s secretary general confirming their acceptance of any conditions. NATO prepares amendments to its founding treaty, permitting the invitees to join.

Once NATO members and the invitee have all ratified the amended treaty, the invitee becomes a full member. Traditionally this process has taken two years, but NATO foreign ministers recently agreed that in future it should only take one year.