NATO is expected to encourage Georgia and Ukraine to pursue reforms needed to eventually join the alliance but stop short of offering formal roadmaps at a meeting of the bloc`s foreign ministers on Tuesday, Reuters reported.

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

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

Georgia`s conflict in August 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 for 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 roadmaps for both countries in April, has since backed away from this position, and now suggests formal membership plans may not be needed.

The MAP is a programme 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 Washington was trying provide entry short-cuts 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," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday, adding Poland and the Czech Republic gained membership in other ways.

NOT READY

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" 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 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 its Georgia ceasefire obligations. 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 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."

Reuters