(CNSNews.com) - NATO leaders meeting in Bucharest Wednesday night held a "vigorous discussion" about whether to allow two former Soviet republics to take the next step towards eventual membership, but they differed on the timing, a senior U.S. administration official said.
Because unanimity is required, Ukraine and Georgia likely will have to wait a little longer before being granted Membership Action Plan (MAPs), an intermediate stage in a four-step accession process.
Russia, which has objected to NATO's gradual enlargement since the end of the Cold War, is strongly opposed to its further expansion on its southwestern flank. In both Georgia and Ukraine, Western-leaning governments have been pulling away from Moscow's historic embrace.
Briefing reporters after the working dinner, the U.S. official said that after President Bush put across his point -- supporting MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia now -- the debate had been largely among European nations.
Some felt the aspirant nations should first settle issues including unresolved territorial and ethnic disputes and a low level of public support for NATO membership.
Others -- former communist countries that had themselves gone through the accession process -- argued that it was only when they received MAPs and the prospect of membership that their own reform processes had moved forward. Some noted that they had also recorded low levels of support for NATO membership when they started the process, the official said. The briefing transcript was released by the White House.
Although NATO officials and leaders have repeatedly said that countries outside of the transatlantic alliance do not have a veto on deliberations regarding membership, reluctance by Germany, France and some others to offer MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia now are widely viewed as a result of Russia's objections.
In a speech earlier Wednesday in the Romanian capital, Bush stressed that he supported giving membership plans to the two countries immediately.
In a pointed reference to Russia, he said granting MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia "would send a signal throughout the region that these two nations are, and will remain, sovereign and independent states."
Later in the speech, Bush emphasized that neither NATO enlargement nor U.S. missile defense plans in Central Europe were a threat to Moscow.
"The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy," he said. "We're working toward a new security relationship with Russia whose foundation does not rest on the prospect of mutual annihilation."
It's a message he will have the opportunity to restate to President Vladimir Putin in person later this week. The outgoing Russian leader is due to meet with the NATO leaders in Bucharest on Friday, ahead of hosting a final weekend summit with Bush at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The gathering in Bucharest will officially invite Croatia and Albania to join the alliance, taking its membership from 26 to 28, NATO spokesman James Appathurai confirmed on Wednesday evening. A third Balkan country that has gone through the accession process, Macedonia, will not get the nod, however, due to a bilateral dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia.
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