NATO Likely to Balk at Road Map

BRUSSELS -- NATO is expected to encourage Georgia and Ukraine to pursue reforms needed to eventually join the alliance but stop short of offering formal road maps at a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers on Tuesday.

At an April NATO summit held in Bucharest, France and Germany, worried about the reaction of key energy supplier Russia, blocked Membership Action Plans -- also called road maps -- for the former Soviet states.

However, under U.S. pressure, NATO leaders promised them eventual NATO membership and to review their cases in December, although Germany's foreign minister said in an interview published Sunday that his position had not changed since Bucharest.

Georgia's August conflict with Russia and political instability in Ukraine have since fueled doubts. Diplomats say all NATO states, including the United States, now agree that neither country is yet ready for a formal path to membership.

Precisely how to proceed has been a matter of debate among the 26 existing members of the Western military bloc.

"There is no disagreement on what eventually should happen -- membership for Ukraine and Georgia," a NATO diplomat said.

"There's no disagreement also that we are not at a time when membership is close -- there's a lot for them still to do. The issue is the mechanism, the practicalities of the process."

Washington, which pressed for road maps for both countries in April, has since backed away from this position and now suggests that formal membership plans may not be needed.

The Membership Action Plan is a program of advice and practical support covering political, economic, defense and security cooperation designed to help aspiring countries prepare for membership.

The U.S. stance provoked concerns among some European members, notably Germany, and suggestions that Washington was trying to provide entry shortcuts for Ukraine and Georgia, something U.S. officials deny, saying their membership is probably years away.

"There are other ways to prepare countries for membership," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday, adding that Poland and the Czech Republic gained membership in other ways.

Rice said Georgia and Ukraine were not yet ready for NATO but that continuing to deal with the two via NATO commissions would send a "strong signal" that they could join "at some point."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told business daily Handelsblatt that Germany held the same view about giving the pair membership as it did in April.

"We gave Georgia and Ukraine a NATO prospect but also stressed both don't yet satisfy conditions for joining. We will help, but I see no reason just now to go beyond what was agreed then," he said in an interview in the paper's Monday edition.

"Internal political problems in Ukraine have increased if anything, and the attitude toward NATO certainly hasn't become more positive," Steinmeier added.

A senior U.S. official said it was unclear what would emerge from the Brussels meeting, but he hoped that any declaration would repeat the promises made in Bucharest that both the former Soviet states would ultimately belong to NATO.

The NATO ministers also are expected to review a decision to suspend high-level meetings on the main NATO-Russia dialogue forum, the NATO-Russia Council, following the Georgia conflict.

Some European states have been keen to relaunch this dialogue, especially since the European Union plans to restart talks on a partnership pact with Russia on Tuesday.

However, Washington has urged European allies not to forge closer ties until Russia has complied with all of its Georgia cease-fire obligations. U.S. Senior State Department official Matthew Bryza also has argued against resumption of military exercises.

"We are definitely not at the point yet of favoring the resumption of military exercises," he said last week. "I don't know that any of our allies are there either."

NATO diplomats insist that decisions on Georgia and Ukraine are in no way influenced by Russia, though Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday welcomed Washington's decision to back away from fast-track membership for the two countries.

"Whatever the reasons, European pressure or whatever else," he said, "the main thing is that they [Washington] no longer push ahead with their previous ferociousness and senselessness."