Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Ukrainian counterpart acknowledged Wednesday that there is much work to do to overcome the political unrest in Ukraine and its limited public support for the nation`s NATO membership hopes, The Associated Press reported.

Gates said the struggles do not diminish U.S. support for Ukraine`s efforts to join the international coalition. But as he spoke, Ukraine president Viktor Yushchenko appeared closer to calling early parliamentary elections in a bitter political standoff with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that threatens to further destabilize the country.

"It is a time of political transition in Ukraine and I assured the minister that we stand ready to work with whatever new coalition may appear," Gates told reporters after a meeting with Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov. He added, "We all have to deal with political realities, but our position (in support of Ukraine) in principle remains unchanged."

Speaking through an interpreter, Yekhanurov acknowledged that while about 31 percent of the public voices support for the country`s move to join NATO, a poll showed that a similar number disapprove, and 40 percent are undecided.

"We have to work a lot to address this issue," he said.

If a new parliamentary vote is called, it would be the third parliamentary election in as many years and observers fear it would further destabilize this politically turbulent nation.

Gates and Yekhanurov are in Macedonia for a meeting of the Southeastern Europe defense ministers. The sessions Wednesday, followed by a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Hungary later this week, reflect the escalating tensions in the region between Russia and increasingly westward-looking Eastern European nations like Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia has bitterly opposed the prospect of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, which once were republics of the Soviet Union. And some NATO allies worry that not showing strong support for the two countries could be seen as bowing to pressure from Moscow.

The conferences also follow closely on the heels of Russia`s invasion of Georgia in August, a move that enraged the U.S. and European allies, and further eroded U.S. relations with Moscow.