The United States on Tuesday cooled its support for a formal path to help Georgia and Ukraine join NATO, amid opposition not just from Russia but also from Germany and France, according to AFP.
Speaking to reporters ahead of a NATO foreign ministers meeting next week in Brussels, senior US diplomat Daniel Fried sounded conciliatory notes about how the two former Soviet republics should join the transatlantic alliance.
The issue of an alliance membership action plan (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine had taken "on a life of its own" since a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Bucharest in April, he said.
In April, the 26-member NATO postponed any decision on offering the two nations a MAP until the December foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.
Fried stressed that the controversy was over the MAP -- which is only a "way station" and "mechanism" to achieving full membership -- rather than over the long-term goal of having the two join.
"MAP is not the only way to get there," he said.
"I cannot tell you where foreign ministers will come out in this debate," said Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs who will travel to Brussels with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"But we think, rather than have a huge debate on MAP, ... we ought to concentrate on the areas where the alliance is already agreed, which is that these countries will join NATO but they have a lot of work to do," he added.
With nine former Soviet bloc countries already NATO members, Russia is fiercely opposed to more Soviet-era Warsaw Pact neighbors like Georgia and the Ukraine even starting the process of joining the western military alliance.
NATO set up the MAP program in 1999 to support prospective members of the military alliance while they carry out the economic, legal, military and political reforms needed to join.
"Let`s not debate theology. Let`s help Georgia build up much stronger institutions, consolidate its democracy....," he said.
"I think it`s fair to predict there would be no NATO membership offer for some years to come -- just taking a look at these countries (Georgia and Ukraine) realistically," Fried said.
In October President George W. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said that there was "no reason" why Georgia and Ukraine should not be given a MAP.
Perino also said Washington had seen "growing support for Georgia and Ukraine given what happened this summer when Russia invaded Georgia," referring to the armed conflict between the neighbors over Georgia`s breakaway regions.
NATO members are divided, however, because they see that while membership could stabilize Georgia and Ukraine, it may also raise tensions with Moscow, which considers the move a threat to its own security.
However, France and Germany are opposed, arguing that the early August conflict between Russia and Georgia shows how the move could exacerbate tensions in the Caucasus region.
At the NATO meeting, Fried said, Rice will also discuss US plans to set up an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic -- strongly opposed by Russia -- as well as a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan.
During her tour of Europe, Rice will also visit London, Rome, Helsinki and Copenhagen.