U.S. President George W. Bush vowed on Tuesday to press for Ukraine and Georgia to be allowed to start the process of joining NATO despite resistance from Russia and scepticism from the alliance's European members.
Bush, stopping in Kiev on his way to his farewell NATO summit in Romania, also said there was no link between bids by the two pro-Western former Soviet republics to join and plans to deploy a U.S. missile defence system in Europe.
Washington has long lobbied for Ukraine and Georgia to be granted Membership Action Plans (MAP) at the Bucharest summit.
Russia has strongly opposed the bids on grounds that the alliance was intruding on its sphere of influence. And as Bush began talks with Ukraine's pro-Western president, France said it would oppose the bid by the two ex-Soviet states.
But Bush underscored his resolve to back the applications.
"Your nation has made a bold decision, and the United States strongly supports your request," Bush told a news conference alongside Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
"In Bucharest this week, I will continue to make America's position clear. We support MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. Helping Ukraine move towards NATO membership is in the interest of every member in the alliance and will help advance security and freedom in this region and around the world."
He dismissed as a "misperception" any notion of a trade-off -- abandoning support for the two ex-Soviet states in exchange for Russian agreement on deployment of interceptor rockets and a radar in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"I strongly believe that Ukraine and Georgia should be given MAP (Membership Action Plans) and there's no tradeoffs. Period."
Bush said he had made that clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also expressed hope progress could be made on the missile defence issue when he meets Putin at the weekend at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
"I'm hopeful we can have some breakthroughs," he said. "Let's see."
Ukraine's aspirations to secure a MAP face lack of public support at home in addition to resistance in Russia and western Europe.
In central Kiev, a few hundred protesters defied a court ban and shouted anti-NATO slogans in Independence Square -- focal point of the 2004 pro-Western "Orange Revolution" protests that swept Yushchenko to power. A few thousand protesters had massed in the square ahead of Bush's arrival on Monday.
For many Ukrainians, joining NATO is not a priority -- only 30 percent of respondents in the ex-Soviet state support it.
National Security Council adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Kiev it was important to help both ex-Soviet states in their bids to join NATO.
But French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, interviewed on a radio programme, said: "France will not give its green light to the entry of Ukraine and Georgia."
France and Germany have resisted granting a MAP on the grounds that both states have yet to achieve political stability and that the process would unnecessarily antagonise Russia.
Moscow will be watching developments carefully.
Officials there say President Vladimir Putin, also attending the NATO summit as a guest, is ready to tell the alliance that Russia wants to work with the West -- but also wants NATO to take full account of its opposition to MAP for both countries.
The plan is a first stage of military collaboration with NATO, and does not guarantee membership.
Last Mod: 01 Nisan 2008, 18:14