U.S. President George W. Bush`s visit to Ukraine will bolster this ex-Soviet republic`s chances at starting the process toward NATO membership, American Ambassador William Taylor said Monday, according to AP.

Bush was expected to arrive in Kyiv late Monday for a two-day visit aimed at showing U.S. support for granting Ukraine a roadmap to joining the Alliance.

After Kyiv, Bush travels to Bucharest, Romania, for a NATO summit that is turning into a critical test for the alliance, which is split on the issue of Ukraine and Georgia.

The United States, Canada and Eastern European members are backing the two ex-Soviet republics. Germany is leading Western European opposition and warns that granting the membership plan would torpedo hopes of improving relations with Russia, which is fiercely resisting NATO`s eastward expansion and has been lobbying NATO members.

Taylor told reporters in Kyiv that during his visit, Bush will seek to convince skeptics in the alliance that Ukraine deserves an initial welcome.

«Strong statements coming from the leadership, the government of Ukraine are very useful in that regard,» Taylor told reporters.

«President Bush is also eager to talk himself with these leaders and with other people in this city so that he can go to Bucharest with even stronger arguments,» he said.

Moscow has threatened to target nuclear weapons at Ukraine if it joins NATO and accepts the deployment of anti-missile defenses on its territory. Moscow also has warned it could recognize two Georgian breakaway provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Georgia is given membership.

«The sharpest problems are Georgia and Ukraine. They are being impudently drawn into NATO. Even though, as is known, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are against this and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia they won`t even hear of it,» Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview published Monday in the Russian daily Izvestia.

«We honestly say that this cannot but have consequences, first of all in geopolitics but also economically,» he said.

Meanwhile, President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia _ a strong U.S. ally that was visited by Bush in 2005 _ again made his case for joining NATO. In an interview published Monday in the Russian daily Kommersant, he said bowing to Moscow`s threats would further destabilize the Caucasus.

«All these statements aren`t just words after all, it`s playing with fire,» Saakashvili was quoted as saying. «In the Caucasus there isn`t much distance between statements and automatic weapons and mortar fire. You have to remember this.

Even as he pushes for NATO membership, Saakashvili has struggled to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under government control. Their autonomy is supported by Russia, which has drawn parallels between their status and that of Kosovo

In the interview, Saakashvili also said that during his last meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader assured him that Moscow would not recognize the regions.

«During my last meeting with Putin, it was clearly promised to me that Russia would never recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia,» he was quoted as saying.

Russia also has offered more cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan in exchange for shutting Georgia and Ukraine out of the alliance.

Taylor condemned that offer, saying the two matters are unrelated.

«It is impossible to compare or bargain about the sovereignty and independence of a country _ no linkage between that and some logistical benefits having to do with Afghanistan,» Taylor said.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 protesters rallied in central Kyiv to protest Bush`s visit and the Ukraine`s efforts to join NATO. They waved Communist red hammer-and-sickle flags and held anti-Bush posters, including many obscene ones.

«People have the right to express themselves in a democracy,» Taylor said. «If they do it in a tasteless way that says more about them than anything else.