NATO Divided On Georgia, Ukraine

BUCHAREST, Romania -- France and Germany were poised to thwart a drive by President Bush to place the strategically important Black Sea states of Ukraine and Georgia on track for NATO membership at a tense alliance summit.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko talks with US President George W.Bush, prior to a meeting to discuss the conflict in Afghanistan, at the NATO Summit conference in Bucharest, Thursday April 3, 2008.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are concerned about provoking a crisis with Moscow, which is vehemently opposed to NATO taking on the two former Soviet republics located on Russia's southwestern borders and across key east-west oil and gas routes.

"I would be happy to be proved wrong but I do not expect MAP for Georgia and Ukraine," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai, referring to the Membership Action Plan sought by the two former-Soviet republics when the summit resumed Thursday.

All 26 allies must agree for the expansion plan to move forward and talks over dinner Wednesday failed to find a breakthrough.

Appathurai announced brighter news for NATO on Afghanistan, saying Sarkozy had offered to send a battalion — about 700 troops — to help U.S. forces in the dangerous eastern region.

That will allow the American troops to move south to Kandahar province. Canada had threatened to pull out its 2,500 beleaguered soldiers there unless they got 1,000 reinforcements from another ally.

Appathurai also said the allies were close to agreement on developing a short range anti-missile shield to complement the strategic defense shield being developed by the United States.

However, he confirmed that only a last-minute deal with Greece would allow Macedonia to join Albania and Croatia in receiving an invitation to join NATO on Thursday.

Without an agreement to invite the Ukraine and Georgia, officials said the alliance would draw up a text offering the prospect of a later membership plan and encouraging them to continue political and military reforms to prepare for joining, but delaying the opening of the formal membership process.

However, pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia are expected to view the snub as a bitter blow and a boost for pro-Russian forces in the two countries.

"A 'no' for Georgia will show those people in the Kremlin who think that by a policy of blackmail, by arrogance and aggression" they can influence NATO's decisions, Georgia's Foreign Minister David Bakradze said earlier Wednesday. "A 'no' will be seen by those people as a victory," he told The Associated Press.

Bush had lobbied for the two former Soviet republics.

"We must make clear that NATO welcomes the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine for membership in NATO and offers them a clear path forward toward that goal," Bush said in a speech to security experts.

"NATO membership must remain open to all of Europe's democracies that seek it and are ready to share in the responsibilities of NATO membership," he said.

Canada, Britain and new NATO members in eastern Europe agreed, but Germany and France fear that will further harm relations with Russia which are already strained over Kosovo and the U.S. anti-missile plan.

"We are convinced that it is too early to grant both states the action plan status," Merkel said.

Germany and France also pointed to widespread public opposition in Ukraine to the government's application for NATO membership and the ongoing conflicts between the Georgian government and pro-Russian separatist movements in two of its regions.

On the Balkans, Greece insists it will block Macedonia's entry unless its northern neighbor agrees to change its name. Athens says the name of the former Yugoslav republic implies a claim on its northern province also called Macedonia.

"We are running out of time," said Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos. "It would not be logical that we could give our consent."

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer sought to play up the alliance's more modest expansion, telling Bush and the other allies Thursday: "We are going to ensure that the NATO family continues to grow ... Europe must be unified and safe."

Sarkozy's offer on Afghanistan goes someway to meeting Bush's demand for more European troops to join the fight on the frontline against the Taliban and al-Qaida in southern and eastern Afghanistan and means the Canadian troops will stay.

The new French troops and the imminent arrival of 3,200 extra U.S. Marines would give added weight to a "vision statement" the leaders are scheduled to adopt Thursday to confirm NATO's long-term commitment to Afghanistan and attempt to boost flagging public support for the mission in the face of growing Taliban violence.

But leading European allies, including Germany, Italy, Turkey and Spain, are still refusing to send combat troops to the Afghan front lines because of the unpopularity of the war at home.

Bush has spent months trying to persuade Russia that it has nothing to fear from a part of its missile defense shield being based in Poland and the Czech Republic. Bush said NATO was expected to endorse the system, which Washington says is aimed at a possible threat from Iran, not Russia.

Source: AP

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