KIEV, April 1 – U.S. President George W. Bush put his full weight behind the desire by Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO even though Russia is opposed and the alliance itself is split on the issue.
Bush on Tuesday pledged complete support for the bids despite vehement Russian opposition and French and German objections to allowing the former Soviet states to begin the NATO admission process.
His strong stance sets up a showdown in the trans-Atlantic military alliance, whose leaders will decide this week whether to give Ukraine and Georgia "membership action plans."
It may further complicate U.S.-Russia ties already strained by Moscow's resistance to Washington's plans to set up missile defenses in Europe.
Bush pledged to work "as hard as I can" to open NATO's doors to Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are ready and worthy to be welcomed, the president said.
"Your nation has made a bold decision and the United States strongly supports your request," Bush told Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko two days before the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, The Associated Press reported.
"My stop here should be a clear signal to everybody that I mean what I say: It's in our interest for Ukraine to join," Bush added.
Bush wants Ukraine and Georgia to win approval for an action plan, which outlines what a country needs to do to win an invitation for full NATO membership.
Russia opposes even starting the process, fearing a further loss of influence in two more of its Soviet-era Warsaw Pact neighbors. Nine former Soviet bloc countries are NATO members.
Bush praised Ukraine's democratic and military reforms and noted that Ukraine "is the only non-NATO nation supporting every NATO mission." Ukraine has sent troops to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq.
The pro-Western Yushchenko said he was optimistic his country would get the nod from NATO. He discounted opposition from some in Ukraine to moving to join the alliance.
"I am sure that we will receive a positive signal in Bucharest and that's the spirit that we are going there with," Yushchenko said, sitting beside Bush at a news conference in a narrow room with a high ceiling decorated with ornate molding. (ap/ez)